As flood waters began to rise in south Louisiana, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey knew the state, its churches, and its residents had a long road ahead.
From the immediate mucking out and rebuilding of homes to long-term response and care, the church needed a coordinated response and for that, the Bishop turned to Dr. Debra Davis.
"She has been a God-send," says Bishop Harvey. "She was the right person at the right time."
That time is coming to an end as Davis, who agreed to the work but only on a temporary basis, is leaving the Conference staff to resume her previous livelihood - retirement.
Rev. Laraine Waughtal, from the Central Texas Conference, will be moving to Baton Rouge to join the Louisiana Annual Conference staff and fill Davis' void.
Rev. Laraine Waughtal has served as an elder in the local church in the Central Texas Conference and is currently the disaster response coordinator, overseeing four disaster sites across the conference. She has an extensive background in disaster response, including work with Hurricane Ike, the West Fertilizer Plant explosion, the Granbury F4 tornado and the flooding in 2015-16.
Davis is thrilled to welcome Waughtal as she recalls meeting her, just days after the flood, "She was one of the first people outside the Louisiana Annual Conference to reach out to me in my early days as Disaster Response Director. I have leaned on her several times for advice, all of which has been right on target. She brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this role and is well-respected in the United Methodist disaster response circles. I have no doubt that her expertise will rapidly advance the recovery process in Louisiana.”
Bishop Harvey is quick to agree.
"Laraine Waughtal has been a leader in disaster response for many years. I first met Laraine while serving as Deputy General Secretary at UMCOR. Her contributions to the greater United Methodist Church have set her apart as an expert in this important work," says Harvey. "We are blessed to have her on our team. She will be a quick-study as she has deep and long-standing relationships with UMCOR, National VOAD, FEMA and other disaster response organizations. Most importantly, she understands the critical role local congregations play in times of disaster. I know Laraine will be a great asset to Louisiana, to the church and the work of missional outreach and engagement."
As exciting as it is to welcome a new person to the conference staff, there is no doubt it is bittersweet to say farewell to Davis.
"I remember describing the great need to Davis over the phone, just hours after the epic flooding" Bishop Harvey recalls. "Before I could even finish my pitch, she emphatically said 'Yes!'. Utilizing her expertise as a systems and organizational expert, she has created a much-needed infrastructure, allowing us to quickly respond to the August floods, while at the same time, folding in the work that had already begun in response to the Spring floods in north Louisiana. She will be missed, but remembered for her tireless efforts."
“When I accepted this position, I felt totally unprepared," Davis recalls. "I was in a new arena with a very sharp learning curve but God put person after person in my path to help me along. I have met some amazing people along the way, each with a real heart and passion for helping people. I have grown personally and spiritually throughout this process as I have observed so many people be the hands and feet of Christ in a hurting world.”
If you've ever received an email from Davis, you will notice her email signature includes Esther 4:14.
"My team has been amazing! I have told them many times that we've been building this plane while flying it. Most of them, like me, often questioned how we got to this place," she remembers. "But we all agree, we've had an “urging” from the Holy Spirit. Daily, we've been reminded that God most likely had been preparing each of us for 'such a time as this'."
In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.
Davis' background was in organizational systems, providing the perfect framework for what was needed on the conference level. She feels confident the Louisiana Annual Conference is better prepared for, as she points out, "when, not if, the next disaster strikes."
Rev. Waughtal will serve Louisiana in the newly formed Office of Missional Outreach Engagement, formerly known as the Office of Disaster Response. The Missional Outreach Engagement team will have oversight for disaster response, and will now include volunteers in mission and early responders.
It's an opportunity Waughtal is looking forward to. "I have admired the vast knowledge, perseverance, and grace at which the people of Louisiana have not only survived various disasters – but have risen and thrived," she says. "I am honored to share and utilize the experience I've had in disasters and missions over the last 19 years of my ministry, walk along and work with you in disasters and missions."
"This is an excellent opportunity for the Louisiana Annual Conference to engage in ministry in ways that are in line with the recommendations of the Strategic Vitality Task Force," says Kenny Beauvais who chaired the Strategic Vitality Task Force in 2012 and is presently Chair of the Conference Finance and Administration and serves on the conference personnel committee. "Coordinating the work of disaster response is one that is best done at the annual conference level. It enables the churches of the Louisiana Annual Conference to be better together than separately."
Rev. Waughtal will join the conference staff July 1 .