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Eugene Rutz Takes His Faith on the Road

Like many of us, Eugene Rutz immediately wrote a check to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Unlike many of us, he followed up his check with himself — in a truck, towing a horse trailer of supplies.

Date: 10/17/2005 8:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
 “We heard the news about the damage,” says Eugene Rutz, director of the ACCEND program in the UC College of Engineering. "I have a faith-based perspective for my life and it gave me the feeling that I had to do more." Something besides scribbling his name on a piece of paper.

He made some calls and looked at the Red Cross Web site for people who wanted to help. Eugene, choosing his words carefully regarding the difficult task faced by organized relief efforts, found the Web site deterring. Volunteers were asked to register on the site; then they would be contacted to undergo training in how to provide assistance. Eugene wanted to do something more immediate.

“I knew of a Lutheran church in Biloxi,” he says. “I assumed it was gone.”

It was. Eugene then found the Web site of another Lutheran church, this time in Baton Rouge, which was not badly damaged by the hurricane or its aftermath. Although Baton Rouge itself was not hit, about 70 percent of the people from New Orleans sought refuge there initially. The church Web site was very specific in citing their efforts and their needs. The site also specifically asked that people not bring clothes, which had been coming down to the area in overwhelming amounts.

“It said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing’ and ‘Here’s what we need,’” says Eugene. “For example, it said ‘Chain saws — do you have one? Can you use one? Can you cook? Can you distribute food? Can you sort clothes?’ I made contact and they were very brief: ‘Yeah, we’d love to have you — here’s what we need to know: how many of you can come and what can you do?’”

Unloading the horse trailer, between the rental truck and a Zapp
Unloading the horse trailer, between the rental truck and a Zapp's potato chip truck.

He decided to go down himself. He sent word throughout the College of Engineering and the University of CIncinnati that he was looking for donations and volunteers. He also had his kids deliver the same message to their schools. Nathan is a freshman at Wabash College; Aaron is a sophomore at Princeton High School; Jacob is in eighth grade at Princeton Middle School and Leah is in fourth grade at Evendale Elementary. Eugene said that cleaning supplies, water and toiletries were critically needed.

People responded immediately and generously. Twice he had to upgrade the vehicle he had planned to take in order to accommodate the large quantity of donations. He finally ended up renting a truck and towing a borrowed horse trailer. All the while, he was trying to establish exactly where he was going and what he would do when he got there.

“I had episodic contact with the Baton Rouge church,” Eugene says. “It was hard to maintain contact — not through any fault of theirs. They were all simply overwhelmed. I recognized that when I was there I would need to be completely self-sufficient for a week.” Eugene is an assistant scout master, so he had access to the troop’s cooking equipment and was fully prepared to just pitch a tent somewhere, if necessary. (Fortunately, local people were able to host the Cincinnati group in their homes.)

Four people from UC stepped forward: Chong Ahn, professor of electrical and biomedical engineering; Jeff Simkins, microelectronics engineer; Dan Birdsong, student in political science; and Emilia Cedercreutz, another student in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences — and daughter of Kettil Cedercreutz, associate provost and director of professional practice.

UC people who traveled to help Katrina victims: Eugene Rutz, Dan Birdsong, Jeffrey Simkins, Chong Ahn and Emilia Cedercreutz.
Eugene Rutz, Dan Birdsong, Jeffrey Simkins, Chong Ahn and Emilia Cedercreutz proudly wear their Zapp's t-shirts. Photo by Dottie Stover.

“I had a father-to-father talk with Kettil, to make sure he knew what his daughter was getting into,” says Eugene. “He knew and she knew, and she did fine.”

The merry band of five UC people and four members from Eugene's church hit the road, driving south, just believing that they would find where their way. They weren’t sure of their destination until they were about 45 miles from Baton Rouge, when they finally made contact. They were told to go to a small Lutheran church in Gonzalez, Louisiana. One of its members, the vice president of Zapp’s potato chips, volunteered his factory to use as warehouse space for staging the donated goods.

“In the warehouse we built big care packages on pallets,” says Eugene. As if making a giant six-layer salad, they put down two layers of water bottles on each pallet, followed by layers of food, clothes, cleaning supplies and toiletries. Then came the task of finding where to deliver the care packages.

Both FEMA and the Red Cross center said they didn’t want them; they had a system set up and the pallets weren’t part of it. So Eugene sent out some “scouts” on a mission to find who needed their supplies.

“Chong started a Korean Christian church up here in Cincinnati, so he knew of some of the Korean Christian churches down there,” Eugene says. “Emilia found a mosque to check on to ask them, ‘Who do you know who needs help?’ Most of the time, people said ‘Oh gosh, yes!’ when we asked if they needed help. We ended up working through a Baptist church, a Korean church, a mosque and a nursing home in Baton Rouge.”

Chong Ahn wheels a skid of water bottles.
Chong Ahn wheels a skid of water bottles.

Chong perhaps best expressed the feelings of the group: “Best day of my life. So tired. Best day of my life.”

“Each day we wondered, ‘What do we do tomorrow?’” says Eugene. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but I bet we figure it out.’”

The way they “figured it out” was to drive down the roads of Gulfport, Picayune and Catahoula and knock on doors. One minister in Catahoula came out and prayed with the group. He told them, “We had a little and look at how it has multiplied!”

A church in Catahoula.
A cardboard sign advertises food and supplies in front of a Catahoula church.

“We practiced purposeful, random acts of kindness in rural areas that FEMA and the Red Cross had not been able to get to yet,” says Eugene. He found his niche as a coordinator or a dispatcher, sending the trucks out, listening to the stories that people brought back.

One man showed the group the line left by the floodwater in his house, about seven feet from the floor. Then he showed them another line a few feet under the waterline. It was the line left by oil and scum.

They were also able to assist a woman who came down from Canada specifically to take supplies to a shelter for rescued animals. Dan Birdsong was one of those who made the trip into New Orleans, barely squeaking through the checkpoints. They were the only people in the group to actually see New Orleans itself. When they returned, they told the rest of the group that the photos in the media couldn’t show the full devastation.

“They said that what the photos couldn't convey was the smell,” says Eugene. “They said it was oppressive.” They also came to appreciate that “clean-up” in New Orleans will not be rakes and shovels. It means bulldozers and dump trucks.


The Cincinnati group ended up setting up shop next to a FEMA center. Cars lined up for the FEMA center, which national guardsmen then loaded. Then they would drive to the Cincinnati group’s pallets to see what other supplies were available. Diapers were especially popular.

“There is certainly a role for faith-based and community-based groups,” says Eugene. “Even in the churches at the national level you encounter layers of red tape. We need to ask ‘How can I help?’ at the local level.”

 

 

Eugene Rutz plans to return to the Gulf region.
Eugene Rutz plans to return to the Gulf region.

 

Eugene is now planning his next trip to the church in Gonzalez, perhaps over winter break or the summer of 2006, to help with clean-up.

“It’s not going to be finished anytime soon."