After flooding devastated southeastern Louisiana last week in a disaster the Red Cross called “the worst to hit the United States since Superstorm Sandy,” communities are beginning a long road to recovery in which churches — both in Louisiana and around the country — serve an important role.

The floods, described by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards as “unprecedented,” have taken 13 lives and damaged around 60,000 homes, prompting 106,000 people to sign up for federal disaster aid according to Louisiana officials. Junior Lauren Norton, who lives in Shreveport, La., told The Record that even though she lives four hours north of Baton Rouge, her town experienced incessant rain for two weeks. Friends of Norton who live in Baton Rouge said that the flooding happened so suddenly that some people did not even have time to retrieve their phones.

Dr. Andrew Yarborough, a clinical psychologist in Baton Rouge, La., told a colleague that residents were rescued from “rooftops, trees, just about everywhere.” He said “People have lost everything. There is devastation all around and people are hurting.”

Ward Davis, associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College and faculty fellow with the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, told The Record that immediate relief efforts focus on providing food and shelter. “Reestablishing a living space, especially for poor families who do not have flood insurance, will be difficult,” he said.

Currently, Louisiana churches serve critical functions within their communities by acting as resource centers for food, water and equipment. Some are working with organizations like the Red Cross to create temporary shelters.

Yarborough — a close personal friend of Davis — previously served as executive pastor at Bethany Church in Baton Rouge. Bethany has already created large-scale relief networks, organizing their efforts online so that people can share their needs, sign up to volunteer and work with organizations on the ground. The church, which spans five campuses including two that were flooded, has mobilized more than 6,000 volunteers. As of Sunday, Aug. 21, they had distributed 60,000 meals and 20,000 supply boxes.

Providing relief also requires responding to emotional and spiritual needs. Stress, depression and anxiety are common emotional effects of natural disasters according to Jamie Aten, founder and co-director of HDI and Associate Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College. Examples of spiritual effects include doubting God or one’s faith in the midst of tremendous loss.

Many will need psychological resources like mental health care, spiritual resources and pastoral counseling. In an article published online at Psychology Today, Aten offered practical advice about how to identify needs, ask questions and locate services for Louisiana flood victims.

When disasters happen, it often creates a lot of emotional distress and spiritual struggles that people go through,” Aten told The Record. “By our deeds and our response to disasters we can show God’s grace and mercy to those who need it most.”

HDI will put that mission into action mid-September, when Wheaton clinical psychology doctoral students and staff led by Aten and Davis will deploy to Louisiana as part of a John Templeton Foundation grant. During their week-long stay, they will conduct research and set up studies in order to gain a better understanding of how natural disasters shape people spiritually and psychologically long-term. They also hope to organize disaster spiritual and emotional care training. Ward said that these efforts are central to Wheaton’s Psychology Department, which is “dedicated to serving the underserved, marginalized and the church.”

HDI’s associate researcher, Jenn Ranter, arrived in Baton Rouge on Monday to gauge how and where the team can provide services. She will be establishing partnerships with leaders in the church, community and disaster relief organizations while providing HDI with an on-the-ground perspective.

All Wheaton students have opportunities to help Louisiana through relief efforts. First, Aten said, Wheaton students should find out the needs of any connections or loved ones they know in Louisiana. Giving financial donations to relief organizations is one of the best ways to help because it allows resources to be used more effectively and gives workers flexibility to rapidly respond to the needs as they are presented. He also urged students not to overlook the impact of praying for Louisiana.

“Responding to disasters is an important ministry of the church,” Aten said. He suggested that students bring awareness to their congregations about the flooding and raise funds to support Louisiana communities both now and over the coming months. Outsiders often underestimate the the amount of time it will take an area to recover, so churches should remember to “walk with them in the long term.”

“By working together,” Aten said, “we can respond as the whole body of Christ.”