JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Hurricane Charley’s forceful winds uprooted more than the banyan tree in the Conger family’s yard last August. It overturned their lives as they lost their jobs, home and all of their personal belongings.
“I have three boys,” Kristen Conger said. “You try to protect your children, then they lose everything and you tell them that it’s going to be OK, but I didn’t even think it was going to be OK,” she said.
Money the family intended to use for repairs covered hotel costs as they sought shelter from the subsequent hurricanes and storms that ravaged Florida. With only a tarp-covered roof and extensive mold damage, the Congers returned home to try and piece together their house and lives.
Weeks after living in the damaged home, Florida Baptist disaster relief volunteers helped rebuild the Congers’ roof with wood the family purchased and materials donated by the Tampa Bay Baptist Association.
“If no one had stepped in to help us, my house would still have no roof and would have been condemned,” Conger said.
But nearly eight months after last year’s storms many Floridians have had no one step in to offer help.
People and families are without the resources to finish needed repairs to uninsured or underinsured homes, said Hal Burke, the Florida Baptist Convention’s director of long-term disaster recovery operations.
“I can safely say there are literally thousands who are still living in homes that are in disrepair and in many cases not livable,” Burke said. “Some live in homes with roof damage and mold because they have no other way to turn.”
After Hurricane Charley struck Punta Gorda, a Rebuild Coordination Center was established in Sarasota to help identify individuals with structural needs. However, Hurricane Frances plowed through the state, soon followed by Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne before any recovery work could begin.
The multiple storms forced volunteers to concentrate on meeting victims’ immediate needs by providing warm meals, dry food supplies, water and clothing. After relief efforts stopped in the hardest-hit areas, recovery operations began slowly with limited resources and materials.
Baptist associations across Florida coordinated volunteers and established recovery/rebuild projects within their regions while the Rebuild Coordination Center in Sarasota concentrated on the southwest part of the state.
Approximately $118,000 was invested in the site to put a strategy in place, hire workers and secure initial materials needed to begin registering and assigning volunteers for the building/recovery projects.
Between the months of September and February, at least 643 volunteers assisted more than 830 families with roofing, dry wall and other temporary and permanent construction.
The recovery effort has now hit a new stage.
“Right now we are trying to get people back on their feet in a long-term way by helping rebuild their lives and homes,” Burke said.
Partnering with Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian organization that provided a substantial contribution for the purchase of materials, the Florida Baptist Convention is prepared to take an aggressive step forward to help rebuild homes across the state.
This contribution and the money set aside through the convention’s State Board of Missions “has allowed us to expand the scope [of rebuilding] to the whole state,” Burke said.
As director of long-term recovery operations, Burke has divided reconstruction efforts by region: northwest, central and southwest Florida. A fourth region includes the state’s east coast.
Each region is overseen by a director who will coordinate volunteers, administer materials and work with a local long-term rebuilding committee. These committees include individuals from a network of faith-based groups, volunteer organizations, local businesses and municipal government.
Through this approach, “What we are doing is trying to get recovery/rebuilding efforts on an equal par with the relief that took place within the state as a result of so much hurricane damage,” said Don Crocker, director of the southwest recovery region.
“We need people to be aware that we haven’t recovered from those storms and we won’t for quite a while,” Crocker said. “This rebuild is going to take years and we will continue to need volunteers and support for our mission.”
The mission and purpose is to help rebuild lives and homes both physically and spiritually, Burke said.
“These projects give us the opportunity to share not only how they can rebuild a home but rebuild their lives through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” Burke said.
As the next hurricane season approaches, an increasing number of Florida Baptists have shown interest in disaster relief training. Fritz Wilson, director of the convention’s Florida Baptist men’s department, said there has been high attendance at each of the disaster relief trainings held to date. A total of eight meetings were scheduled across the state to train volunteers.
Projects are available for individuals or volunteer groups of any size and for any length of time. For more information on how to volunteer, contact the Rebuild Coordination Center directly at (941) 360-0321.
Vanessa Rodriguez is a communications specialist with the Florida Baptist Convention.