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Baptist DR not letting up after ruinous Irma, Harvey

FORT MEYERS, Fla. (BP) — Southern Baptist Disaster Relief continues to deploy volunteers to help respond to immediate needs in Florida and the Caribbean left by Hurricane Irma while still maintaining focus on enormous needs from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, south Texas and Louisiana.

In Florida, seven Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) feeding units from several states in the Southeast have arrived as well as some from the Northeast. Many are set to begin feeding today (Friday, Sept. 15). On Thursday, a crew from the Baptist General Association of Virginia prepared 1,200 meals in Palm Coast.

Florida SBDR volunteers already have initiated cleanup and recovery operations in pockets around the state, from Jacksonville to Naples. Crews from other states will arrive over the course of the next week.

Mark Wakefield, who oversees Alabama Baptist disaster relief, led a team down to assist in Florida. “We’re deploying to Fort Meyers,” he said, “and we’re happy to be serving our brothers and sisters in Florida. We should be feeding by Friday.”

In the days following Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Florida, damage assessment teams generally came back with better news than had been expected prior to the storm. Irma nearly leveled several islands in the Florida Keys, however, and widespread power outages remain a serious concern throughout the state.

As of Thursday evening, Keys residents south from Marathon still had not been allowed to return to their homes. The Miami Herald reported that only emergency services, disaster services and supplies were allowed to move into the Lower Keys as 911 services, electricity and water had not yet been restored.

Delton Beall, team strategist for disaster relief with the Florida Baptist Convention, reported in a conference call with SBDR personnel, “The military is having to get people in and out. They are working in survival mode in the Keys.”

Several shelters have been set up to accommodate those who are still unable to return to their homes in the Keys.

Reuters reported that Hurricane Irma is responsible for 82 deaths in the United States and in the Caribbean. There have been at least 32 deaths in Florida and seven in Georgia and South Carolina. More than half of the fatalities attributed to the storm happened in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The situation has been so difficult in the Caribbean that SBDR workers had not been able to get to the Virgin Islands as of Thursday. An Alabama disaster relief kitchen that had been en route to Puerto Rico has instead been directed to the Virgin Islands after it became clear the need there was far greater.

Long road to recovery in Texas

Feeding units in Texas have started to consolidate their work as people leave shelters to return home or make other arrangements after Harvey’s widespread flooding. Even as thousands of homes still need initial mud-out work, a few are ready for rebuild efforts, with months of work ahead.

Through church-to-church partnerships, several churches from around the United States have sent teams to communities in disaster zones. In addition, three Houston-area Southern Baptist churches — Champion Forest, Bayou City Fellowship and Houston’s First Baptist — have already completed more than 1,350 home mud-outs by volunteers from their churches.

A large SBDR team from New Mexico has arrived in Louisiana to assist with Harvey recovery efforts there. Teams from Colorado have been feeding and mudding-out homes, clearing debris and muck from flooded houses. There are still sites in Texas where SBDR teams are providing childcare.

To help get more boots on the ground, the North American Mission Board has been mobilizing churches and volunteers who do not have disaster relief training through its Send Relief ministry.

“God has given the church a great opportunity to respond,” NAMB President Kevin Ezell said. “I am asking every Southern Baptist pastor to prayerfully consider sending volunteers to Texas or Florida. Even if you have never sent a volunteer to a disaster before — we need you and the storm survivors need you.”

You can help survivors of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma by visiting sendrelief.net to donate funds or volunteer to serve. State Baptist disaster relief groups also accept donations for these efforts and some also accept untrained volunteers.