FORT PIERCE, Fla. (BP)–President George W. Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush rolled up their sleeves to hand out bags of ice and words of hope Sept. 8 to residents of Fort Pierce, Fla.
The coastal city, about 120 miles north of Miami, is one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Frances — the huge storm which hit the east coast of Florida in the early morning Sept. 5 and traipsed across the state, creating wide-spread power outages and dumping water from east to west. An estimated 1.2 million were still without power the day of the president’s visit.
President Bush and Gov. Bush flew into St. Lucie County Airport on Marine One and traveled by motorcade to Longwood Stadium in Fort Pierce, where the American Red Cross Disaster Relief organization had set up a drive-thru relief stop for ice, water and other supplies.
Before leaving the White House for Florida, Bush signed a bill allocating an emergency infusion of $2 billion to replenish funds needed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Approved by Congress Sept. 7, the legislation also designated $30 million for Small Business Administration loan programs.
The Bush brothers walked out from the motorcade to shake hands with volunteers and then stood alongside those workers to help distribute bottled water and 20-pound bags of ice to many who had been without supplies and electricity for four or more days.
Florida state Sen. Ken Pruitt told the Florida Baptist Witness he believes that President Bush’s visit to the area underscores the importance of the urgency of the situation in the senator’s multi-county district. A member of Treasure Coast Christian Church in Port St. Lucie, Pruitt said the President’s visit shows the “magnitude of the disaster” and offers “a ray of hope.”
“This is an event that is cataclysmic in nature and catastrophic in such a way that people’s lives have been torn apart,” Pruitt said. “He’s letting us know, ‘Look, I’m here, I’m going to back you up.’”
The president’s visit indicates that he is “hands on” and also sends a message to both the faith-based organizations and the government-backed organizations that help is on the way, Pruitt said.
“His visit here not only signifies hope but it also provides us with that tangible relief that is so desperately needed right now,” Pruitt said. “He understands that we can’t depend on government for everything, and that there are the private and religious organizations out there that can also do the job as well — and that we need to be able to turn to everybody. Government can’t do it all. Government is important and it’s the fabric that kind of puts us all together, but it’s the religious organizations that really tie it all together.”
Pruitt said Gov. Jeb Bush has acted admirably in the face of both Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Frances.
“[President Bush and Gov. Bush] have been a source of inspiration at the time when we needed it most,” Pruitt said, acknowledging that he and his constituents know everything can’t return to normal immediately.
“But what we are looking for is to do this over a period of time and they are providing that much-needed hope that we so desperately need right now,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt was optimistic about the efforts of volunteers to provide assistance in the area.
“There’s no way that we can just do it all by ourselves,” Pruitt said. “It moves you to see all these private groups that are coming in — to include the religious organizations — and provide that helping hand.”
Pruitt said he is a man of prayer and believes his family has been sustained by prayer throughout the ordeal.
“There’s nothing that replaces the power of prayer and that’s why we are asking everybody to be patient,” Pruitt said. “Patience is truly a virtue. It’s going to take some time, but everything’s going to be OK.”
Just a few miles down the road at Westside Baptist Church in Fort Pierce, Pastor Dale Ingersoll told the Witness he also believes patience is a good thing.
“I think the expectations are greater than the availability,” Ingersoll said. “A lot of people have been hit hard, and the damage is spread from the east to the west coast and from the north to the south.”
Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers began setting up a feeding site at Westside Baptist and currently are host to about 25 volunteers from Virginia Baptist Disaster Relief and workers from the American Red Cross who are working together to cook meals and distribute them to those in need.
The church also has begun collecting and distributing commodities and food to those in need. They will also distribute food cooked by the disaster relief units in a drive-thru set up under a huge tent on the 47-acres campus.
The Virginia team cooked 3,000 meals of beef stew and fruit for distribution for lunch Sept. 8. They planned to also serve up 3,000 meals for supper if a tanker truck of water arrived in time for food preparation. By Sept. 9, the volunteers plan to cook 14,000 meals the Red Cross will distribute to those in need.
Marie Lawrence, assistant director for Virginia Baptist Disaster Relief, said that some of the Virginia team has been on the job since they deployed to First Baptist Church in Punta Gorda days after Hurricane Charley tore through that area of the state Aug. 13.
“We are in the middle of rotating crews right now,” Lawrence said. “But everyone is happy to be here and just wants to help in any way they can. It’s very hard when people have such basic needs of food, water and electricity.”
“… We’ll stay until it’s finished,” Lawrence said of the group.
Ingersoll said the church will make the volunteers as comfortable as possible in the large air-conditioned church facility which also has a gym and showers.
Inside the facility, Westside Baptist church members were making phone calls to let people know of the church’s plans for Sunday worship services and to see how they are faring. Pauline Inboden, 85, who was making phone calls inside the church, said she was excited to hear of the President’s visit to town.
“It’s terrific,” Inboden said. “I wish they would have stopped here. I would love to meet him.”
This story first appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.