JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana residents braced for the onslaught of Hurricane Dennis, a Category 4 storm heading straight towards the Gulf Coast July 10, in anticipation of what could be the most powerful storm ever to hit the Florida Panhandle or Alabama.
Following only 10 months after Hurricane Ivan, last year’s Category 3 storm which devastated Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, Dennis has already impacted Haiti and Cuba, leaving 32 deaths, and barely spared Key West where state officials are reporting 100,000 houses and businesses without power Sunday morning.
With battering waves and dangerously high winds, Dennis has already forced evacuation orders of nearly 1.4 million people in a three-state area. While many people are staying in hotels and with relatives, others are seeking safe haven in evacuation shelters filling rapidly in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama.
Cecil Seagle, head of the Florida Baptist Convention’s Missions Division, mobilized more than a dozen key leaders of Florida’s seasoned disaster relief organization early Sunday morning at the Convention’s building in Jacksonville where he announced tentative sites for an emergency communications center, feeding units, a childcare center, and a mobile dental unit. Seagle also discussed plans for an assessment team, clean-up and recovery crews, commodity distribution and chaplain assistance.
Seagle and Fritz Wilson, coordinator for Florida Baptist Disaster Relief, announced they have been in partnership already with the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and with Florida’s Emergency Operations Center to pave the way for assessment and relief as soon as possible after Dennis strikes.
Predicting an urgent need in the area, even while churches and individuals are still trying to rebuild, Seagle said, “this will not be an easy storm to work.”
But still, Florida Baptists are undaunted.
“We are ready to go — as ready to go as we get until the whistle is blown,” Seagle said, reiterating the need to wait until the storm blows through and the wind dies down before mobilizing personnel and equipment. “We are not going to get in harm’s way.”
Anticipating nearly 30 Florida Baptist Convention staffers and hundreds of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers will move in as quickly as possible after the storm, he said early indicators were a command center will be able receive people by Tuesday afternoon and that first meals may be served from feeding stations as early as Tuesday evening.
Seagle said projected sites for feeding units for Pensacola are: Olive Baptist Church, Myrtle Grove Baptist Church and East Brent Baptist Church. Other sites which may host feeding units are located in Milton, Century, Jay, Niceville, Choctow, and Flomington, Ala. Feeding stations, where food is distributed, but not cooked, can be set up in various places as needed, Seagle said.
Early groundwork, Seagle said, has led to a network of pre-determined church sites where permission has already been sought to set up if the need arises. Contact has also been made with the Alabama Baptist Convention, he said.
“We are covering every area in terms of feeding and support,” Seagle said.
Florida Baptist Disaster Relief will partner with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief coordinated through the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board. Feeding and clean-up and recovery units from other states will mobilize to various sites — while the Lake Yale and Blue Springs feeding units from Florida will be on site at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola.
Mickey Caison, manager of adult volunteer mobilizaton for NAMB, said Sunday afternoon from the Disaster Operations Center near Atlanta, Ga., units are being activated in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, with most of the units to begin movement to staging areas by tomorrow morning. Units from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas will also begin to move to a staging area in western Alabama in the morning and units from South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio are in the process of being activated.
In the first call, as many as 18 feeding units have been mobilized, while another 10 may soon be on the way, Caison told Florida Baptist Witness. Each of the feeding units has also been asked to bring a chain saw crew.
Caison said he believes many volunteers will be needed to help with the effort, but cautioned individuals and churches to wait until coordination is established once an on-site assessment of the need is completed.
“Please wait … [and] don’t add to the problem by coming before we are ready to deploy volunteer to ministry sites,” Caison said. “Give us a day or two and then a call state coordinator.”
Florida Baptist Disaster Relief will also team up with American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Samaritan’s Purse to assist at various sites. Bill Carmichael, director of the Discipleship and Family Department of the Florida Baptist Convention, who during last year’s hurricane season served as a liaison at the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, will again take on that role this season.
A team of workers headed by Rick Lawrence, director of the Convention’s Church Planting Department, will head to the Pensacola area as early as Monday morning to make an initial assessment of Florida Baptist churches in the path of the hurricane.
Florida Baptists have already begun initial assessment of partnership churches and ministries in Haiti and in Cuba, Seagle said.
Seagle prayed at both the beginning and the end of the meeting that God would give strength, wisdom and comfort to both those affected directly by the storms and the workers.
Seagle told leaders he doesn’t have any great spiritual insight as to why Florida is again at the receiving end of such an intense storm.
“I don’t know. I have no clue,” Seagle said. “Only the Lord knows. What we do know is that He’s put is in a place to make a difference.”
Many people, regardless of their income level, will be hurting for kind words and food.
“We again have the opportunity to bring comfort to some, assurance to some,” Seagle said. “You are a really key ingredient.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.