FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. (BP) – One Hurricane Ian survivor found dealing with the pressures of the storm and the storms of life almost unbearable … until she spoke with Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief chaplains at Fort Myers Beach.
Fort Myers Beach, an oceanfront community on Estero Island – an insular strip in the Gulf of Mexico some 16 miles south of the city of Fort Myers – was a thriving vacation spot before Ian hit in late September.
On Saturday morning, Oct. 22, Lowell Warren of Mexia, Texas, who is Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief chaplain and director of missions for the Bi-Stone Association, arrived to serve survivors. He learned from the county sheriff’s department that Estero Island would be closed to outsiders for two days, beginning Monday, Oct. 24, so that major cleanup operations could occur. Homeowners who elected to leave Sunday evening would not be permitted to cross the bridge from the mainland to access their damaged property until Oct. 26.
By order of local, state and federal authorities, the only people allowed on the island for two days, besides residents already there, would be city contractors, first responders, health care workers, recovery workers, Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel and representatives from other social service agencies, Warren said.
Then FEMA officials recognized needs among the survivors that even the most helpful social service providers could not meet.
A ‘high demand’ for prayer
“There was such a high demand for prayer. People were asking, ‘Is there anyone here who could pray with me?’” Warren said he learned from the FEMA representative, who asked the chaplain if Southern Baptists would establish a spiritual counseling presence at Fort Myers Beach, both during the two-day restricted period and after.
It was a deal no chaplain could refuse.
“He asked us to be available to provide spiritual guidance to people who are struggling to make some sense of what life looks like for them after the storm,” Warren said. “He asked us to be here to pray for those who come in seeking prayer and encouragement.”
Five SBTC DR chaplains set up a table with Bibles and tracts in Spanish and English and began praying and talking with survivors at the FEMA site on Fort Myers Beach on Oct. 24.
“They aren’t handing out tracts and Bibles, but they are making them available for people to pick up,” said Sue Robinson, an SBTC DR administrative volunteer from Huntsville, Texas, who is onsite at McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers.
Warren told the TEXAN, “We expect to stay here as long as needed. People are very receptive. The fields are white unto harvest.” He added that the chaplains talked to 25 people Oct. 24 and prayed with 15, supplying Bibles and tracts to all who asked.
They prayed with struggling first responders, survivors and even FEMA personnel.
They also spoke with Paula (name changed), who came into the FEMA tent after speaking with chaplain Colin Hext, a retired firefighter. Another fireman had brought Paula to meet Hext, saying, “I need you to talk to this lady.”
“[Paula] was ready to give up,” Warren said. “She had even thought about ending her life. She said she had stood on her fourth-floor balcony contemplating suicide.” Chaplains learned that Paula was a believer. “Life had just been dumping on her before the storm,” Warren said.
After visiting with several chaplains for a while, Paula recalled the joy of her salvation.
“I would start a Scripture and she would finish it,” Warren said. “The Lord started bringing it back. All of the stuff going on in her life she just couldn’t handle anymore. The Holy Spirit took control. She left with a sparkle in her eye and hope in her heart.”
Paula agreed to return to pray with the chaplains the following day and as often afterward as needed.
FEMA has requested chaplains in the past during other disasters, SBTC DR Director Scottie Stice said.
But DR chaplains were busy even before the FEMA request. Warren told of meeting Pat Marchan, a Fort Myers Beach resident and joyful Christian who proudly displayed a devotional book miraculously preserved from her flooded home. The book had comforted Marchan following the death of her son six years before. Its survival without any water damage reminded her that God had protected her family although all else was destroyed.
Recovery work goes on
Disaster relief work continues in Florida as Southern Baptist teams from across the nation serve.
After preparing more than 73,000 meals distributed by the Texas division of the Salvation Army, the SBTC DR mass feeding unit operating out of McGregor Baptist in Fort Myers ceased operations begun nearly three weeks ago on Oct. 4.
“Yesterday [Oct. 23], the final meal count for the day was 1,950,” Stice said.
A quick response kitchen unit manned by Dee and Doug Cates of Pampa, Texas, is serving DR workers housed at McGregor Baptist in Fort Myers, as are shower and laundry units from Calvary Baptist in Beaumont, Texas, and from Arkansas Baptist DR and Florida Baptist DR, Robinson said.
Some 100 families from McGregor Baptist were directly impacted by Ian, Robinson said. “They’ve lost homes and roofs; some have been displaced. Even though it’s a large church, 100 families is a significant number.” Even so, “this church has just opened their arms to everybody. It’s just been amazing,” she added.
SBTC DR teams have joined other SBDR crews to help with the massive clean-up efforts needed after the storm. Volunteers are committing to two-week stints.
Among these, Mike Phillips led an SBTC DR chainsaw and recovery team from First Baptist Bellville, Texas. David Dean continues to direct a recovery team from First Baptist Pflugerville, Texas, while a team from Spring Baptist Church under the leadership of Bill Zaffos is also working out of McGregor Baptist in Florida, Robinson said.
To date, SBTC DR volunteers served 754 volunteer days and contributed 7,054 hours of service, rotating in and out of Florida, doing a variety of tasks from feeding to mud out to chainsaw work to chaplaincy, Stice said.
Other state Baptist DR teams involved in Florida have included California, Arizona, New Mexico, Tennessee and Texas Baptist Men, Stice confirmed, adding that additional teams from Hawaii, Mississippi and Kansas/Nebraska are expected the week of Oct. 31.
Donations for Hurricane Ian relief efforts can be made here.