FLORIDA KEYS (BP)–After the worst of Hurricane Wilma’s winds passed through Key West in the early morning hours Oct. 24, fifth-generation “Conch” (Florida Keys native) Christine Rodriguez ventured out of her home on the highest part of the island only to find a “wall of water coming down the street” toward her.
The next day, Rodriguez and other residents of the southernmost city of the United States found flooding throughout the famous island tourist destination.
Rodriguez, church secretary at Fifth Street Baptist in Key West, told the Florida Baptist Witness that old-timers in the Keys say the storm surge from Wilma was a unique surprise.
“We’ve never seen anything like this. Never…. My parents and their parents have been here. My grandparents have passed away, but in talking with dad, he never heard his parents or his grandparents talk of anything like this,” Rodriguez said Oct. 27 while assisting with cleanup of the church’s fellowship and educational spaces which endured about three feet of water.
The sanctuary –- built higher up beyond the floodwaters -– had minor damage from Wilma, while the parsonage, also on higher land, is “fine,” said Rodriguez, a church member for 24 years.
“It’s going to be a real slow process of trying to rip everything out, get rid of everything and rebuild,” she said of the Key West residents who have been flooded.
According to local media reports, thousands of vehicles are “just gone,” Rodriguez said. “They’re saying if you’ve lost a boat, drive up and down the highway and try to claim it. There’s stuff all over the place.” While the boats may be salvageable, the cars are not due to the infiltration of saltwater, which damages electrical systems beyond repair.
Sonny Pritchett, director of missions for the Florida Keys Baptist Association, said while there is debris throughout the 100-plus miles of islands joined together by U.S. Highway 1 from south of Florida City to Key West, the worst of the damage is found in the lower half -– from Marathon to Key West.
Surveying the damage to churches and pastor’s homes, Pritchett told the Witness Oct. 27 that First Baptist Church of Big Coppitt in Key West “is the worst,” and pastor Tim Phillips has “lost everything.”
The church building and parsonage across the street had major flood damage. The storm surge came so swiftly that Phillips and his wife Suzanne and two children climbed out of a window in the parsonage into a boat just outside when the water rose so quickly they feared for their lives. The family floated to a neighbor’s house until the waters receded.
Sugarloaf Baptist Church in Summerland, meanwhile, had four feet of water in its recently finished fellowship hall and lost new cabinets and two “brand-new freezers that had never been plugged in.”
The sanctuary –- built on stilts -– had little water damage, but did lose its steeple and has some minor roof damage. Sugarloaf’s pastor, Barry Cottel, lost his car. Tom Woods, pastor of First Baptist Church of Marathon, had significant flooding in his home -– resulting in a loss of his wife’s car, all their appliances and some furniture.
The Florida Keys Baptist Association is comprised of nine Anglo churches, one Haitian congregation, one Spanish church and two Spanish missions, according to Pritchett.
Ministry in the Keys is difficult enough, without the added burden of a major hurricane, Pritchett said.
“It’s going to be really difficult for these guys,” he said of the pastors.
“It’s mission work. I love the pastors down here. This is a hard place -– the further south down toward Key West you get, the [spiritually and morally] darker it gets. It’s a difficult place to try to keep your church going. It’s very transient.”
Pritchett said the presence of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief will make a “great deal of difference” in the ability of the churches to minister. “It means a tremendous amount.”
Every time there is a natural disaster and Southern Baptists show up on the scene to help people “we gain some ground,” Pritchett noted.
Fifth Street Baptist Church in Key West hosted a Southern Baptist Disaster Relief feeding unit from the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia convention.
Although Virginia volunteer Mark Gore of North Main Baptist Church in Danville spent his honeymoon in Key West 17 years ago, he and the other 23 volunteers didn’t have a vacation in mind when they traveled 24 hours with one overnight stop to get from their home state to Key West.
Although Lou Caviness would have plenty of reasons to skip such a difficult assignment -– he has only one lung, has had triple-bypass heart surgery and his knees are in “terrible shape” -– the member of Union Baptist Church in Gloucester, Va., said that God has blessed him every time he has been deployed for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief during the last 10 years.
“The Lord doesn’t set boundaries” for disaster relief, Caviness noted. “He just says, help. Whether it’s here in Florida or whether it’s in New York. He provides a way and provides the means and sends us on the way.”
Patty Boyd, a “fresh water Conch” (non-native resident of Key West) for 29 years, “just wanted to cry” when she returned home to four feet of saltwater in her home.
After losing “most of my worldly goods” to the storm surge, Boyd was heartened by the offer of a free, hot meal from the Virginians.
“I’ve got food and supplies, but the generosity moved me and I chatted with the workers and felt a lot better.”
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.