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Fla. official: Baptists play ‘critical’ role in relief response

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TALLAHASSEE (BP)—As Hurricane Charley was churning in the Gulf of Mexico in August, Florida Baptist officials were invited for the first time to place a staff member at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee to act as a liaison between the Florida Baptist Convention and the EOC.

Little did Florida Baptist staff member Bill Carmichael realize that the decision would result in what now is a virtually non-stop presence in Tallahassee at the hub of emergency response, with four hurricanes hitting the state during a six-week span.

The unprecedented involvement of Florida Baptist staff at the EOC has proven to be a valuable asset in disaster relief response, state officials told the Florida Baptist Witness Sept. 16. In the wake of Hurricane Jeanne, there seems to be no end in sight for Carmichael’s work in Tallahassee.

“Bill is serving as that critical component, the critical link that we have here at the EOC with your teams that are out in the field,” Alex Amparo told the Witness. Amparo is director of emergency management for Volunteer Florida, a state agency, and in that capacity directs Emergency Support Function 15 at the EOC, which leads efforts in volunteers and donations when the state’s emergency operations are activated.

The involvement of Florida Baptists and other faith-based organizations have not gone unnoticed at the highest levels of the state. In an interview at the EOC Sept. 16, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings told the Witness that the role of faith-based organizations in assisting with disaster relief is “an important part of our fabric that makes up our state, that makes up our community and it needs to be included in all that we do.”

Asked about the thousands of Southern Baptists who have come to the Sunshine State to assist after hurricanes, Jennings exclaimed, “God bless them!”

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Amparo said that Carmichael’s participation at the EOC has heightened state officials’ awareness of the work of Southern Baptists.

“We were talking about [this] during one of the briefings here at the EOC—about what Florida Baptists have done over the last couple of events here,” Amparo said. “The realization is very clear that we could not have collectively responded without the Baptists.”

Carmichael, director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s discipleship and family department, told the Witness that he plays a dual role at the EOC — making state officials aware of Southern Baptist resources in responding to disaster and making Florida Baptist leaders aware of state assets in their efforts to assist the needy.

“One of the things that has happened here is that we have been able to show how much Florida Baptists have done so far in these disasters and it has been eye-opening [for state officials],” Carmichael said.

Amparo noted the value of “live communication” in the midst of emergency response.

“When we have areas of need or when we have resources the Baptists can utilize, it flows so much better when we have one person here that’s representing and serving in that liaison role,” he said. “But is also serves us well when we have questions about what are the capacities [of the Baptists] and where your teams are placed. When we receive requests we can also turn and say, ‘Bill, is this something that the Baptists can do?’ Ninety-nine out of 100, it’s a, ‘yes.’ So, we’re very appreciative of that.”

Credit for the invitation of Florida Baptists to participate at the EOC goes to the ongoing work of Fritz Wilson, director of disaster relief for the Florida Baptist Convention, Carmichael said. Wilson had developed a strong working relationship with state officials over the years in responding to various disasters.

Carmichael has worked virtually non-stop since arriving Aug. 14, one day after Hurricane Charley came ashore in southwest Florida. His colleague, Gary Nichols, an associate in the department, has shared time in Tallahassee, occasionally relieving Carmichael.

Like many Florida Baptist Convention staff deployed to assist with disaster relief Carmichael said some events and program work of his department have been “put on hold,” whereas others have been addressed via e-mail and telephone from the EOC or other staff who remain in the office in Jacksonville.

According to Amparo, about half of the 70-80 organizations that work with ESF-15 are non-governmental, faith-based groups.

A close working relationship between the government and churches and other religious organizations has “always been that way in emergency management,” Amparo said. And for those who may be concerned about an infringement on “church-state separation,” Amparo believes that the way government and faith-based organizations work together in emergency response could be a model across the spectrum of governmental efforts in Florida.

“If someone really wants to see how it works well and how there can be a seamless partnership between government-based and faith-based and community-based organizations, look at how we work in disasters,” Amparo said. “I think a lot of people have said that if we can box this up and package this up — how we work together right now — and make that year-round, then we’ve really solved it. We’ve really been able to recognize an organization of faith for their faith and for their mission and they have been able to recognize what responsibility the state has, and together we’ve been able [to see] how best we can work together.”

Carmichael agrees.

“We ought to never be afraid of getting involved. You don’t ever have to compromise what you believe to work with people or to help people,” he said.

Carmichael noted that many people working at the EOC “not only have a strong relationship with the Lord, but [are] very involved with their church,” likening the atmosphere of camaraderie and the profile of Christians to the time when he served as an Army chaplain.

“It’s overwhelming to me to know how much need there is out there and what a valuable role we play as Florida Baptists in trying to meet the needs of the people,” Carmichael said in reflecting on the recent disasters in Florida. “When I see how Florida Baptists fit into this grand scheme of things to help people everywhere, it’s a good, solid feeling for me.

“We certainly didn’t want these hurricanes, but now is an opportunity to give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name.
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