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Florida Baptists respond to havoc and ruin left by Hurricane Georges

KEY WEST, Fla. (BP)–The White Street Baptist church van pulled up alongside one of Key West’s wind-beaten shorelines — strewn with trash, seaweed, branches, leaves and wreckage of fishing boats in the sand. Pastor Rafeal Melian left the van and strolled to the water’s edge waving his arms in the air, an effort to motion a fleet of fishermen laboring nearby.
When four boaters had made their way to the shore, pastor Melian opened the van doors and began to distribute free lunches to the weary, barefoot, unshaven and sun-beaten group. Within minutes, a crowd gathered to take part in the feast, a welcomed hot meal for the group who are attempting to salvage their boats, belongings and livelihood from the blast of Hurricane Georges.
Several in the crowd tearfully thanked Melian for the food, victims of the Category 2 storm that racked the Southern Keys Sept. 25. According to Melian who translated for the mostly Hispanic group, Xiochmara Hernandez said “We are so thankful for the Baptist church; nobody would help us but them. No one cared about us but God and the church. We will forever be grateful.”
Hernandez’s family was among a small group of fishermen known as “boat people” that weathered the 18-hour storm’s sheets of rain, high storm surge and 105 mph winds aboard small fishing boats they call home. “The water and waves got so high; we were so scared,” she said. Unable to speak English and lack of communication with the islanders, “we didn’t know there was anywhere for us to go.”
Hernandez and her family lost all their belongings to the raging sea, but salvaged their boat, more fortunate than some whose vessels lay underwater a few yards offshore. “Fishing is their livelihood,” said Miguel de La Cruz, a disaster-relief team member with the Florida Baptist Convention. “They are just thankful they still have their boats, without them they would not survive.” According to de La Cruz, the only thing they asked for were “new mattresses to sleep on” to replace ones ruined by water or swept out to sea.
Big Pine Key resident Hazel Tabor did not fare as well. Her mobile home was one of hundreds that were severely damaged or destroyed while she weathered the storm at a neighbor’s home. Forty-foot pine and oak trees that once shaded the small trailer now lay across the roof, hiding it from roadway. Others, uprooted by the devastating winds, yanked the mobile home’s plumbing system away from the walls and floors leaving it uninhabitable. Most all of her neighbor’s homes endured a similar fate.
“During the storm, I prayed for God to take care of us and to show me how to handle the outcome of the storm,” said Tabor who has lived in Keys since 1959. “Then he (God) sent them,” referring to a disaster relief clean-up crew from Harmony Bay Association that took on the job of cleaning away debris and cutting down trees from her yard.
“Often when these type things happen, it takes so long to get help, requiring every ‘t’ has to crossed and every ‘i’ dotted,” she said. “But, the Baptists came in and responded so fast; I’m so thankful.”
The first direct hit on the Keys since Hurricane Donna in 1960, Georges’ furry especially took aim at the houseboats, mobile home parks and low-lying areas. Georges tore apart at least 12 of 26 houseboats in Key West’s famous Houseboat row. Trees, signs and power lines toppled over in the wind. Transformers exploded. Roaring seas rushed across several parts of the 125-mile string of islands. In some areas, the storm surge was reported as high as 12 feet, leaving homes flooded with up to four feet of water.
In total, Hurricane Georges caused an estimated $200 million in insured losses, state officials said. More than 1,500 homes were destroyed or severely damaged including 614 mobile homes and 75 houseboats. Of that total, 173 homes were completely destroyed. However, structures in the famous Key West historical district remained mostly unscathed.
Clark Keygard lost his entire house, now just a pile of ruins along Houseboat Row. Only nine months earlier, 70 percent of Key West’s voters approved a ballot referendum to save the notorious colorful strip of boats harbored along U.S. 1. “I watched the row go one by one,” he said, pointing to the barge where he and his wife road out the storm. “It was terrible. Our boat was still up when it got dark.”
In the week following the storm, thousands of Lower Key residents and businesses dealt with loss of electricity and lack of water. According to reports in the Miami Herald, damage to more than 100 of the 60-foot concrete posts that carry power lines from Miami-Dade County has complicated matters.
It may be a couple of weeks before everyone on the most damaged islands has power.
“Without electricity, we have no way to cook and no way to work,” said one weary victim who showed up at the Florida Baptist Convention’s mobile feeding unit which began providing food on Sunday evening at Fifth Street Baptist Church in Key West. “We are so glad we can come here to have a good meal.”
In response to the hurricane, three mobile feeding kitchens-from Florida, Georgia and South Carolina Baptist Conventions — with a capability of each feeding more than 5,000 meals a day — were established at the Key West church, in Big Pine Key and Summerland Key.
During the first four days, the units served over 35,000 meals to residents, and relief workers which represented city work crews, telephone and power workers, FHP and U.S. Coast Guard. Additional meals were delivered to elderly and homebound victims.
Coast Guard volunteer Gary Brown, who took a break from helping the relief efforts to eat a bit of lunch, called the feeding unit a “perfect” solution for the victims. “With no electricity, they can’t cook. This feeding is like a home away from home,” he said. “It’s great to see the Baptists are doing this.”
Florida Baptist Convention staff members are assisting in coordinating volunteers for clean up and recovery. On site, they are assessing damage, providing clean-up and medical supplies and offering temporary financial assistance to those in need. These groups are expected to remain in the area for at least two weeks.
Several Florida Baptist churches received damage during the storm. The hardest hit were First Baptist Church, Big Pine and Sugar Loaf Baptist Church which lost parts of their roofs and sustained water damage.
Brenda Forlines, part of the convention’s team, went door to door to provide financial assistance, distributing hundreds of dollars to elderly adults, low-income residents and many others who have no insurance.
Many residents, Forlines said, are financially in need due to the lack of work in their service-industry jobs. Some are forced to stay home from work to clean up their homes. Other places of employment have been shut down because they have no electrical power.
“If they don’t work, they don’t get paid,” Forlines said. “They live from paycheck-to-paycheck and don’t know what they are going to do. If they don’t get paid they can’t eat or pay the bills.” Florida Baptists, she said, are trying to search for these people to offer them hope.
More than 200 Florida Baptist volunteers from the Orlando area, Venice, Palm Coast, Jacksonville, Lake County, Miami and the Trenton area have made their way to the Keys to help victims recover. Weathering the 90-degree temperatures and bunking in non-air conditioned quarters, the crews are working from dawn to dusk to assist the clean-up efforts, serve food and offer words of encouragement. Others are expected to relieve these crews next week.

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  • Stella Anderson