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Gulf Breeze residents: Volunteers ‘needed & appreciated’

GULF BREEZE, Fla. (BP)–A week after Hurricane Ivan battered the Gulf Coast with what was estimated to be a 40-foot wave of swirling cold water and sand, hammering the shore at Gulf Breeze, a peninsula which juts between Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound, few structures still stand on the bay side — while splintered wood, soggy clothing, furniture, cars and other debris litter the once-picturesque landscape.

Trees still standing are bent away from Pensacola where the category 3 hurricane came ashore. The area around Bay Steet in Gulf Breeze was still off-limits Sept. 24 to all but residents, many of whom are camping around their homes which have been deemed unsafe and have been condemned by the city. Sand still covers many of the roads, where gentle breezes toss about an increasingly foul odor of mildew, stagnate water and rotting food.

On one slab, strewn with the contents of what used to be someone’s home, a homemade cardboard sign affixed to a tree reads: “Bernard, call your brothers. Love, Mike.”

A few lots down, beyond piles of debris, there is a path leading to a small cottage which is still standing — about 40 feet inland from where it once stood. Its shed floated across the street. The door still opens.

“Look, my brand-new golf clubs are untouched,” Marie Marino told the Florida Baptist Witness. Pulling out a golf club to strike a pose, she used it as a pointer to gesture to her once-cozy cottage. “Now I just have to figure out where to live.”

Like many others left homeless after three invasive hurricanes struck Florida within five weeks of each other, Marino is taking it a day at time after “running like a scared rabbit” after being told to evacuate ahead of the storm.

Marino and a small group of friends were helping another neighbor, Jackie Wills, salvage what she could from her home and move tree limbs and boards flung by the storm onto her driveway and yard. The pile outside Wills’ home already dwarfed the women who stopped to talk.

Wills, a retired Navy nurse practitioner, shared her newest find with everyone — her Navy uniform dress jacket with gold trim, resplendent despite its waterlogged condition. Holding it up next to an American flag, Wills looked at it fondly and then quipped, “Well, it doesn’t fit anymore anyway.”

On the next street over, a Red Cross vehicle was carefully making its way through the area. “Hot food, water and ice,” squealed a loudspeaker. Apart from the vehicles belonging to residents and friends checking on each other, the only other vehicles on the road were convoys of disaster services trucks moving slowly with their lights on, as if they were in a funeral procession.

Marino speculated that the truck would not come over to their street. She said she needed ice. A friend, Deborah Ragghianit, who attends Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, volunteered to go and get ice if the truck did not turn.

“It will turn and come this way,” predicted Wills, who said she had noted the vehicle’s movements over the previous days.

A few minutes later, while the women were looking for important objects which they might salvage, the Red Cross truck turned down their street.

“I knew it,” Wills said.

Carrying containers of food and a bag of ice, another of the women’s friends, Bonnie Boggs from Tallahassee, Fla., pronounced to the waiting women, “We have Brunswick stew.”

On the Red Cross vehicle helping to hand out meals, Coressa Hornsby, a Southern Baptist Disaster Relief worker from Milledgeville, Ga., said she and about 60 other Georgia Baptists had willingly left their homes to travel to the area to help in relief efforts in spite of the fact that Ivan was dumping tropical rain throughout their region as well, causing mudslides from swelling creeks and rivers. Leaving the vehicle for a few moments, she met the neighborhood women and their friends who wanted to thank her in person for her efforts.

“We appreciate everything everybody’s doing to help us,” Wills said. “We’ve been fed hot meals, we’ve been given water, we’ve been given smiles and hugs.

“They’re wonderful,” she told Hornsby. “We are so appreciative.”

A few miles away, at Gulf Breeze Elementary School, principal Karen Murray said the Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief operation had been in place since Sept. 21 — serving well over 1,000 meals a day and sending out chainsaw and clean-up crews to help clear away debris.

“They’re angels,” said Murray of the volunteers. “They’re angels in the food they prepare and the way they minister to the people when they just talk to them. They have the sweetest attitudes I’ve ever seen of people.”

At the Gulf Breeze school, the American Red Cross workers are sleeping in an enclosed area which usually houses the fifth-graders. The Georgia volunteers line the hallways of the school, steering clear of the classrooms, some of which have been damaged by water.

“Our school system is thrilled that Southern Baptists are here,” said Murray, who attends a Gulf Breeze Methodist church. “It is a blessing to come here and visit with them and listen about their experiences. They’re marvelous.”

In the affluent neighborhoods which make up Gulf Breeze, Murray said the intervention has been a “real” ministry.

“For some of these folks, they’ve never asked for anything,” Murray said. “Now they are just thankful. They cry when they are given their food. It’s amazing.”

A educator for 30-plus years, Murray said she won’t pass up the opportunity for the teaching moment for the students, so she has created a video to show the children Oct. 11, when it is predicted they will return to school.

“We can show our children how strangers came to help them, people they don’t even know,” Murray said. “I want them to learn about sharing and caring. It’s very, very important.

“So if there’s a positive out of the very negative, it is that there are wonderful people who will care and who will help strangers in time of need because it is a disaster here,” she said.

Murray admitted she’s watching and listening to what’s going on in her school and enjoys visiting the relief workers, each of whom she’s given a school pin.

“I get home I can’t wait to tell my husband what I’ve learned now,” she said. “Because I just get moved by watching what they do, and they are not asking for a thing in return. They are needed and they are appreciated.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com. With reporting by John J. Hannigan III.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan