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Hurricane victims find hope from Fla. churches along I-95

MELBOURNE, Fla. (BP)–In the days after Hurricane Frances struck the Florida Peninsula, some signs of recovery were appearing along the east coast of the state. Power was restored in some areas and a few restaurants and businesses were slowly opening. Gasoline was available but required waiting in lines that stretched around the corner or spending the night at the station to be among the first in line.

On the whole, however, people were growing hopeless after days without electricity, air conditioning, ice or gas. Enduring leaking roofs, mildewing carpets and rotting furniture and walls, many residents were unable to repair homes on their own. Others had little time to cook while cleaning their homes. Few could afford to eat out each meal even if they could get to a restaurant.

These were the people who were walking in the door at First Baptist Church of Melbourne, Fla., said church member Anita Claborn.

The congregation had opened its doors to the community by serving as a Florida Baptist Convention operation center that offered hot meals and recovery teams staffed by Baptist State Convention of North Carolina volunteers. The congregation had offered refuge for displaced community residents who were forced to leave shelters previously located in schools as preparations were being made for classes to resume.

A 70-year-old woman who came to the church looking for help was one of about two dozen elderly residents from a nearby government subsidized high-rise apartment who had been without power or water for five days.

Claborn arranged for 35 hot meals to be taken to the apartment building for daily lunch and dinner. “Now that one made me feel good,” she said.

Another woman had been caring for 18 abused children in a group home for a week without power when she arrived at the church, children in tow. Sobbing, she told Florida convention staff member Bob Bumgarner she had been at her wit’s end. Bumgarner helped settle the children in bed for the night, arranged for food and comforted the distraught woman.

Others coming to the church for help included elderly and single-parent families whose homes need temporary repairs.

North Carolina recovery team coordinator Lin Honeycutt said more than 300 homes had been assessed to be in dire need of repair, with at least two-thirds with roof damage. “I have been serving in disaster relief since 1989 and I have never seen this much roof damage in one county as this caused by Hurricane Frances,” Honeycutt said. “I think because it just sat and sat there and pounded and pounded away, it slowly chewed up the roofs in this county,” he said.

The volunteers had discovered a Sebastian mobile home community with 4,900 units — one in five in need of a new roof. “I believe Southern Baptist relief volunteers will be needed here for some time,” Honeycutt said.

First Melbourne was one of nearly a dozen churches along Florida’s I-95 corridor that hosted Southern Baptist Disaster Relief kitchens, working in cooperation with the American Red Cross, and recovery teams as the churches sought to minister to their communities. The teams have now evacuated under the
threat of Hurricane Ivan but plan to return to top-priority positions in mid-September.

Welcoming a disaster relief feeding unit team is a huge commitment from the host church. Dozens of volunteers sleep in the church’s Sunday School rooms. Lights stay on much of the night. Church staff members are asked to perform countless duties and be available to help volunteers. Hundreds of people wander the halls looking for food and help.

Al Jiron, pastor of Crossroads Community Church, said he didn’t have to think twice when asked to locate the Florida Baptist Disaster Relief feeding unit on his Palm City church grounds. “Any Christian would be willing to use their resources at a time like this.

“But ultimately, we hope to use this to build a relationship with our community in the hopes that we can share the eternal Word.”

After the mobile kitchen began cooking meals at Crossroads, a local resident came by the church asking about its purpose. He explained that about six blocks of neighbors still were without power and going into town for food each day was getting expensive. Hesitantly, he asked if he could bring his neighbors there to eat.

“Those are the people we are hoping to serve,” said volunteer Bill Stevenson of Jacksonville. “Perhaps now they will think of this church as an asset in their community.”

“We will make whatever sacrifice we can to help people,” added Pastor Bryan Herrington of First Baptist Church in Port St. Lucie, where the Tennessee Baptist disaster relief team was stationed until its Ivan evacuation.

“We have been praying for some way to reach this community and especially for opportunities to get behind the gated neighborhoods,” said Herrington of the county where, a week after the hurricane, only 15 percent of the electricity had been restored. “With the feeding unit here we have the residents of those communities coming to us.”

Located in one of the hardest-hit communities where the eye wall of the hurricane came ashore, the Port St. Lucie church suffered heavy damage to its worship center. Despite the church’s difficulties, the pastor went to a local radio station to ask the on-air staff to announce the availability of hot meals at the church. The announcer asked the pastor to participate in a live interview to tell about the church’s ministries. “I hope having the disaster relief teams will give us even more of an open door into the community which will allow us to demonstrate acts of kindness to our neighbors.”

Virginia Baptist volunteers arrived at Westside Baptist Church in Fort Pierce on Sept. 7, four days after Frances’ landfall. “It’s been a tough four days,” admitted Pastor Dale Ingersoll.

His family did not evacuate before the storm and would remain during another hurricane. “I wouldn’t leave my congregation,” Ingersoll said, acknowledging, “The first day we were in a stupor. We were grateful we had our health. We didn’t know where to start.”

In the days that followed, Ingersoll and church members assessed needs of their congregation, discovering that many needed tarps placed on roofs and trees removed. At least four homes of church family were “devastated” by the hurricane, he reported. “We had a lot of people lose their mobile homes, especially winter residents.”

Wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “No fear; Share Jesus with no fear,” Ingersoll said he was pleased the Virginia Baptist team had arrived on site. He said that the day before their arrival, cars lined up for five miles waiting for a bag of ice. “So I know there is a need here.” He marveled that the volunteers “had driven all this way from Virginia.”

Actually, many of the volunteers had not returned home since the Virginia mobile kitchen had been stationed at First Baptist Church of Punta Gorda for nearly three weeks after Hurricane Charley, preparing 14,000 meals a day.

Virginia volunteers John and Mary Anderson, members of Hebron Baptist Church in Charlottesville, had driven 2,200 miles during the past week. Called to serve in Punta Gorda, the senior adult couple arrived there for a day before having to retreat to Perry, Ga., along with the other disaster relief units to wait out Hurricane Frances. After the second storm, the volunteers stopped in Richmond Hill, Ga., about 30 miles outside of Savannah for the night, poised to enter the state through I-95.

Westside member Diane Helseth said she had been listening to the local radio when a caller complained about the lack of resources available to the victims. “They said the churches are here helping. Where is everyone else? I am glad that now our church is one of those helping, too.”

    About the Author

  • Barbara Denman

    Barbara Denman is communications editor for the Florida Baptist Convention. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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