NAPLES, Fla. (BP)–Hurricane Wilma inflicted widespread damage in South Florida, leaving residents there with the tasks of clearing debris, ridding homes and businesses of water, repairing power lines and rebuilding damaged structures while Southern Baptists took their places of service alongside them.
The storm, which is being called the worst to hit Broward County since Hurricane King in 1950, is responsible for at least five deaths, 6 million people without electricity and damage estimated between $6 and $10 billion in South Florida, according to the Associated Press.
Residents sought generators, chain saws and other supplies and officials were distributing ice, water and food in the state’s three most populous areas — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties — AP said.
Florida Baptist Convention assessment teams traveled to the affected area Oct. 24 to determine the best locations for feeding units and recovery teams, according to a report by the Florida Baptist Witness. Supplies and equipment were loaded on two Florida Baptist feeding units, which had only returned to the state the previous week following deployments to Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Feeding units from the Florida convention were expected to arrive at First Baptist Church in Naples, McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers and locations near Fort Lauderdale, the Witness said.
Brenda Forlines, director of Florida Baptist church and community ministries, told the Witness she was concerned about migrants living in Immokalee, LaBelle and Belle Glade as a fellow staff member was assessing their needs.
“These are people who have no place to go and are without means to help themselves,” she said. “Many of these live in trailers on rural roads with no access to food, water and supplies.”
At First Baptist in Naples, the youth building and gym were significantly damaged by water, reported pastor Hayes Wicker, president of the Florida Baptist State Convention, who had spent part of the night sheltered in a walk-in closet with his wife and 15-year-old daughter.
Falling asleep amidst sleeping bags and flashlights, the trio huddled together while winds at more than 100 mph slammed foliage and tree limbs against the walls of their home.
Wicker said he felt compelled to board up his post–Andrew fortified home and stick around in case he was needed. “I didn’t feel right as captain of the ship to abandon it in a time of trouble,” he said. “My wife and I both felt we should be here. We feel our trust is in the Lord and he is our refuge and strength.”
McGregor Baptist sustained major roof and water damage to its 60,000-square-foot facility, the Witness reported, including large patches of the roof torn away and water soaking the carpet in the 2,200-seat sanctuary. Even so, the church is planning to house disaster relief workers in its gymnasium.
“We will persevere,” Richard Powell, the church’s pastor, said. “Pray for the people who have much more serious damage than we do. Our biggest prayer is that in everything God would allow us to advance His Kingdom even through a mess like Wilma.”
The steeple was torn off First Baptist Church of Belle Glade, punching a hole in the ceiling and allowing water to pour inside.
“We’ve been devastated,” Gary Folds, pastor of the church, told the Witness. “We are hit hard.”
At First Baptist Church in Lake Worth, the roof was damaged and windows were shattered on a rebuilt facility that was only recently dedicated after being heavily damaged last year. Also, $6,000 worth of newly installed playground equipment was swept away.
Ten disaster relief kitchens from Florida, Alabama, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee and Texas were staged at Lake Yale, a Florida Baptist Convention state camp 30 miles northwest of Orlando along with a feeding crew from the California Baptist Convention to work in the American Red Cross’ “Spirit of America” kitchen.
Still other disaster relief units in South Carolina, North Carolina, Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas and New York are on standby status.
Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization for the North American Mission Board, said it’s too early to estimate how many volunteers will be deployed to the hurricane-affected areas.
“The reality is that there is a fatigue factor in dealing with these hurricanes,” he said. “The disaster operations center is now in its 60th day of operation. We’ve had three major hurricanes -– Katrina, Rita and now Wilma.”
A Category 3 hurricane, Wilma first struck Florida just south of Naples with 125-mph winds early Oct. 24 and moved quickly across the state within seven hours, marking the state’s eighth bout with a hurricane in the past 14 months.
Three of South Florida’s major airports were closed because of the storm, including Miami International, which is a major hub for American Airlines and was disrupting travel nationwide, The Miami Herald reported.
Officials in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have imposed a curfew on residents while cleanup efforts continue and at least 10 people were arrested for looting. Traffic lights were down throughout South Florida and Miami’s Metrorail system sustained significant damage, halting service for at least 48 hours, according to The Herald. Florida Power & Light reported the worst outage in its history and said power restoration could take up to four weeks because of serious infrastructure damage.
Despite the challenges, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush remained optimistic about the recovery process.
“It’s working the way it’s supposed to,” he said.
Among the homes damaged in Davie, Fla., was that of David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Contributions to disaster relief may be sent to state conventions, associations or churches responding to the effort or to the North American Mission Board. Donations to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief may be made online, at www.NAMB.net, or by calling 1-866-407-6262. Contributions also can be mailed to the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, North American Mission Board, Box 116543, Atlanta, GA 30368-6543.
Compiled by Erin Curry, with reporting by Barbara Denman of the Florida Baptist Convention’s public relations division and Joni B. Hannigan of the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal.