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Hurricane Wilma response begins: Baptist disaster relief units readied from 15 states

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–As Hurricane Wilma churns into the Atlantic Ocean, Southern Baptists’ disaster relief network is once again mobilizing volunteers and relief units to the hardest-hit areas of Florida.

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.

“We know landfall occurred at Cape Romano, so we’re now talking to the Red Cross, The Salvation Army and the Florida Baptist Convention to determine where needs are the greatest. Then we’ll make assignments,” said Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization for NAMB.

“Obviously, we know there will be a need for disaster feeding units in the metro areas affected by Wilma,” Burton said. “But it’s always a little trickier and takes a little longer to decide what rural areas need relief units.”

Burton said it’s also 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.

“But we’re fortunate that as Southern Baptists, we have 30,000 trained volunteers, and some state conventions have done rapid training to produce even more volunteers. If this were football, we’d say we have a lot of depth on the bench,” Burton said.

“We’ll be calling on our volunteers, through the state conventions, to step it up another notch for Wilma.”

Since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast eight weeks ago, NAMB’s disaster operations center has coordinated the work of more than 7,000 volunteers representing 41 state Baptist conventions.

According to NAMB estimates, the work of these 7,000 volunteers in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita translates into 104,000 “volunteer work days” valued at more than $14 million.

Through the deployment of 360 disaster relief units -– more than half of the Southern Baptists’ fleet of 600 -– these volunteers have prepared more than 9 million meals for hurricane victims and workers; completed more than 12,000 cleanup jobs; cared for 7,300 children; and provided nearly 60,000 showers for victims and workers along the hard-hit Gulf Coast.

“Having prepared more than 9 million meals in the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita aftermath, the response to Hurricane Wilma is sure to push us well beyond the 10 million meal count for this year,” Burton said.

“That is clearly unprecedented, and reason for each of us to pause and give thanks to God for the amazing opportunity given to Southern Baptists through disaster relief ministry.”

Southern Baptists run the third-largest disaster relief operation in the country, behind the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army.

With the official hurricane season continuing until the end of November and dangerous new hurricanes like Wilma still possible, monetary contributions to Southern Baptist relief efforts are still welcomed, Burton said.

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, 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.

A webcast briefing about Southern Baptist Disaster Relief efforts is available at www.NAMB.net. Disaster relief information is posted regularly at www.NAMB.net/dr.

Wilma roared ashore about 22 miles south of Naples, Fla., as a powerful Category 3 storm with 125 mph winds, leaving at least one person dead and 2.2 million homes without power.

By mid-afternoon, the hurricane had passed quickly over Florida and moved into the Atlantic, where it was expected to keep its distance from the coastline as it headed north.

President Bush declared 20 counties in Florida major disaster areas as the region was pummeled by the eighth hurricane to strike or brush Florida in 14 months.

One man was killed by a falling tree in Coral Springs, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush warned people to remain indoors as long as possible, according to CNN.com. The hours after the storm, he said, are “when many people tragically lose their lives.”

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were most concerned about the 78,000 residents of the low-lying Florida Keys, where less than 10 percent of the population heeded evacuation orders. About 35 percent of Key West was flooded due to a powerful storm surge, the Associated Press reported, and the police chief there said the flooding was “more extensive than we’ve seen in the past.” Once winds died down, rescuers were being sent out to help those who were stranded as streets turned into rivers.

Key West International Airport suffered severe damage, The Miami Herald reported, and the runway was under at least three feet of water.

“We have a real disaster here,” Key West Police Chief Bill Mauldin said. “We are in sad shape right now.”

As much as 10 inches of rain and tornadoes were forecast for parts of central and southern Florida, AP said, and Gov. Bush reported that four tornadoes had touched down early Monday, including one that struck at the Kennedy Space Center.

The National Guard was on alert and FEMA was ready to send in military helicopters and 13.2 million meals ready to eat, AP said.

According to The Herald, significant damage was evident along the Florida Keys, in Broward County and in parts of Miami-Dade County. Office buildings in Fort Lauderdale and Miami sustained serious damage, the newspaper said, and windows were shattered in high-rise buildings.

Every hospital in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties was running on generator power, The Herald reported, and four blocks of the elevated Metrorail system in Miami fell 30 feet to the ground.

Throughout South Florida, roofs were severely damaged, water mains were broken, trees were toppled and traffic lights were down.

Hurricane Wilma officially made landfall at Cape Romano just before 6:30 a.m. Monday before taking a path roughly along Florida’s Alligator Alley including the populated areas of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Before reaching the United States, Wilma was responsible for three deaths in Mexico and 13 more in Jamaica and Haiti as it passed through the Caribbean. The storm battered Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for two days, leaving significant damage in the resort town of Cancun, where troops and federal police were working to control looting and stranded tourists searched for ways to return home, according to AP.

Wilma also wrought havoc in Cuba, where its eye wall caused most of downtown Havana to be submerged in water as much as six feet deep in some places and people were being rescued from windows and rooftops, CNN.com reported. Officials in Havana shut off electricity in advance of the storm.

This is a record year for Atlantic hurricanes as the total number for 2005 has reached 22 and for the first time ever authorities have run out of names and implemented the Greek alphabet, beginning with Tropical Storm Alpha off the coast of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The storm was expected to dissipate and not threaten the United States.
With reporting by Erin Curry.

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