EDITOR’S NOTE: This story also includes updates of ongoing disaster relief work in Florida and Texas.
VERO BEACH, Fla. (BP) — As Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida, Vero Beach associate pastor Kyle Bailey “had a sense of peace,” he said, and “felt like God had something special in store.”
But little did he know God would soon use him and pastor Roger Ball, both of Vero Beach’s Freedom Church, to share prayer, encouragement, weather updates and the Gospel with more than 600,000 people through a “Hurricane Irma Safety Check-In” group they created on Facebook.
“When you do something with the intention of trying to help people,” Ball told Baptist Press, “and then you see God’s hand in it and you see Him doing things you would have never ever been able to do on your own …, it causes you to want to fall on your knees and worship God.”
Meanwhile, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams have been deployed to south Florida, and SBDR efforts continue in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Vero Beach, some 100 miles southeast of Orlando, avoided the worst of Irma. But Freedom Church, which averages 175 in worship, facilitated online communication for Floridians throughout the state.
During last year’s Hurricane Matthew, Ball and Bailey broadcast live prayer videos on Facebook and discovered up to 1,000 people would watch each video. When Irma approached, they got the idea of creating a safety-check-in public group, where they could post more prayer videos, share safety information and create an online community for individuals weathering the storm.
The group was established Sept. 7 at 2 p.m., Bailey said. By the time he went to bed that night, it had 3,000 members. It had reached 10,000 people by morning, 70,000 later in the day and 603,000 before the storm passed Sept. 10.
Some group members broadcast live videos from their locations to update fellow Floridians on weather conditions, Bailey said. Others used the online community to help battle feelings of loneliness as the storm passed.
The prayer videos included talk of Christ and Freedom Church. Ball posted a pre-recorded worship service video Sunday morning for those unable to attend church due to the storm.
As comments poured in, several Facebook users said the group led them to pray for the first time in their lives. One woman sent Ball a private message stating, “I need more help learning about the Bible.” Another woman posted on the group page that she was a believer but had not been walking with God. Ball followed up with both individuals.
“To be able to see how God used this hurricane to call those who have been wandering back to Him is just more than I could express gratitude for,” Ball said.
Because so many members have requested that the Facebook group continue — nearly 400,000 remembers remained as of Sept. 12 — Ball and Bailey plan to keep it going and retitle it with the name of each subsequent hurricane to hit the U.S. Among their hopes is that survivors of past storms can encourage those in the midst of a hurricane or other natural disaster. Friends and church members have offered to help moderate the group.
Bailey estimated the number of group members could rise into the millions after future storms because the group’s size likely will cause it to rank high on internet search engines.
“We really have a platform for the Gospel to [advance] throughout future catastrophes,” Bailey said.
Florida Disaster Relief
By Monday night (Sept. 11) SBDR teams from throughout the eastern United States were being deployed to set up feeding units across south Florida at the request of American Red Cross (ARC). Those units were equipped to provide 130,000 meals per day across six locations, and more units likely will become available as damage assessments continue.
Projections were for kitchens to serve their first meals by Friday (Sept. 15). Some churches will remain temporary shelters. Some congregations and disaster relief teams have self-deployed by helping their neighbors in whatever ways they can.
A temporary childcare unit has been engaged at the Putnam Community Medical Center in Palatka, Fla., east of Gainesville.
Resources and volunteers have been stretched thin due to the major responses required by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but SBDR leaders have remained upbeat and eager to do whatever they can to serve those in need.
“We are always concerned about our churches,” said Mark MacDonald, strategic communications catalyst with the Florida Baptist Convention. “We want those who have been affected by the storm to know that we are right beside them.”
Government officials in Florida are continuing to assess the damage from Hurricane Irma, which left widespread power outages, structural damage and flooding. The Florida Keys sustained serious damage, and initial reports suggested it could take at least a month before people were allowed back to the Keys.
In Miami, 75 percent of the population was initially without power. In Lee and Collier counties on the Gulf Coast side of south Florida, 87-95 percent of people were without power. Outages affected 60 percent of people in Tampa. Jacksonville experienced flash flooding, and storm surges forced at least three bridges to close. Numerous tornados were also reported across the state.
Volunteers still needed in Texas
Mud out teams continue their work in Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana to clear debris from homes that have been flooded. Chainsaw teams are being deployed across Texas as volunteers clear downed trees. Southern Baptists are preparing hot meals for Texans who are still unable to return to their homes.
David Melber, vice president of Send Relief at the North American Mission Board, said volunteers are now needed for weekday projects in Houston.
“Many of the local churches have been giving significant volunteer help for the last two weeks,” Melber said. “But those volunteers are now having to go back to their jobs. We need hundreds of volunteers who can come and serve on weekdays.”
In addition to homes, hundreds of churches were impacted by flooding in Texas.
“It has been encouraging to see a lot of our churches bring teams to directly help local churches,” Melber said. “But when they return home after a week, that Texas church still has a lot of needs. That is why each Texas church needs several churches from outside the area to partner with it in relief efforts.”
For more information, go to sendrelief.net/sendhope.