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N.M. team finally gets chance to cook for hurricane victims

FORT PIERCE, Fla. (BP)–While Hurricane Ivan battered the Florida Panhandle and the Alabama Gulf Coast Sept. 16, a Southern Baptist Disaster Relief team from New Mexico was scrambling to return to Florida’s east coast where Hurricane Frances left a path of destruction earlier in the month.

Evacuated from their post at an American Red Cross kitchen Sept. 9 before they could cook even one meal in Boynton Beach, Fla., the New Mexico team opted to wait out Ivan in Orlando to remain available for redeployment.

The seven-member team joined up with Red Cross workers and other local volunteers at a Red Cross mobile kitchen in Fort Pierce to cook, wash dishes or do “whatever” is needed.

“The Red Cross kept telling us that there’s a possibility we would be needed, so we prayed about it and … we said, ‘We’ll go,’” Wilda Morris, 69, a member of First Baptist Church in Carlsbad, N.M., told the Florida Baptist Witness.

“I’m thrilled to see them,” said Jean Pettit, a Red Cross volunteer from Springfield, Mo.

Thousands in the region continue to cope with the impact of Hurricane Frances — downed trees and power lines; rooftops and shingles ripped off homes; and many people left without food or the means to purchase it or keep it fresh.

The Red Cross delivered 2,500 servings of each meal Sept. 15-16, and the New Mexico team’s leader, Leo Pennington, pastor of Midway (N.M.) Baptist Church, said the kitchen was bringing in additional equipment to double that capacity Sept. 17.

Replacements from New Mexico, scheduled to arrive Sept. 16, were set to train with Pennington who had learned the process for setting things up at the Red Cross mobile kitchen to cook throughout the day.

“We just got in, we cooked the evening meal and we’ve got the evening meal ready to go,” Pennington said of his crew. “We will cook however many meals this unit will put out. That’s all we can do.”

Karen Shope, a Southern Baptist volunteer from Highland Baptist Church in Albuquerque, N.M., said it’s been a long 15 days away from home — and the first time she’s been away from her husband who is responsible for mobilizing disaster relief crews in New Mexico.

“We may not have cooked up until this point, but God is still good,” Shope said, standing over her domain — the kitchen sink — directing the disposition of dirty washcloths and towels. “We’ve been jostled and it’s been difficult, but the Lord has still taught us a lot and He’s still blessed us. He’s still given us people to minister to.”

Shope and Pennington had volunteered for 12-hour night shifts at the Orlando (Fla.) Convention Center where evacuees with special needs were housed. Most of the people there were in their 80s and 90s, she said.

Describing a talk she had with a 99-year-old woman who had pictures of herself and her now-deceased husband, Shope said the woman just needed someone to talk with. “She was so proud of him,” Shope said of the woman’s devotion to her husband.

“Those people had been soiled and in cots and away from their homes for over a week,” Shope said. “God humbled us in many, many ways.”

W.S. Morris, Wilda’s husband, who will celebrate his 76th birthday Sept. 19, said he was helping people in Florida just as he helped people in California last year battle an onslaught of widlfires.

“It’s really tragic, but it’s a new experience for us,” he said of serving on the Florida coast in the aftermath of a hurricane. “We want to fulfill our obligation to feed all these people and of course there’s another hurricane, so we might have a lot more feeding to do.”

W.S., who served for 47 years in the newspaper industry before he retired, said he and Wilda celebrated their 52nd anniversary Aug. 21 in the midst of preparing to deploy to the region. A reporter’s notebook stuck out above the white kitchen apron he wore.

Shope said no one on the team was discouraged by the continual changes but all were happy to finally have had the experience of doing what they had trained to do — run a kitchen.

“It’s worth it,” Shope said. “Anything you do for God is worth it.”

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  • Joni B. Hannigan