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Pastors along coast thankful that Hurricane Dennis was less destructive than Ivan

PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–Feeding and clean-up began July 11 in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi after Hurricane Dennis clamored for attention from relief workers still impacted by Florida’s historic 2004 hurricane season. Despite a much weaker storm than anticipated, Hurricane Dennis roared into the Gulf Coast July 10, knocking out power to nearly half a million residents in three states and forcing water to overflow bays and rivers.

Downgraded from a Category 4 to a Category 3 storm before making landfall, Dennis nevertheless punched the panhandle with vicious 120 mph winds, pushing a 10-foot wall of water onto the coast just east of Pensacola and leaving bent street signs, downed power lines, submerged roadways and rushing water at least eight blocks inland.

Hitting less than 50 miles east of where Ivan came ashore, Dennis is thought to have been considerably less damaging than last year’s major hurricane, which struck only 10 months ago. The vulnerable region was still trying to rebuild after an unprecedented storm surge created a 30-foot wall of water, which tore away part of the Interstate 10 bridge over Pensacola Bay, snatched roofs off buildings and splintered homes.

President Bush July 10 declared parts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi disaster areas, making them eligible for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At Olive Baptist Church on the north side of Pensacola, where Florida Baptist Disaster Relief workers will set up a feeding station until power is restored, Ted Traylor said the neighborhood is in “pretty good shape.”

Reporting sunny skies July 11, Traylor, pastor of the more than 10,000-member church, told the Florida Baptist Witness there “was a lot of relief” when the storm moved east from its initial path. And because of Ivan, his church was more prepared to deal with the outcome.

“We have a hit list of everything we need to do to get ready,” Traylor said. That list included plans for how to host Southern Baptist volunteers from Florida and other states.

Harder to deal with is the discouragement that arises when families who have just finished repairing their homes after Ivan will have to begin anew.

“We are going to have to have some broad shoulders,” Traylor said. “We just have to encourage people to walk in the strength of the Lord and have some resolve.”

Across the bay, where about 1,300 members of Olive reside in Santa Rosa County, Bobby Musselwhite, director of missions for the area, said there is a lot of debris on the ground and some trees down.

What damage there is has mostly been “cosmetic,” though the steeple of First Baptist Church in Milton blew off, he said.

“The churches didn’t seem to suffer nearly as bad as during Ivan,” said Musselwhite, who was conducting a church-by-church assessment with a Florida Baptist Convention official at the time of the July 11 interview.

Musselwhite added that the home of Kevin Goza, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Pace, had been extensively damaged by fallen trees.

Southeast of Pensacola, flooding on U.S. 98, a major coastal highway in the panhandle, cut off main routes into beach communities. About 180 miles east of Santa Rosa and about 20 miles south of Tallahassee, Mark Stover, interim pastor at First Baptist Church in St. Marks, said July 11 he had not been able to get to the church because of road closings but was told it was undamaged by high waters.

The coastal town’s two rivers, the St. Marks and the Wakulla, mingled with a storm surge to create a 10 to 12 foot wall of water that settled over all but the highest points of town. Church members, mostly long-time residents out of the water’s reach, woke up Monday with the reality that many of their neighbors who work in the seafood industry and on the marina were without homes.

“It was just catastrophic,” Stover told the Witness. “It is heart wrenching.”

Speaking of one of the church’s newest families, Stover said the family of six lost everything in the storm except the clothes off their backs. Church members have already reached out, Stover said, and will team up with Florida Baptist Disaster Relief officials to find ways to help other storm victims.

“Through [the storm] and our efforts, we are praying God will bless this and we will be able to not only help people with their physical needs but open the door to helping them with their spiritual needs,” Stover said.

At St. George Island, just off the coast southeast of St. Marks, Michael Whaley said he started to leave the island Sunday with his wife Judy after seeing the water rise rapidly but had to turn around when swirling waters almost overcame the family’s two dogs.

Whaley, pastor of First Baptist Church on St. George Island, said he watched as waters from the Gulf of Mexico began mingling with Apalachicola Bay, washing waves and pushing sand beneath the pilings of the island’s structures.

“It’s been crazy and amazing,” Whaley told the Witness, “but nobody’s lost their life or been hurt and all things across the island can be repaired, praise God!”

Waiting out the storm in the church’s parsonage, Whaley said he watched as a boat appeared to steer itself after floating off a trailer, joining shrimpers and other watercraft which came loose from their moorings to bob aimlessly where docks, gazebos and walkways once stood firm.

The entire island was covered with sand, Whaley said, with beaches and dunes hiding beneath structures and sprinkled over streets and sidewalks.

Although the church’s newly opened retreat center did not suffer damage, Whaley said the first floor of the worship center, containing education space and a small kitchen was wiped out, while the sanctuary above was unharmed.

“In a way, that’s a God thing,” Whaley said, calling it the “next step” in the church’s reconstruction project, which calls for the sanctuary’s renovation.

For now, Whaley said he will have to avoid big puddles on the island, while he’s going about checking on the residents of the small community who are waiting for the power to come on. Then the real clean-up begins, he said.

At Blue Springs Baptist Assembly in Mariana, about 70 miles east of Pensacola, Jeffrey Gnann said there were a few tree limbs down and the campground lost power for a couple of hours, but otherwise things were fine.

Thomas A. Kinchen, president of The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, told the Witness that damage from the storm was “minimal” with some roof problems. “All in all, we did very well,” Kinchen said.

Cecil Seagle, head of the Florida Baptist Convention’s missions division, mobilized more than a dozen key leaders of Florida’s well-oiled disaster relief organization early Sunday morning, July 10, at the convention’s building in Jacksonville where he announced tentative sites for an emergency communications center, feeding units, a childcare center and a mobile dental unit. Seagle also discussed plans for an assessment team, clean-up and recovery crews, commodity distribution and chaplain assistance.

Seagle and Fritz Wilson, coordinator for Florida Baptist Disaster Relief, said they have been in partnership already with the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Florida’s Emergency Operations Center and that Florida Baptist Disaster Relief also will partner with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, coordinated through the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board.

Feeding and clean-up and recovery units from other states will mobilize to various sites, while the Lake Yale and Blue Springs feeding units from Florida will be on site at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola.

Bill Carmichael, director of the discipleship and family department of the Florida Baptist Convention, who during last year’s hurricane season served as a liaison at the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, will again take on that role this season.

A team of workers headed by Rick Lawrence, director of the convention’s church planting department, is making an initial assessment of Florida Baptist churches in the path of the hurricane, and Florida Baptists have already begun initial assessments of partnership churches and ministries in Haiti and Cuba, Seagle said.

Seagle prayed at the end of the July 10 Florida Baptist leaders’ meeting that God would give strength, wisdom and comfort to both those affected directly by the storms and to the workers. He said he doesn’t have any great spiritual insight as to why Florida is again at the receiving end of such an intense storm.

“I don’t know. I have no clue,” Seagle said. “Only the Lord knows. What we do know is that He’s put us in a place to make a difference.”

Many people, regardless of their income level, will be hurting for kind words and food.

“We again have the opportunity to bring comfort to some, assurance to some,” Seagle said. “You are a really key ingredient.”

To contribute to Florida Baptist Disaster Relief, please call toll free 1-800-228-8584, ext. 3046. For other state contact numbers, go online to NAMB’s volunteer Web site at: NAMB State Disaster Relief Contact Numbers.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan