ARCADIA, Fla. (BP)–Eleven-month-old Max perched happily on his father’s arm, looking in wide-eyed wonder at the beehive of activity at First Baptist Church in Arcadia, Fla., Aug. 18, in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley.
Days earlier, the towheaded toddler had displayed the same curiosity when his dad, 20-something Michael Loria, clutched the child in his arms in the center of their modest home to ride out the category four storm — after walking around the outside of the house to pray for the family’s safety.
Commenting on the condition of his home, Loria, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Arcadia, told Baptist Press that although all the greenery and foliage around his house looked like it had been “flushed down the toilet,” his home was not damaged at all.
“I don’t know if you can believe this or not,” said Loria, shrugging his shoulders, “but … I walked around the house and prayed before the storm.”
Looking for diapers at First Baptist — where Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers from Alabama and Mississippi had set up a food line and were preparing meals to be sent out in American Red Cross vehicles — Michael Loria missed out on diapers, but instead found water and folks with whom to share his story.
At South Biscayne Baptist Church in North Port, Fla., about 20 miles north of Punta Gorda, where Hurricane Charley came ashore, Sunday School teacher Mark Hardin was at church for a leadership meeting and Wednesday night service. The church has opened its doors to the community and is hosting the command center for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief operations in southwest Florida.
Hardin credited God with sparing the church’s massive facility where relief workers can eat and sleep in air-conditioned rooms, while maintaining an almost around-the-clock vigil helping those in need of emergency services.
“The Lord is in control and there is a reason the church facilities were spared,” Hardin said. “In the big picture, when we stand before the Lord, we want to hear, ‘Well done.’”
Hardin, like Loria, stayed home with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and another daughter to weather the storm, burrowing into mattresses in a room in the central area of the house at about 5:30 p.m. when the worst of the storm raged outside.
Earlier in the day, Hardin said, he also prepared for the onslaught in a spiritual way.
“I had walked around the house and prayed God’s protection on it,” he said.
And while the worst of the storm passed over, everyone fell asleep for about 30 to 40 minutes.
“God sent the sleep,” Hardin said, describing it as God’s way of keeping his family from being stressed by hearing the sounds of the storm.
Sylvia Duckworth, the organist and a member of First Baptist Church in Punta Gorda, said she didn’t sit still while the storm pressed through their neighborhood.
Instead, for three hours the veteran piano teacher walked throughout the house with her husband and a friend praying through Psalm 91.
“We asked God’s protection for the front door of my house and then for the front door of her house,” Duckworth said. “During the whole storm we walked and prayed throughout our house. My grandmother taught me that you can always depend on God.
“God is good,” Duckworth said. “My husband and I are alive, I’ve had a shower and I’ve washed my hair. God is good.”
The Duckworths’ house still has a tree atop it, they have no electricity, and their lanai and yard were damaged by the storm, but in spite of that, she said, “We’re blessed.”
Others in Punta Gorda have not fared so well. Nearly 350,000 there and in other areas where Hurricane Charley struck are still without electricity — and some are without water.
At First Baptist in Punta Gorda, Duckworth has been working alongside Trish Stancil, a kindergarten teacher and a sound technician for the church.
Their task: to keep track of the 800-plus church members that a team of five church leaders are checking on to see if they are OK.
Without electricity and dependable phone service, it is a monumental task. To help in their effort, the women were relying on hard copy data sheets collected in a three-ring binder. On a wall near the open doorway in the church office, where the sunlight helps them see, is a large map the women used for pinpointing addresses. Large sheets of paper that have letters of the alphabet are posted near the map so that members are accounted for by name — with notes updating their location and any contact information.
On the countertop near the office door are half a dozen bright golden sheets of paper with names, but no notes. These are the people still unaccounted for, Duckworth said. Their work will go on until they have heard from every one of their members, she said.
“Somebody needed to do this, and we were available,” Duckworth said. “Somebody needs to figure out just where to start.”
Kathleen Murray contributed to this story. Joni Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness. Karen Kendrick is a freelance writer from Nashville, Tenn.