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Repair of storm -damaged churches proceeds at varying speed

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Visible signs of post-hurricane recovery were on display this spring for at least two Florida congregations: Eastside Baptist Church in Milton and First Baptist Church in Lake Worth.

Eastside met for the first time in its partly repaired sanctuary on Easter, while First Baptist in Lake Worth showed off its completed, repaired and remodeled buildings.

Many other churches, however, continue to wait for repairs to be completed.

Eastside, a “500-year floodplain,” was caught in the storm surge from the Blackwater River during Hurricane Ivan. The interior of the concrete block building and its contents were destroyed and the roof damaged.

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“We’re still in the process of recovery,” said Jim Liberacki, Eastside’ pastor.

The church did not have flood insurance but was covered for wind damage. Expecting a small insurance settlement, church members personally gutted the building and prepared the site for roofers and builders. Liberacki said the church chose to make only “limited repairs,” while they await a future new sanctuary.

With the advice of LifeWay Christian Resources church building and architecture consultant Gary Nicholson, the church now plans to build a new sanctuary with a foundation at least four feet higher than the present facility which is 9-10 feet above sea level. It may also need to be bigger, since the Easter congregation of 45 filled almost every chair. When they gathered on Easter, members told of damage many of their homes received from golf-ball-size hail the day before.

“With all the help we have received since, our church is greatly encouraged,” Liberacki said. “We have seen God’s hand at work in ways that only He would receive glory.”

First Baptist Church in Lake Worth met for the first time in seven months in its almost-completed sanctuary Palm Sunday but celebrated in the completed facility on Easter. Its three-story sanctuary and education buildings now have new floors, walls and ceilings. The 800-seat sanctuary boasts newly refinished mahogany pews and cushions, 25 new windows, new sound and security systems and a newly tiled foyer.

The repairs came after Hurricane Frances hit the buildings from the east and the counter-clockwise winds of Hurricane Jeanne slammed them from the west. Water damage resulted from the steeple “rocking back and forth” and tearing holes in the roof, pastor DeWitt Mathews said, and repairs were estimated to cost more than $1 million. Several years ago, church leaders chose to pay high insurance premiums to avoid a $200,000 deductible. The move made for a low deductible and an insurance-financed recovery.

During the repair and remodeling process, the church met in two Sunday services in the fellowship hall. Mathews told the Florida Baptist Witness the cramped facility made worship challenging because of difficulties in hearing and seeing the worship leaders. However, the church grew in spite of the meeting conditions, and 15 decisions for Christ were recorded on Easter.

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“In crisis, you’ll know what kind of church family you really have. It’ll either draw you together or tear you apart,” Mathews said.

At First Baptist Church in Waverly, which was first damaged by Hurricane Charley and then by Frances and Jeanne, the church’s insurance carrier refused to label the building a total loss even though the floor, walls, ceiling and roof needed replacing, pastor David Durham said.

After negotiations and a $225,000 settlement, the church decided to tear down its education buildings and preserve its historic sanctuary. Church members plan to raze the buildings themselves, even though asbestos shingles will require extra diligence.

“The EPA says that if we keep the building materials wet and wear masks there shouldn’t be any problems,” Durham said.

Three air handlers in the sanctuary will need to be replaced because of mold, and the church already has paid $29,000 in electrical repair.

“We’ve made plans and we’ve cleaned up,” Durham said. “Almost everyone is excited about doing something new.”

Meanwhile, at Pine Castle First Baptist Church in Orlando, which also was damaged by hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne, the insurance carrier is withholding final payment to the insurance-approved construction company pending complete and satisfactory repairs to the church’s two-story education building.

Tim Key, associate pastor education/administration, told the Witness repair began in October, and before the work was completed, workmen “disappeared” until January. Workmen are still on site.

“They say it’s problems with their personnel, but their problems trickle down to us,” Key said.

Although first repair estimates totaled only $3,000, a second look by an adjuster and construction supervisor amended the total to $101,000.

All the cost is covered by insurance, with only a small deductible.

“We are very fortunate,” Key said. “Everyone here has been surprisingly patient.”

At Central Korean Baptist Church in Melbourne, 14 members of First Baptist Church in Union City, Tenn., were working in early April to replace the hurricane-damaged roof. Pastor John Chung told the Witness the group also was an encouragement to his church.

“Without these folks from Tennessee, we could not fix our roof,” Chung said. “They are witnesses to what Christianity is all about.”

The “hands-on” mission group from Tennessee included carpenters, a brick mason, electrician, farmer, nurse, insurance adjuster and two National Guardsmen due to be deployed to Iraq in the fall. Dave Isbell, a licensed roofer in Tennessee, became licensed in Florida to participate in the mission project.

The group’s mission director, Charles Mitchell, contacted the Brevard Baptist Association office which put him in contact with Chung.

“I like to brag about our Southern Baptist friends from Tennessee,” Chung said. “They are doing labor with such joy and contentment that it encourages everyone around.”

Central Korean Baptist Church is one of several Brevard Baptist Association congregations also benefiting from Georgia Baptist Association’s generosity. The association, headquartered in Washington, Ga., recently donated more than $7,600 to the Brevard association for disaster relief.

Harold Brantly, director of missions for the Brevard association, told the Witness the funds have been distributed in $800 grants not only to churches that needed repairs, but also to those who are serving others in disaster relief.

At First Baptist Church in Cocoa Beach, an “Extreme Faith — Renovate Our Church” effort is underway, May 2-14. Members and other volunteers plan to work 24/7 to repair and renovate 30,000 square feet in three buildings.

The church was heavily damaged by Hurricane Frances. Its steeple was upended and impaled the roof and balcony of the building, leaving a nine-foot hole. A widely-circulated photo of the damaged building garnered worldwide attention.

During “Extreme Faith — Renovate Our Church,” housing and meals for the volunteers is being provided by the church and a feeding unit with Florida Baptist Convention Disaster Relief.

“It will be great fellowship as the Body of Christ helps one another,” Pastor Ken Babington said in a news release.
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Carolyn Nichols is a writer with the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptnesswitness.com.