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SBC relief effort given high marks by Punta Gorda residents

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (BP)–Ed Palmer and Wampus Wagoner know what a blessing it can be to receive a hot meal and a cold bottle of water when your home has been blasted by a hurricane and the town you’ve grown up in is almost unrecognizable.

Palmer and Wagoner, who grew up across the street from First Baptist Church in Punta Gorda, Fla., said they were wiped out when Hurricane Charley left the typically picturesque city on the edge of Charlotte Bay devastated Aug. 13.

In the hours following Charley, Palmer said he simply forgot about eating.

“I don’t know what … we would have done without the church,” he told the Florida Baptist Witness. “We were in seriously bad shape.”

Right after Charley hit, Palmer remembers hearing an announcement from the loudspeakers of the Red Cross vehicles traversing the neighborhood. “Hot meals, cold drinks at First Baptist,” Palmer recalled loudspeaker saying.

A month after the storm, in spite of having to pull out and re-stage after Hurricanes Frances and Ivan, the Red Cross continued to use the parking lot at First Baptist in Punta Gorda to meet and re-stock vehicles, according to an official there. And the church continued distributing food and clothing items and continued hosting Samaritan’s Purse and other volunteers who are helping in recovery and rebuilding efforts.

And Palmer and Wampus, collecting ice dumped when trucks had to head for the Florida Panhandle to assist in relief efforts there, will never forget the dozens of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers who had swarmed the facilities with their kitchen and feeding units and their clean-up and chainsaw crews.

“They’ve done a good job, an excellent job, a fantastic job,” said Palmer, who is an infrequent visitor to the church.

Wagoner, whose houseboat was destroyed in Hurricane Charley, said he has been pleasantly surprised by the level of cooperation he has seen between community and civic organizations, churches and government agencies.

“It’s phenomenal what they’ve done here, you know,” Wagoner said. “This is my hometown and I was born here. People have no room for complaining about anything.”

Vincent Koener, a Red Cross volunteer from nearby Port Charlotte, said Sept. 16 that volunteers there have continued to serve about 4,000 meals a day — down from the 20,000 a day the Southern Baptist relief workers were dishing out before they had to evacuate and re-group before Hurricane Ivan came ashore Sept. 15.

“I’d love to have them back, but we will not get them back,” Koener said. “We know those resources are up in the Panhandle and up through the Carolinas.”

Koener said the feeding units, chainsaw crews and clean-up crews have helped the community in a way that will not be forgotten.

“They’re very organized,” Koener offered. “When they come in and set up, you don’t have to worry about a thing. If you ask for it, it is there, it is there on time, which is outstanding.

“And the volunteers who do the other types of things, it’s the same way. If they commit to something, it’s done.”

Brian Odum, the minister of youth at First Baptist, said efforts there will continue as long as they are needed. The parsonage that Odum lived in was destroyed when Charley came through; he and his wife and three children are living in a trailer the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided. Odum’s parents, who lived with his family in the parsonage — his father is the music minister — are looking for a house to rent in the area.

“We’re still giving out food and just trying to see what needs to be done to help,” Odum said.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan