NEW BERN, N.C. (BP) — When Steve Wynn serves at a disaster relief food line, he is deeply moved by the hurting people he meets. What he finds truly overwhelming, however, is being out in the community, surveying damage to homes. That’s when Wynn, a veteran volunteer, gets to sit down and talk at length with survivors of natural disasters.
“People ask what I say to them. I really don’t. I just listen,” Wynn said. “I let them tell their story.”
Wynn already had plenty of opportunities to listen in three days of helping coordinate Hurricane Irene relief efforts in New Bern, N.C. One woman was so upset when she came to New Bern’s First Baptist Church — where North Carolina Baptist Men have set up a feeding/recovery operation — that she couldn’t even talk about what she needed. When volunteers followed up with her a few hours later, they learned her home had been condemned due to extensive water damage.
Wynn, a member of First Baptist Church in New Bern, has been a disaster relief volunteer for 15 years, with most of his experience in mass feeding. More recently he has cross-trained in recovery and is coordinating those efforts in New Bern. Volunteers are focusing their immediate efforts on trying to save homes from further damage, removing trees that have fallen on top of homes so rooftops can be covered before a thunderstorm rolls in.
Kim McIntyre was part of a recovery team from River of Leland Church in Wilmington, N.C., that arrived in New Bern Aug. 28. She spent a lot of her time talking with the homeowners and just listening to their stories.
At every site, recovery teams try to be intentional in their efforts to share the Gospel. They also give homeowners a Bible and offer to pray with them. The second home the team visited that Sunday was a husband and wife in their 80s. The husband prayed to receive Jesus.
In home after home, the team met people in unique and difficult circumstances. At one, a man who is a cancer patient couldn’t go out into his yard. At another, they met a woman who recently had broken her back. “They were hurting and needed help,” McIntyre said.
Homeowners were surprised the volunteers were willing to help with more than just small tasks, McIntyre said. “They were expecting us to do little things,” she said. But the Wilmington team cut down trees and cleaned entire yards — whatever needed to be done.
Volunteer teams had completed about 20 job requests in the New Bern area since the afternoon of Aug. 28. Bill Martin, coordinator for the recovery unit in Greenville, N.C., said 217 job requests have been received from residents in Greenville and nearby communities.
As of Aug. 30, more than 210,000 homes and businesses through eastern North Carolina remained without power. Gov. Bev Perdue announced Aug. 31 that seven North Carolina counties have been approved for federal disaster assistance as a result of damage from Hurricane Irene.
Steve Fitzgerald, pastor of First Baptist in New Bern, was waiting for power to be turned back on in his home. The homes of several church members who live near rivers were badly damaged. Some have not been able to leave their property because roads still are blocked by fallen trees.
Fitzgerald, an active disaster relief volunteer, first learned of such ministry 10 years ago while living in Charleston, S.C., where he worked as a stockbroker. When Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston, volunteers from Tennessee served meals from the parking lot of the church where Fitzgerald attended.
Around the same time, Fitzgerald suffered a business failure. “I lost everything,” he said. “I had to ask for help.” Fitzgerald said God used that crisis to point his life in a different direction, and about two years later he answered God’s call to full-time vocational ministry. That experience helps him better understand survivors of Hurricane Irene in New Bern now in need of help.
Leaders of North Carolina Baptist Men continue to assess disaster relief needs throughout eastern North Carolina. More “hubs” are being set up as volunteer bases. Besides New Bern, sites in Greenville, Williamston and Manteo were ready Aug. 29. Recovery units now are working out of Kinston and Atlantic, a shower/laundry unit out of Rodanthe/Salvo and a temporary emergency childcare unit in Pamlico County.
Baptist volunteers from Florida are helping with both recovery and feeding efforts in Washington, and Mississippi volunteers are doing the same in Ahoskie.
Work at a feeding site begins early. By 4:30 a.m. Aug. 29, volunteers in New Bern are setting up and by 9 a.m. 800 lunches had been sent out to nearby communities.
By 10:15 a.m., a group already is gathering at the church waiting to eat lunch. For some, such as Wendy Sawyer and Bridget James, this would be their first hot meal in three days. James said water flooded her first-floor apartment and a mold/mildew smell has taken over the home. Both women have several children to care for while they try to put their homes, and their lives, back in order.
Before the day is out, 5,100 meals will have been prepared. The next day, more than 11,000 meals would be served. N.C. Baptist Men have prepared more than 60,000 meals since the storm. As feeding units in Washington and Ahoskie get underway, they expect to be feeding more than 30,000 people a day.
Thousands of North Carolinians are trying to get their lives back to some sense of normalcy. Areas of the Outer Banks are still closed to visitors and some remain closed even to residents. One shelter in the hurricane zone still holds more than 800 people.
Melissa Lilley is research and communications coordinator for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. To help with the disaster relief efforts in North Carolina, visit www.baptistsonmission.org.