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Texas leaders discover widespread damage from Rita

JASPER, Texas (BP)–Fifty miles north of Beaumont, Texas, members of First Baptist Church of Kirbyville were busy passing out water and ice to fellow townspeople who were all in the same predicament: No electricity and no water.

“We’re living ‘old school,’” said Robert Fuller, a member of FBC. The church building did not suffer serious damage, he said, but winds knocked out power and damaged homes around the town.

“I’ve got a big pine that should have hit our house,” he added.

Fuller said he was using his generator, although he said he was expecting to be without power for possibly a month.

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The towns of Jasper, Kirbyville, and Silsbee, in deep Southeast Texas, were hard hit by Hurricane Rita’s winds Sept. 24. Early attempts to reach churches in the area were mostly unsuccessful since phone lines were down and some roads were blocked.

Wind damage was reported as far away as Tyler, Texas, nearly 220 miles north of the Gulf Coast and on the western edge of the storm.

Winds from Rita tore a large portion of a stucco façade from the four-year-old worship center at Friendly Baptist Church in Tyler, which had to cancel Sunday services because church officials were concerned about the building’s safety, said Pastor Dale Perry.

“It tore the west gables off completely and exposed all of the roof and air conditioning duct work and steelwork,” Perry said. “We were really fortunate that we did not have water damage. When Rita passed by, it was strongest from north to south. On the west side of the building it just peeled off like a banana.”

Friendly Baptist previously had voted to postpone a planned building note campaign to allow a focus on providing assistance to Katrina victims.

Edwin Crank, president of Jacksonville College, a two-year school affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said approximately 120 on-campus students waited out the storm without power for much of the Saturday when Rita hit, but the campus was spared serious damage. Jacksonville is about 30 miles south of Tyler in East Texas.

“We just had a couple of broken windows,” Crank said. “Our electricity went off and we were without power for 14 hours. The campus is full of broken limbs and twigs but other than that, everything is just fine.

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“We were just thankful for the Lord’s hand on us through the process,” he added.

An SBTC staff contingent covered much of East Texas Sept. 26-27, visiting several dozen churches in Rita’s path, said Deron Biles, SBTC minister-church relations director.

“Groves was hit hard, along with Woodville, Bridge City and Silsbee,” Biles said, estimating that nine in 10 buildings were damaged in those small towns.

In Mauriceville, a few miles north of Port Arthur, Friendship Baptist Church sustained serious damage to one of its buildings, Biles said.

“In many places, there is no power, no water, no ice. There are a few businesses open, but very few,” Biles said.

Due to an expected electricity outage for up to 10 weeks, townspeople were being bused to San Antonio.

The towns SBTC staff members visited were not seriously flooded, but there was a lot of standing water in rural areas.

“There are certain areas that are totally devastated and it will take weeks, months and perhaps even years in some cases to recover,” said SBTC Executive Jim Richards, who accompanied Biles. “Other places seemed to be spared serious damage.

“We were able to meet with several pastors along the way and all of them were extremely appreciative about what the SBTC Disaster Relief teams are doing. They were sustained by their faith and trust in the Lord and were encouraged otherwise by fellow SBTC churches and pastors who were praying for them and supporting them.”
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This story first appeared in the Southern Baptist Texan newspaper.