JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–When the eye of Hurricane Charley bore down on the home of Pastor Ken Galloway last August, the storm knocked down his brick fence and smashed the chimney onto the roof, tearing holes through the shingles, ceiling and sheetrock. Then the winds of Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne slashed across the home from the east coast, causing further damage.
In the aftermath of the storms, undaunted by the destruction of his own home, Galloway, pastor of New Life Baptist Church in Arcadia, Fla., and his wife focused on the needs of the people in his community, cutting down trees, handing out water and food.
When it came time to repair his own uninsured home, Florida Baptists’ disaster relief program stepped in with materials and volunteer labor. More than 82 volunteers representing six groups from Florida and Virginia gave 792 hours to rebuild his home.
“I have such great appreciation for the Florida Baptist Convention.” Galloway said. “They allowed God to use them to develop a strategy to help people like me. God used His people in a tragedy to bring triumph and glory.”
But the road to recovery has been a long journey. Some of the church members are still displaced. Others have left the community. “I suspect it may be years before we get back to normal,” Galloway said. “People are still dealing with trauma, shock and the aftereffect of Charley, and it’s especially prevalent among our senior adults.”
“People are still somewhat in a daze,” said Harvey Webb, director of missions for the tri-county Treasure Coast Baptist Association. The three east coast counties — Fort Pierce, St. Lucie and Martin — received direct hits from two hurricanes in three weeks’ time.
“It’s very subtle, but they are still shell-shocked,” Webb added. “Now that we are just getting our lives back together, we are heading into another hurricane season, starting in June. We’re bracing for new storms.”
Webb reported that the pastors and congregations are frustrated. While many have had their churches repaired, some are still displaced and many are “juggling” classrooms and activities. “We feel like life is on hold.”
After their experiences with the two hurricanes, the association is developing its own proactive hurricane response plan designed to “get out into the community in the first hours of ministry. That is when we are really coping with difficult situations,” Webb said.
As he has traveled in the storm-affected areas, John Sullivan, executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention, tells of finding several common factors among pastors, church staffs and associational leaders: a spirit of optimism, help and spiritual concern.
“Our Florida Baptist folks are the most resilient in the world,” Sullivan said. ”They are strong in the Lord, which is an outgrowth in their great relationship to our living Lord.
“Neighbor helping neighbor is more than a slogan with our pastors and congregations. People may be hurting physically and emotionally but they have found a spiritual dynamic in all this,” he noted.
Pastors, directors of missions and their staffs have “exhausted themselves in meeting needs” in the months of recovery, Sullivan said. “They have stayed by the stuff through it all.”
Cecil Seagle, director of the Florida convention’s missions division, has overseen the immediate relief effort and helped develop a long-term recovery effort for the storm victims. “Our pastors and director of missions seem to be doing as well as can be expected under the devastating circumstances.”
Seagle noted that a common element runs through most conversations: “We can never seem to get beyond the noticeable impact of the storms,” he said. “While cleanup has gone well, there is ample and consistent evidence of storm disruption all around. One pastor indicated that the worst of it is the constant reminder that all is not well yet.”
Many of the pastors are “tired, stretched, but not broken by the pressing needs all around them,” Seagle noted. “Directors of missions continue to advocate for those suffering and continue to meet needs of those who are suffering and cannot find solutions to overwhelming needs.”
Bobby Musselwhite, director of missions for the Santa Rosa Baptist Association, reported that most churches are making “good progress” nearly six moths after Hurricane Ivan struck Florida’s Panhandle. Only two of the 35 congregations in the association have not been able to return to their sanctuaries: East Side Baptist Church, which was flooded with four feet of water and had no flood insurance, and Jones Street Baptist Church in Milton.
He noted that some churches have not yet replaced steeples damaged by the hurricanes, but have repaired roofs where the steeples were mounted.
Blue tarps, indicative that only temporary repairs have been made on homes, still dot the skyline, especially in the southern part of the county along the state’s northwest coast. But a major point of concern is that the middle-income families who do not qualify for government assistance and those without adequate insurance.
The association is working with the Florida Baptist Convention in its long-term recovery effort. One of the challenges faced is housing volunteers. While youth groups have indicated a desire to come help, Musselwhite said skilled and semi-skilled workers are needed more.
Meanwhile back on the Space Coast, Harold Brantley, director of missions for the Brevard Baptist Association, reported that several churches in the association — Westside in Titusville, First Baptist Merritt Island and Eau Gallie — have continued to help needy families on a regular basis. Also, North Carolina Baptist disaster relief volunteers stayed in the area for months after the two storms helping to meet temporary recovery needs.
“It’s going to be a long time just getting back to normal,” Brantley said. “Our pastors and churches have had to improvise, but our people are resilient.”
As the Florida Baptist Convention moves toward providing increased long-term recovery, Seagle asked Baptists to “search their hearts” for ways they can continue to meet the needs of victims. “The adage, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is especially accurate in disaster relief work. Florida has moved on, but the victims have not,” he said.
Then Seagle promised, “The Florida Baptist Convention will continue to meet victims’ needs until volunteers and funding is exhausted.”
Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.