LAKE WORTH, Fla. (BP)–Dozens of motorists drove hopefully into the parking lot at Palm Springs Baptist Church in Lake City, Fla., Sept. 9 for what could be their last hot evening meal for a while.
With the threat of Hurricane Ivan looming, residents of this south Florida community said they are thankful for the hot food but sad that the workers were packing up to leave after breakfast Sept. 10.
Florida Baptist and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief officials announced Sept. 9 that 100 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief units are preparing to evacuate the state — again. And, more than 25 Southern Baptist units en route to the beleaguered state have been either re-routed or stopped temporarily or have returned home. The final 15 units will evacuate after serving lunch Saturday, Sept 11, according to Joel Phillips, deputy manager of North American Mission Board’s disaster operation center.
Although most of the volunteers are returning home, some will wait out the passing of Hurricane Ivan at two staging areas, one in Georgia and one in Louisiana. The Atlanta Motor Speedway south of Atlanta has agreed to store mobile kitchens, trailers and other equipment while the volunteers themselves return home. A number of volunteers will stay at the nearby Flint River Baptist Association camp facilities in order to return to Florida more quickly after Ivan passes through Florida and south Georgia. Disaster units from Texas and Louisiana will be staged at the Living Water Baptist Assembly near Covington, La.
Floridians need to understand that the decision to pull volunteers “out of harm’s way” is only a temporary setback to relief efforts, Florida Baptist Convention missions division director Cecil Seagle emphasized Sept. 9 to convention staffers and out-of-state volunteers at the Kissimmee Disaster Relief Command Center.
“We really do want the people who are stricken and hurting to understand that we will not as Florida Baptists, as Southern Baptists, abandon them. It is simply that we’re standing down and finding a way to regroup so that when we see the whole picture we can get after what we need to,” Seagle said.
“We can’t dare leave these units and their workers in harm’s way, and the uncertainty of a category 5 means you put your assets in a safe place,” Seagle told the Florida Baptist Witness.
Hurricane Ivan, the most powerful hurricane to hit the Caribbean in 10 years, is projected to reach the Gulf Coast, and possibly Florida, Monday or Tuesday.
Hurricane Charley struck southwest Florida Aug. 13 and Frances hit Florida’s eastern coast Sept. 5. If Ivan follows suit, it would be the first time in 40 years that three hurricanes have hit Florida in one year.
Since mid-August, more than 4,000 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers have given 200,000 hours of service preparing more than one million hot meals and completing 4,000 tree removal and cleanup projects. Coming from 25 state Baptist conventions, units evacuated Florida in early September and waited for Frances to move through. They have been re-deploying the last two days but now face evacuation again.
At Palm Springs Baptist, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief unit from Providence Baptist Church in Macedonia, S.C., arrived Sept. 7 and began serving meals Sept. 8. Hampered by a lack of available Red Cross vehicles, leaders decided to utilize a food line and make announcements for people to come and pick up the hot meals.
After 5 p.m., well past the posted time for closing down the line, cars were still pulling into the parking lot to unload eager-looking individuals.
“We hate to leave,” Tommy Edens, the site’s disaster relief coordinator, sighed. “We just got [area residents] to start coming.”
Richard Denton, who left the line carrying four meals, waited patiently for his visually impaired wife to catch up to him.
“Thank God for you guys with the hot meals,” he said, getting into a battered truck. “I really needed a hot meal tonight.”
A dozen cars away, a woman named Karla sat on the rear fender of her mini-van, savoring the hot beef stew and sipping coffee. Tears were running down her face.
“It’s just been so hard,” she gasped. “No electricity and it’s just been more than I can handle all at once. I don’t know if I can go on. I just found this. This is just great,” she said.
Lemyra Poole, a volunteer from Providence Baptist Church, calmed the woman and made sure there was someone with whom she could speak.
“I feel better,” Karla said, a smile finally breaking through the desperation and gloom. “What time is breakfast in the morning?”
Plans Sept. 9 were for the volunteers to serve one more meal, breakfast, beginning at 7:30 a.m. before heading out.
Among the group of Southern Baptist volunteers were two chainsaw groups who had been clearing trees and debris clogging the community — and a tractor used to help in the cleanup.
At Westside Baptist Church in Boynton Beach, pastor Dennis Demarois was hurriedly taking down the plastic letters spelling “Free food and help Sept. 9-11” he put up earlier in the day.
Demarois said the American Red Cross kitchen, “The Spirit of America,” had been in the church yard for less than a day with a staff of Southern Baptist Relief workers from New Mexico. Before they were on the east coast of Florida, they were set up at Port Charlotte.
Now, fearful that Hurricane Ivan would put the workers at risk, leaders had ordered the crew home.
“I hate to go,” Leo Pennington told the Witness. “We came to help, but of course, certainly we don’t have any control over the weather.”
Pennington, pastor of Midway Baptist Church just south of Roswell, N.M., said, “Ivan is coming through so we had to get out of its way.
“But there will be another day that we will serve the Lord because that’s what we do,” he added.
Wilda Morris, 69, a member of First Baptist Church in Carlsbad, N.M., on her first disaster relief trip, said she was unhappy that her team didn’t get a chance to cook. Not even one meal.
“I’m thinking it’s a little disappointing, but it’s very nice that they think we ought to be safe first,” she said of the disaster relief leaders. “It’s a ministry of God anyway because we do it for a love of other people who have less than we do.”
Pennington said the team will fly back to New Mexico in the next several days.
“We’ve been waiting on a lot of storms, but this is just too much,” Pennington said. “Frances ran it out of Port Charlotte and now Ivan is running us out of here.”
At Palm Springs Baptist, Poole said she was grateful for the chance she had to serve — even for a short while. She hopes to return after Ivan.
Describing the ride down Interstate 95 in a van to set up shop in Lake City, Poole said she cried when individuals in cars passing by the disaster relief convoys held up handwritten signs and blew kisses to the volunteers.
“‘Thank you Baptists’ and ‘thank you Southern Baptists,’” the signs read, Poole recounted. “I just cried and cried.”
In Kissimmee, Seagle told the command post crew that once operations resume, “we will get up every day, do all we can, as long as we can, for as many as we can and then go to bed, get up the next day and repeat it all over again.”
Seagle admitted that dealing with three major hurricanes in the span of five weeks is unprecedented for all Southern Baptist Disaster Relief officials.
“The next couple of days we’re going to have to rethink and re-tool,” he said, adding that Mickey Caison, the North American Mission Board’s disaster operations manager, is planning to come to Florida Sunday to strategize with Florida Baptist Convention officials concerning future disaster relief plans.
Seagle expressed concern for both “compassion fatigue” and physical fatigue for both volunteers who have sacrificed much to assist Floridians, as well for Florida convention staffers who have been deployed across the state for weeks responding to Hurricane Charley and Frances, with the prospect of Ivan on the way.
“Our staff is paying a price and the volunteers that are paying a price are incredible,” Seagle told the Witness. “Right now … every state convention is stretched to have qualified people here who have not been worn out by the heat, humidity and the storms – then you add the grief and the inability to fix all the brokenness that people are experiencing….”
A feeding and relief/recovery team of 22 Iowa Baptists arrived just one day before the news broke about the need to evacuate.
John Schaull, director of missions for the Metro Baptist Association in Clive, Iowa, said the 28-hour, 1,500-mile trip was not a waste, however.
“I spoke to our group last night and I told them that God didn’t tell us that we would come down here to be here a certain time or to do certain things. He simply told us to go and it’s our responsibility to obey, and we’ve done that,” Schaull told the Witness.
Although the Iowa team is on its first disaster relief deployment, Schaull said he believes the volunteers have been encouraged by their brief experience.
“I think initially they were disappointed when they felt that they weren’t going to be here as long as they desired, but as they’ve begun to work and to minister and God has brought people into their lives, even people they weren’t expecting to be able to reach out to, they are more encouraged and I think most of them will as a result become engaged long-term in disaster relief efforts,” he said.
Members of First Baptist Church of Winterset, Iowa, told the Witness their first-ever disaster relief deployment has been rewarding, noting that they received thumbs-up signs, thank you’s and even gifts of food from Floridians who recognized why they were coming to the Sunshine State even as some of them were being evacuated because of Hurricane Frances.
Roxanne Johnston said she would “definitely do it again,” adding that she had responded to “a call from God” to participate in the disaster relief efforts.
Peggy Keul said that providing help to Floridians in need was a way for Iowans to repay those who came to their aid during massive flooding in their state in 1993.
Johnston added, “Maybe this is the whole reason why we are here – to learn obedience. To say, ‘I will go, wherever it is, I will go.’”
Schaull has seen the group grow spiritually in their brief time together.
“I’ve seen a great deal of unity and just joy as they’ve had an opportunity to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in ministering to people.”
A two-minute video about Southern Baptist Disaster Relief efforts, available for viewing and download at www.NAMB.net, is appropriate for SBC churches to show during Sunday worship services to familiarize members with the ministry and to encourage prayer support for the victims and relief efforts. Gifts to help cover the escalating expenses of Southern Baptist efforts may be sent to state conventions, associations and churches involved in the response. Donations may be made online to the Florida Baptist Convention at www.flbaptist.org and to NAMB at www.NAMB.net.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness; James A. Smith Sr. is the executive editor. The Witness is online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com. Martin King of the North American Mission Board contributed to this article.