JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)—Among the first responders to Hurricane Wilma: 36 Florida Baptist Convention staff members who were dispatched to assess damage and meet needs in South Florida.
They have visited churches, contacted pastors and surveyed migrant communities. They have served as volunteer coordinators, spiritual counselors and radio communicators. They answered phones, set up commodity distributions, assessed damage, located housing for volunteers and dispensed emergency funds.
Within the first week, more than 50 churches had been surveyed, with assessments continuing throughout the hurricane zone.
John Sullivan, the convention’s executive director-treasurer, said he was most affected by the desperate needs of migrant workers. “The crops have been destroyed, so they have no income,” he said. “They have no place to live because their homes have been destroyed. They have no papers, so they can’t get help from the federal government. It is going to be a long haul for these migrants.”
Ministries to the migrants are being established under the direction of Brenda Forlines of the convention’s church and community ministries, who will be setting up commodity distribution to assist the families amid the crisis.
The resiliency of the region’s pastors also was noted by Sullivan as he drove across the region.
“Our pastors are very optimistic,” he reported; many of them have patched and repaired what damage they could and have cleaned up their church facilities for worship services.
Saying the “worst I have seen is in Belle Glade,” Sullivan commended pastor Gary Folds for his response to community needs. “There is a lot of devastation all around the church, but Gary is on top of everything.”
Two Florida Baptist operations centers have been established at First Baptist Church of Naples and at Pembroke Road Baptist Church in Miramar. From these locations, recovery, cleanup and chainsaw volunteers will be directed toward the hardest-hit areas.
Leading the convention’s coordinated response in the two locations are Cecil Seagle of the Florida convention’s missions division and Fritz Wilson of Florida Baptist Men, while a team of six ministry assistants provides clerical support. Convention staff members Lewis Miller of the Sunday School department and Maxie Miller of the African American church planting department coordinate volunteers and volunteer housing.
Wilson said volunteer teams with ladders, hammers and hand tools are needed along the east coast of South Florida to help put blue plastic on homes. Meanwhile, he noted, “The need for tree cutting is very low.”
A number of the Florida staff members had only just returned disaster relief efforts along the Gulf Coast when they were dispatched to South Florida, These include Wilson; Rick Lawrence of the church planting department who helped coordinate volunteers in Mississippi and Louisiana and Hugh Cater of new work assistance who coordinated short wave communications.
At least six staff members serve as on-site liaisons between churches that are hosting feeding sites and mobile kitchens from across the SBC, responding to needs of both.
Among the staff members assessing the damage and needs of churches are three from the convention’s language division, Raul Vazquez, Frank Moreno and Josephe Gaston, who are visiting language churches. Larry Elliott of the church planting and revitalization department is coordinating chaplaincy needs.
Among staff members who helped provide coordination between the agencies responding to Wilma’s aftermath, Eddie Blackmon, Florida Baptist Men, was stationed at the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Ga., to help coordinate feeding units; Roy Saint was stationed at Florida’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee; and Leon White, retired missions director for the West Virginia Baptist Convention and a former Florida Baptist Convention employee, has been stationed in the Orlando American Red Cross operations center.
Cindy Goodwin of the women’s mission and ministries department, and staff were in South Florida to make plans to provide childcare at First Baptist Church at Pompano Beach. But when power at the church returned, the need lessened.
“Our staff is absolutely the best,” said Sullivan, “I couldn’t have asked for better response.”
Volunteers interested in helping with the recovery are asked to call the convention’s command centers at (904) 588-2102, 588-2103, 588-2104, 588-2106 or 588-2107.
Financial contributions to help Florida churches rebuild and assist in the recovery process are accepted by checks designated for “Hurricane Wilma relief” payable to the Florida Baptist Convention, Business Services, P.O. Box 5579, Jacksonville, FL., 32247. Credit card donations can be made by calling 1-800-226-8584, ext. 3049.
Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.