Thanking Southern Baptists along with other faith-based groups such as the Salvation Army, President George W. Bush visited hurricane-stricken Florida for the fifth time in six weeks September 29-30, eyeing damage to a citrus farm in Lake Wales hit by three of four hurricanes since August 13, before visiting with a Southern Baptist disaster relief worker in Stuart.
"Despite week after week of strain, faith-based groups, like Southern Baptists and the Salvation Army, are setting up kitchens to feed the hungry," Bush acknowledged in Lake Wales September 29, while also bringing attention to the Red Cross and the National Guard for operating shelters, distributing supplies, and keeping the streets safe.
Bush also mentioned the Southern Baptist Convention's relief efforts during a September 30 appearance at the Martin County Red Cross headquarters in Stuart, battered by both hurricanes Frances and Jeanne.
According to Florida Baptist Convention Disaster Relief leader Fritz Wilson, before his remarks Bush met privately with Leon Hurley, pastor of Lena Vista Baptist Church in Auburndale and leader of Florida Baptists' Lake Yale feeding unit.
Bush noted volunteers "like these behind me" — which included Hurley and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers from Missouri and New Mexico — "have worked long hours to help those affected by the storms," according to a transcript released by The White House.
The president added, "The Salvation Army, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Convoy of Hope from Springfield, Missouri, and other faith-based groups have set up kitchens and helped feed the hungry."
The volunteers from Missouri had been asked to bring their truck to the Red Cross site and to mingle with about forty other guests to await the president's arrival with his brother, Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush, according to Ron Hahs, from Daisy, Missouri — the "blue hat" who stood near Hurley when the president faced the press outside of the Red Cross building.
Hahs and another Missouri volunteer, Patricia Krueger, said they were joined by Ronnie Seabaugh, also from Daisy.
"The president grabbed her and he hugged her," Hahs said of Krueger. "Everyone recognizes the yellow hats."
The Missouri Baptists had just finished setting up their feeding operation at First Baptist Church, Stuart, when asked to meet the president, Hahs told Florida Baptist Witness in Stuart September 30.
"It was a delight and an honor, but he's just like the rest of us — just higher up — but he made a real good impression," Hahs said.
Krueger said she was impressed when the president told the workers he was there to engender financial support for their ongoing efforts.
"He was very gracious," Krueger said.
Hahs said Bush was "not in a hurry" when visiting with the workers, and that he freely expressed his faith.
"He seemed like a very sincere person," Hahs said. "I think he would have been here if it was election year or not.
In the wake of Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne, more than 8,000 Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers have helped prepare more than 2.1 million meals and completed more than 6,300 cleanup and recovery projects, according to the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board. On September 27 about 600 volunteers from ten states were already in various stages of deployment to Florida's east coast in the wake of Hurricane Jeanne, and mobile kitchen units were en route from Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Closer to the area, Florida Baptist Disaster Relief feeding and recovery units and local church volunteers were already in place and serving meals almost immediately following Jeanne.
"Across the state, people are showing great compassion and helping their neighbors make it through these storms," Bush said at the Lake Wales event. "And I thank them for their care and their decency."
Surveying a 400-acre Central Florida farm owned by Marty and Pat McKenna, Bush strode through an area where an unusual layering of oranges was scattered beneath the trees —t he bottom layer was blackened and decaying, left after Hurricane Charley; the middle layer, yellow, partially ripened fruit, left by Frances; and the top layer, green fruit, shed after Jeanne roared through the area September 26, according to a pool reporter.
"Our nation is praying for the victims of these storms," Bush said when he finished his tour, on the eve of the first-ever presidential debate in Miami. "We pray for all who come to their aid."
Noting loss of life, severe flooding, power outages, and damaged farms, homes, and roads, Bush said: "These have been trying weeks for Americans across the Southeast, especially in this state."
He also lauded the people of Florida for meeting the "historic challenges with extraordinary strength and generosity," noting that it is the first time since the 1880s that four hurricanes have hit the same state in a single season.
Bush told reporters he has asked Congress to provide $12.2 billion to respond to Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne — and asked local officials to make sure the resources reach "the people who need it."
He also pledged support to make sure that citrus remains a strong part of Florida's economy.
With additional reporting by James A. Smith Sr.