SBC Life Articles

Presidential and Gubernatorial Gratitude

President George W. Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, thanked volunteers from the Tennessee Baptist Convention Disaster Relief operation and members of First Baptist Church in Pompano Beach October 27 for preparing more than twelve thousand meals since an early morning arrival the previous day.

Hurricane Wilma, a strong, Category 3 storm, left Florida October 24 after cutting a swathe through Alligator Alley and walloping structures and trees along the highly populated East Coast corridor stretching from Vero Beach to Miami, leaving millions without power.

At Pompano Beach, the Bush brothers for nearly an hour shook hands with relief workers and encouraged those who waited in long lines at a walk-up feeding station to take hot meals home.

"I appreciate you. I am glad you are here," President Bush said to workers. "Thank you."

To dozens of reporters, President Bush said he was grateful to see people helping each other out.

"Right here on this site, people are getting fed," Bush said. "I'm impressed by the deep compassion and care of our fellow citizens."

Applauding workers for their efforts, the president remarked that a "good" which comes from a disaster is that "people work together."

Gov. Bush said he was thankful to see Southern Baptists at work again in Florida, alongside Florida Baptists.

"Florida Baptists are always here," he told the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal. "You were here last year and you are here now. Thank you."

Reassuring residents who stopped by to pick up food, Gov. Bush told them help was on the way and to call the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) toll-free number for specific claim information.

"At least six thousand workers are out there trying to get your power up," Gov. Bush said, actually calling FEMA's number at one point to request more generators for the area.

With about one thousand five hundred volunteers on the ground at the time in Hurricane Wilma-ravaged South Florida, Southern Baptist disaster relief almost overnight matched the level of relief deployed in Mississippi or Louisiana at the height of emergency relief efforts in those states after Hurricane Katrina.

"We now have sixteen kitchens in full operation, which is equivalent to what we had in Mississippi or Louisiana," said Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization for the North American Mission Board. "It's not a small operation."

Another seven thousand SBC volunteers continued to serve in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf State of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas.

Burton said Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams were experiencing logistical, supply-chain challenges in some locations when it came to food delivery and getting fuel to the feeding units.

"We're not seeing a fuel shortage," he said. "It's just that everyone's having the same problem — there's no electricity at the gas stations for pumping the gas."

Burton passed on the views of a local Southern Baptist pastor who pointed out that "this is our Katrina. That's how bad the damage in South Florida is."

"From a national level, people probably are looking at South Florida and thinking that it was only a Category 3 hurricane, so compared to Katrina or Rita, what's the big deal? Americans need to understand that to people in these local communities, in these homes, in these churches, Wilma was a Category 5," Burton said. "Their needs are just as real as those in Mississippi or Louisiana."

Jim Clark, leader of the Tennessee Baptist Convention disaster relief unit at First Baptist Church in Pompano Beach, was one of dozens of volunteers who shook the president's hand.

"Meeting the president of the United States is impressive," Clark said. "I'm very thankful he came down here today to see how we operate. I'm also thankful he realizes the value of faith-based operations."

Before the president's visit, Clark told the Witness he was appreciative of the unified approach to disaster relief Southern Baptists take.

"I wish we could have that in government," Clark said. Noting Catholic and Jewish congregations have given funds to assist Southern Baptists in their efforts, Clark said religious organizations could be an example to others.

"Regardless of whether you ride a donkey or an elephant, I think we could work together a little better," Clark said.

With more than a million customers still without power, dangerous four-way intersections and a seven p.m. curfew made it difficult even for relief workers to begin emergency feeding operations. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams from Florida, Tennessee and Texas were in place at other sites throughout Florida and awaiting food and supplies from the American Red Cross and FEMA. Those organizations, along with The Salvation Army, routinely work together during disasters — with Southern Baptists cooking and the American Red Cross delivering the food.

Fritz Wilson, director of the Florida Baptist Convention's disaster relief command center at First Baptist Church in Naples, said Wilma's effect on the state's west coast was devastating to many but that electrical power was rapidly returning to that side of the state.

Wilson and other leaders from the Florida Baptist Convention joined other staff at a command center at Pembroke Road Baptist Church in Miramar, a suburb of Miami, October 26 to deliver equipment and then return to Naples.

"The hard part of this is just the sheer volume of people who are so used to power," Wilson told the Witness. "Even twenty-four hours without power is hard."

Cecil Seagle, director of the Florida Baptist Convention's missions division and the disaster relief command center at Pembroke Road Baptist Church, said volunteers were moving in and getting set up despite the difficulties.

"The disaster relief recovery effort is going extremely well considering the enormity of Wilma's destructive power," Seagle said. "The magnitude of our Southern Baptist friends is magnified by this reality. They have just come off the most desperate and difficult two storms [Katrina and Rita] ever experienced in the United States.

"Florida Baptists will be forever grateful for the magnificent response of our friends," Seagle said. "Thank God I'm a Florida Baptist and a Southern Baptist."

    About the Author

  • Joni B. Hannigan