As David Dismukes turned off the main road, all he could see was enormous mud puddles.
“I still had four or five miles to go,” said Dismukes, who’s currently serving as the white hat in charge of Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief efforts in Arcadia, Florida. “I looked at the chaplain with me and said, ‘God sent us here; He’ll take us there.’”
The woman at the end of that road had called for help — Hurricane Ian had hit her area hard when it made landfall Sept. 28, and now she was living in a boxcar on a concrete slab with no more food, water or fuel for her generator.
“She’s there literally surviving, but she said, ‘I don’t have it as bad as my neighbor,’” Dismukes said. “The neighbor had built a treehouse and was living in it.”
That kind of need is a story volunteers have seen repeated over and over, he said. “Anything we can do to help them, we’re trying to do.”
Since getting set up in Arcadia, Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief teams have taken nearly 900 job requests from people in the area — requests for tarping, chainsaw work, cleanup and now also mudout as the waters begin to recede.
“The numbers are astronomical,” Dismukes said. “I’m watching people walk in still applying for help. It’s just enormous devastation down here. We’ve deployed just about every piece of equipment the state has, and we’re bringing in others.”
Mark Wakefield, disaster relief strategist for Alabama Baptists, said it’s the largest single-site deployment since he took on this role in 2013. “We probably had as many volunteers working Hurricane Sally (in 2020), but at four different sites,” he said.
Wakefield said it could take up to three months for rotating teams of volunteers to finish the work in Arcadia. Around 150 volunteers — mostly Alabama Baptists with some volunteers from South Carolina — were serving there at press time.
A team from Southeast Alabama Baptist Association that came in the early days of the effort served a critical role in getting things up and going, said David Hendon, who served as white hat until Dismukes took over Oct. 11.
“They were a huge help, and I think they are hoping to make a strike team that can respond quickly like that in the future too,” Hendon said.
Since then, other teams have rotated in and out, staying at two local Baptist churches in Arcadia — First Baptist and Calvary Baptist — as well as in a 40-by-40-foot tent provided by the Florida Baptist Convention.
Teams at work
Many of the volunteers worked out of the mass feeding unit, which was at Calvary Baptist and provided the Red Cross with between 7,000 and 8,000 hot meals to distribute in the community each day. That unit wrapped up its work Oct. 14.
But other teams are hard at work, including assessors, chaplains and chainsaw and recovery teams. The shower units are still up and running, and mudout teams are starting to deploy.
Dismukes said as he’s gone out to do assessments, he’s begun to smell the odor that comes with waterlogged houses.
“It really breaks your heart to see this,” he said. “We know there is a lot to be done here still.”
But God continues to provide, he said. One morning, he was out looking for plywood, furring strips and carpet when someone called and said he was on the way with a truckload of all those things — in the exact amount Dismukes had prayed for that morning.
“God has worked through so many things and through everyone here to provide what we need,” he said.
Volunteers have also had many opportunities to come alongside homeowners as they continue to navigate life in the wake of the storm. One assessment team went to look at a job request and learned that in addition to the trauma of the hurricane, the homeowner had faced another trauma that week — while driving home from his night shift at work, he had hit and killed a cyclist riding on a dark road.
Understandably, the man is “really struggling,” Wakefield said, noting that after the assessment team spent several hours with him, chaplains also went back to visit with him.
“Our folks have spent time to help him and his family,” he said.
Wakefield asked for Alabama Baptists to pray for the homeowners who have to persevere in the midst of the devastation. Seven people in the Arcadia area have made professions of faith after conversations with disaster relief volunteers, and he prays it will be more.
He also asked for prayer for volunteers to continue to respond.
“Since it’s a longer-term operation, there’s an opportunity for even more teams to go,” he said. “They sometimes get tired and weary. Pray they will stay engaged.”
To support Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief or to learn more about training to be a volunteer, visit sbdr.org.