Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief (ABDR) efforts have shifted from Texas to Florida after Hurricane Irma devastated much of the Sunshine State.
Mark Wakefield, disaster relief strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM), announced Sept. 13 that ABDR has been assigned to minister in Fort Myers, Florida.
“An advance team is leaving today (Sept. 13) with others to follow in the days to come,” Wakefield said. “Volunteers will be serving in the areas of administration, assessment, incident management, feeding, chainsaw, skid steer, shower unit and chaplains. More specific information will be shared as it becomes available.”
ABDR teams will stage out of McGregor Baptist Church, Fort Myers, Florida, which was itself damaged by Irma’s heavy winds and rains.
With two regions hit by powerful hurricanes in two weeks’ time, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief has been stretched thin. But Alabama Baptists have responded. More than 250 new volunteers have been trained in September alone and many of those volunteers will be called up in the Irma response effort, Wakefield said. The new volunteers will provide relief for disaster relief teams, many of whom deployed to Houston but were called back to Alabama to prepare for deployment to Florida.
The generosity of Alabama Baptists has been evident in the response to the dual disasters. Churches large and small have contributed special offerings to disaster relief in the same week that many are giving to the Myers-Mallory State Missions Offering.
As Irma drew closer to the U.S. mainland and millions fled Florida, churches opened their doors and their wallets. First Baptist Church, Jasper, in Walker Baptist Association and Eastaboga Baptist Church in Coosa River Baptist Association sheltered evacuees and local churches assisted with meals and essential items. The association set up a shower unit at Eastaboga Baptist.
Help with livestock
Covington Baptist Association took its laundry units to Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery, where state officials helped evacuees traveling with livestock, including horses and cattle.
Covington Association Director of Missions (DOM) Otis Corbitt said hotel rooms in his area were full, which was the case throughout Alabama. The Alabama Tourism Department compiled a list of vacancies and updated it online to help evacuees make lodging decisions. Officials said most of the state’s 75,000 hotel rooms accommodated Florida evacuees during the weekend of Sept. 9–10, with some cities in south Alabama seeing 95–100 percent occupancy.
That’s what Pastor José Lebron of Emmanuel Community Church, Naples, Florida, realized quickly when he began to search online for hotel rooms for his family and about 40 church members. Lebron said he asked Jesus to help him find an answer and felt drawn to Alabama, even though he had never been to the state. When he couldn’t find hotel reservations, he searched for a Christian place and Shocco Springs Baptist Conference Center in Talladega popped up.
“The Spirit said that this was the place,” Lebron told Talladega news source The Daily Home. He contacted Shocco and public relations associate Wendy Westerhouse told him to “come on.”
Larry Dover, DOM for Franklin Baptist Association, summed up the response he saw around the state and in his community with one word — compassion.
“By the time I checked with the local motels, many of you and your church had already responded to their needs,” he said. “People went by the motels and paid for rooms. Churches were already scheduling to feed them. Gift cards were being given to them. I received calls from individuals wanting to know what they could do to help.”
As Irma moved northward across Alabama throughout the day Sept. 11, most of the state experienced heavy rain and wind. Some areas had downed trees and power outages. Alabama Power reported about 75,000 customers without power statewide. Most power outages were in areas around the cities of Phenix City, Eufala, Enterprise, Auburn and Anniston, and most customers had power again by Sept. 12.
Corbitt said Covington Association crews had done some minor cleanup in their county and were making plans to take a team of eight to Fort Myers on Sept. 15–18 for “whatever needs to be done,” including cleanup, recovery, mudout or chainsaw work.
“We will help make sure the state feeding unit can get into the location and do some work in the community. We will also have chaplains with the team,” Corbitt said.
They will join teams from several other states and North American Mission Board (NAMB) Send Relief working throughout Florida. At least six locations in the state will be served by Southern Baptist mobile kitchen units for mass feeding needs. Smaller units will be available to serve first responders and other relief teams. A Sept. 12 Send Relief update said NAMB anticipates a need for mudout and rebuild teams as the response in Florida continues.
Send Relief also is working closely with Baptist Global Response, SBOM and government officials to get supplies and disaster relief equipment into the U.S. Virgin Islands and other islands that were impacted by Hurricane Irma.
Wakefield said the SBOM airlift kitchen would be sent to the Virgin Islands once arrangements could be made.
As McGregor Baptist prepares to host ABDR volunteers, Pastor Russell Howard had a word of encouragement for those still reeling from Irma’s destruction.
In a video message on the church’s Facebook page, Howard said many parts of the church’s campus would be unusable in the near future because of water damage. Howard acknowledged the pain of the losses Floridians have experienced in their homes and businesses but reminded them who is in charge.
“Hurricane Irma doesn’t tell us anything about the character of God that we didn’t already know,” Howard said. “He is great, powerful and majestic, and sometimes terrifying in what He’s capable of. But even more so, He is loving, gracious and faithful, and He has you in the palm of His hand. Remember that the trials of this world, no matter how great, will one day seem small in comparison to the joy of heaven.”
Updates from local disaster relief teams
More than 200 Irma evacuees sheltered at the Baldwin County Coliseum in Robertsdale. Lifeway Community Church, Loxley, provided a worship service Sept. 10 at the arena outside the shelter. Mision Hispana de Robertsdale provided a Spanish worship service. Volunteers from other area churches and Baldwin Association WMU assisted with child care and other aid to evacuees. First Baptist Church, Bay Minette, hosted emergency disaster relief training for 113 new volunteers Sept. 12. Baldwin disaster relief teams are preparing to go to Florida and other locations as needed. In response to Harvey, First Baptist Church, Robertsdale, took a feeding unit to Texas and Louisiana.
The Coffee Baptist Men disaster relief team and other volunteers have been collecting nonperishable food, diapers, cleaning supplies and gift cards to retailers such as Walmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot. The items will be sent to Florida relief efforts. The gift cards will be used by disaster relief workers in Texas to bless those they help.
A Columbia Baptist disaster relief team served in Houston on Sept. 7–10. Volunteers cleaned up downed trees in their area after Irma swept through and teams are currently preparing to serve with Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief (ABDR) in Fort Myers, Florida. The association also collected bottled water, cleaning supplies and gift cards for relief efforts in Houston. Bethel Church, Dothan, served as a receiving site for those donations.
A chainsaw team from Etowah Association will serve in Fort Myers, Florida, on Sept. 19–27. Two chaplains will be part of the team.
The Salem-Troy disaster relief chainsaw team is prepared to serve with ABDR in Fort Myers, Florida. Chaplains from the association also are anticipating a callout.
Walker Baptists opened a shelter for Irma evacuees at First Baptist, Jasper. Several churches prepared meals. They fed those staying at the church and also carried food to local hotels. Donations were used to help evacuees pay for food, gas and hotels as needed. The association is collecting gift cards that will be given to Florida pastors affected by the storm. The cards will be delivered when Walker Baptist disaster relief teams are called to Florida. (Carrie Brown McWhorter)
HOW CAN I HELP?
Visit sbdr.org/hurricanerelief for ways to pray, give and serve.