By: Brandon Elrod
FORT MEYERS, FL (BP) — In the days since Hurricane Irma hit, Southern Baptists have been mobilizing volunteers and resources all over Florida and in the Caribbean.
Seven Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) feeding units from southeastern states and as far away as the northeast have arrived. Many are set to begin feeding on Friday (Sept. 15). A crew from the Baptist General Association of Virginia prepared 1,200 meals on Thursday in Palm Coast.
Mark Wakefield oversees disaster relief for the Alabama Baptist Convention’s State Board of Missions, and he led a team down to assist in Florida. “We’re deploying to Fort Meyers,” he said, “and we’re happy to be serving our brothers and sisters in Florida. We should be feeding by Friday.”
The Florida SBDR team has already initiated clean up and recovery operations in pockets around the state, from Jacksonville to Naples. Crews from other states will arrive over the course of the next week.
In the days following Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Florida, damage assessments generally came back with better news than had been expected leading up to the storm. Irma leveled a large percentage of structures on several islands in the Florida Keys, however, and widespread power outages are a serious concern throughout the state.
As of Thursday evening (Sept. 14), Keys residents in Marathon and South had still not been allowed to return to their homes. The Miami Herald reported that only emergency services, disaster services and supplies were allowed to move back into the Lower Keys as they had yet to restore 911 services, electricity and water to the area.
Delton Beall serves as team strategist for disaster relief at the Florida Baptist Convention. On a Wednesday (Sept. 13) conference call with SBDR personnel, he said, “The military is having to get people in and out. They are working in survival mode in the Keys.”
Several shelters have been set up to accommodate those who are still unable to return to their homes in the Keys.
Reuters reports that Hurricane Irma is responsible for 82 deaths in both the United States and in the Caribbean. There have been at least 32 deaths in Florida and seven in Georgia and South Carolina. More than half of the fatalities attributed to the storm happened in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The situation has been so difficult in the Caribbean that SBDR agents had not been able to get to the Virgin Islands as of Thursday. An Alabama disaster relief kitchen that had been en route to Puerto Rico has instead been directed to the Virgin Islands after it became clear the need there was far greater.
Long road to recovery in Texas
Like other relief entities, Southern Baptists are working to respond to immediate needs in Florida while still maintaining focus on the enormous needs Hurricane Harvey created in Texas and parts of Louisiana.
A large SBDR team from New Mexico arrived in Louisiana and to assist with the Harvey recovery efforts there. Teams from Colorado have been feeding and “mudding out” homes, clearing debris and muck from flooded houses. There are still sites in Texas where SBDR teams have been providing childcare.
To help get more boots on the ground, NAMB has also been mobilizing churches and volunteers who do not have disaster relief training through Send Relief.
“God has given the church a great opportunity to respond,” said NAMB president Kevin Ezell. “I am asking every Southern Baptist pastor to prayerfully consider sending volunteers to Texas or Florida. Even if you have never sent a volunteer to a disaster before—we need you, and the storm survivors need you.
Through church-to-church partnerships, several churches from around the United States have sent teams to communities in disaster zones. In addition, Three Houston-area SBC churches—Champion Forest, Bayou City Fellowship and Houston’s First Baptist—have already completed more than a combined 1,350 home mud-outs using volunteers from their churches.
Feeding units in Texas have started to consolidate their work as people leave shelters to return home or make other arrangements. Even as thousands of homes still need initial mud-out work, a few are ready for rebuild efforts, with months of work ahead.
You can help survivors of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma by visiting sendrelief.net. Donate funds or volunteer to serve. State Baptist disaster relief groups also accept donations for these efforts, and some also accept untrained volunteers.
Brandon Elrod writes for the North American Mission Board.