By Barry Howard
The summer of 2005 will be permanently etched in the minds of Gulf Coast residents. And for me that summer of multiple hurricanes provided a most unusual welcome to a new community.
In May of 2005 I accepted a call to become the pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Fla. At that time, the church was recovering and rebuilding from Hurricane Ivan, which the previous year had left $7 billion worth of destruction and inflicted more than $3.1 million in damages to the church campus alone. Little did we know that Ivan was a precursor to the multiple storms that would assault the Gulf Coast the following summer.
My wife and I rolled into Pensacola on the afternoon of Monday, July 4. That evening, as we were unpacking, I turned on the local news and learned that a storm was brewing in the Gulf. Tropical Storm Cindy was not expected to reach hurricane status, but was expected to bring high winds, flash floods, power outages, and possible tornadoes as it made landfall on Wednesday morning. Cindy did minimal damage – but she did surprise forecasters when she reached the status of a Category 1 hurricane.
After Cindy came Dennis. Following a similar path to Ivan, he was forecast to hit the Gulf Coast near Pensacola on Sunday morning July 10. Ironically, that was to be the day of my first sermon.
We made the painful decision to cancel services and encourage our members to evacuate. Some of the staff gathered in the church building to ride out the storm and attempt to minimize any further damage, since repairs from Ivan’s damage were still incomplete.
Early on Sunday morning we gathered in our chapel for an extemporaneous worship service. We were a motley-looking crew — especially the new pastor, who stood before the remnant unbathed and unshaven to declare that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in our time of trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
Around 2:35 on Sunday afternoon Dennis, which had weakened some and was moving much more quickly than Ivan, made landfall. Thankfully, property damage to our campus and to our community was minimal.
On the Sundays following Cindy and Dennis, we enjoyed getting acquainted with our new congregation, assisting with repairs in the community, and developing ministry initiatives for the coming year. However, near the end of August, storm phobia reached an all-time high as a large blip on the weather radar was christened Katrina and the forecast path put her on a direct course for Pensacola.
Katrina was forecast to make landfall on Monday, August 29. Throughout the week prior we were monitoring the storm’s development and making preparations for another evacuation. But near week’s end, the storm joggled a bit, moving its projected path westward toward the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi.
Then, of course, Katrina made its disastrous landfall, ravaging the coast from Alabama to Louisiana, laying waste to New Orleans and becoming one of America’s most historic natural and human disasters.
After Ivan, our church had served as a distribution point for water, food and supplies. A variety of disaster-relief groups had lodged in our activities center. In Katrina’s aftermath and with Ivan still fresh on our minds, our church joined hundreds of others around the country in sending teams of volunteers to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to assist in relief work. In the days following the storm, I joined a team of ministers in surveying damage and visiting with pastors and directors of missions, to ascertain the greatest areas of need. We contributed volunteers and support to efforts in distribution of supplies, medical care, debris clean-up and home rebuilding.
In consultation with our Baptist mission partners and the Volunteers of America, we determined to adopt at least one church and community where we would invest time, energy, and resources for one year or longer. First Baptist Church of Gautier, Miss., became our primary partner. During the ensuing year, we channeled relief funds and over 300 volunteers from the Pensacola area to Gautier to repair homes and to support the ministries of their church during this season of rebuilding.
Last week, I contacted Gautier pastor David Aultman to ask how they are doing five years later. This was his response: “It is hard to believe five years have passed since Hurricane Katrina. We are doing well. We are finally getting back to pre-Katrina numbers in attendance. We have had a good year and we are looking excitedly toward the future. We are close to finally starting a remodeling program that will greatly enhance our facilities to better serve the Lord in this community.
“I still marvel at the way the Lord used you guys, as well as our other partners in the recovery process. We could not have done it without our partners. We, as a church, made a commitment to give back by being involved in disaster-relief ministries. Since then we have been to central Florida; Enterprise, Ala., San Leon, Texas; Wapello, Iowa; Atlanta; Nashville, Tenn.; and Yazoo City, Miss., with disaster relief. We do not want to forget what the Lord did for us through our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
It’s hard for me to believe it has been five years since that summer of multiple storms. During that span of time the Gulf Coast has weathered hurricanes, a major recession, and an oil spill. For many, life will never be the same. But thanks to many ministry partnerships, several homes and lives have been rebuilt. And in more ways than one, for many of us, the re-building continues.