ORLANDO, Fla. (ABP) — Not being able to get out of his own Orlando neighborhood because of fallen trees made it difficult for David Harding, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's national disaster-relief coordinator, to do his job.
After making landfall a couple of hours southwest of Orlando Aug. 13 as a Category 4 hurricane, Hurricane Charley sped across the Florida Peninsula, taking with it thousands of trees, roofs and utility poles and leaving millions without power. Harding's neighborhood was one of the many inland locales that suffered a surprisingly hard hit from the storm's over-100-mile-per-hour winds.
“Our neighborhood was pretty well trashed with lots of big trees…and we're still without power,” Harding, reached by an Associated Baptist Press reporter via mobile phone, said Aug. 18. However, he noted that a group of his neighbors, rather than waiting on county work crews to get to their neighborhood, banded together and used four-wheel drives and chainsaws to clear some streets.
Harding was beginning to organize a regional command center for CBF disaster-relief volunteers working in the hard-hit parts of Central Florida. He said the center would be based out of Orlando's College Park Baptist Church.
According to Harding, volunteers from College Park and other CBF-supportive churches in the Orlando area were organizing phone and door-to-door surveys to assess urgent needs — such as checking on elderly or disabled people without power — in their congregations and neighborhoods.
While Harding was still stuck at home, officials with CBF's headquarters in Atlanta made arrangements for Jimmy Lewis to coordinate disaster-relief efforts nearer the state's southwestern coast, where Charley first came ashore.
Lewis, the missions coordinator for Georgia CBF, was en route to Fort Myers, Fla., when reached by mobile phone Aug. 18. He will set up what another CBF official described as a disaster-relief “clearinghouse” at Fort Myers' First Baptist Church. From there, Lewis will assess needs and coordinate volunteers from CBF churches and organizations from across the nation. “We can recruit and host volunteers” in the church's facility, he said.
CBF Missions Advocate Pat Anderson, who lives in Lakeland, Fla., said one of the Fellowship's goals in providing disaster-relief work is “to try to help the disadvantaged and the poor and isolated.” Anderson said many communities — such as small towns in the hard-hit inland areas and the thousands of migrant Hispanic agricultural workers who keep the state's citrus industry functioning — may be overlooked.
“The Salvation Army and Red Cross and Southern Baptist Convention all have well established [disaster-relief response] places in most of the big cities, and we just want to fill in the gaps,” Anderson said. “Hurricane Charley just devastated this huge area in Central Florida that's mostly agricultural.”
Lance Wallace, CBF's associate news director, agreed with that statement from the heart of orange country. Wallace had driven down from Atlanta Aug. 17 to help his parents in hard-hit Lake Wales, about 70 miles inland from where Charley made landfall. Lance said he had seen scores of denuded orange groves — including the ones surrounding the home where his parents, Larry and Sharon Wallace, live.
“Next year's crop has already come in, and there's a lot of green oranges on the ground,” Wallace said. It's another economic blow to orange farmers, who already are smarting from low prices due to reduced demand for orange juice in recent years.
Wallace said the church where his father is pastor — Trinity Baptist — has lots of families that depend on the orange industry. Unlike Florida's coasts, which are crowded with tourists and retirees, the central part of the state depends heavily on agriculture — and especially on the citrus-fruit industry — for its economic stability.
Nonetheless, Wallace said, his father and fellow church members were doing clean-up work for neighbors and passing out water and ice — commodities for those sweltering through a Florida August without any power for air conditioning.
Baptists in the area where Charley was originally forecast as most likely to come ashore — Tampa-St. Petersburg — are also responding to their less-fortunate southern neighbors. Steve Hadden, pastor of Bayshore Baptist Church in Tampa, returned Aug. 17 from a two-day trip to the damage zone with a team of men from his church.
“We announced it Sunday, and just got a group together” to go patch roofs and do clean-up work in Punta Gorda, where the storm's strongest winds and highest surf came ashore, Hadden said.
They spent the night with hosts from South Venice Baptist Church, another CBF-supportive congregation, about 20 miles up the coast from Punta Gorda. That church is also serving as a distribution and volunteer coordination center for Baptists responding to the storm.
Hadden said one of the greatest needs they tried to meet was heavy lifting — such as moving moldy drywall to the curb and even emptying the spoiled contents of refrigerators — for the many elderly residents of the area.
“Some of that stuff stank to high heaven,” Hadden said.
He also said it was encouraging for him to work with volunteers from a conservative Southern Baptist congregation — South Biscayne Baptist Church in Northport — despite their likely theological disagreements. “I didn't tell anyone I was a preacher,” he said. “Realizing all this important stuff that really didn't matter in the midst of a disaster — it was great to see people working together.”
Hadden also said Bayshore was planning to organize groups of volunteers to drive to the heavily-hit areas and do more relief work every Saturday for the near future.
Harding said the relief workers' most urgent need was cash for purchasing supplies to distribute. Contributions can be made through CBF's national office at P.O. Box 101699, Atlanta, GA 30392. Checks should be made out to CBF and designated for “Hurricane Charley Relief.” Volunteers wishing to offer other services should contact Lewis at (678) 428-6204 or Harding at (407) 435-2112.