A Category 5 hurricane in September 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic that followed delivered a one-two punch to the Bahamas that destroyed lives, homes, businesses and churches, then prevented outside relief organizations from rendering aid, said Rick Burnette, the outgoing coordinator of domestic disaster response for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
But neither Hurricane Dorian nor the coronavirus outbreak in 2020 could dent the ingenuity and resilience of CBF Bahamas, which consists of six congregations on the islands of Grand Bahama, Abaco and Acklins, said Burnette, who will be succeeded in the disaster response role by North Carolina pastor and disaster recovery specialist Daynette Snead Perez.
“It’s been though. It was hard. Because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to lean into our response to Dorian. The teams we had lined up couldn’t go,” said Burnette, who also serves as CBF field personnel. “Yet, we were able to continue to work with the local response contractors in the Bahamas, people who know the communities and who know the affected areas and who were able to coordinate the response.”
But nurturing existing cordial relationships between CBF in the U.S. and the Bahamas also suffered during the outbreak, said Ray Johnson, coordinator of CBF Florida.
“The pandemic has not eroded those relationships, but it has definitely hindered the depth of them,” Johnson said. “We compensated by using social media, but that is no substitute for worshiping together.”
CBF Florida and CBF Bahamas have a special working and worshiping connection that goes back before the latter was created in 2011. “They are constantly visiting us, and we are constantly visiting them. People in both countries are eager to renew those gatherings once things open back up,” Johnson said.
In fact, finding opportunities to fellowship with the Bahamian churches will be one of the top orders of business going forward.
Another immediate focus will be sending volunteer teams to help continue the recovery from Hurricane Dorian, he said. “We haven’t been able to put eyes on the ground since the pandemic. A lot of work has been done but there is a lot more to do.”
Burnette said a large amount of the credit for work that has been completed so far goes to CBF Bahamas for helping coordinate the activities of disaster response contractors. “As a community they have been resilient.”
But significant contributions also were made by U.S.-based donors and volunteers before the pandemic began, helping set the stage for progress made throughout last year by local churches and workers, he added.
That included a $5,000 grant from the Fellowship to CBF Florida to meet immediate needs in the Bahamas and the dispatching of volunteers immediately after the storm to repair roofs and assess properties slated for rehabilitation or rebuilding. Spiritual care volunteers were deployed from the U.S. by the end of 2019 to help Bahamians reeling from the death of family and friends as well as from job and property losses, Burnette said.
Materials also were sent before the pandemic, including tents, water filters, generators and solar phone chargers. CBF Florida Disaster Response Coordinator Kenny Phillips made an exploratory visit.
No one knew at the time just how important those initial volunteer visits would be.
In February 2020, volunteers from Forest Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., and Calvary Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., deployed to the Bahamas to repair churches, homes and other properties and to conduct assessments of other needs.
No one knew at the time just how important those initial volunteer visits would be, Burnette said. “In hindsight, I am really pleased with the fact that we were able to get a handful of teams that performed a lot of work and were also exploratory. They helped lay the groundwork moving forward.”
While the pandemic blocked volunteer teams and materials from scheduled visits, CBF Bahamas helped coordinate work being completed on more than 20 properties by December 2020, Burnette said.
Many others made the work possible, as well. “A lot of entities stepped up. CBF and Canadian Baptists helped get the materials and other resources needed from Florida to the Bahamas. Everyone just stepped up.”
But turning the volunteer spicket back on will take time. As of early May there were no groups signed up for Bahamas work.
“We are hoping as more teams are vaccinated, they will start lining up. It’s the same in Lake Charles,” Burnette said of the Louisiana coastal community hit by two hurricanes in 2020. “I am confident that CBF churches and other partners will step in.”