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States of emergency let volunteers shine

Even before Hurricane Michael packed its final punch in Virginia, volunteer groups were packing up and heading toward the storm’s wake of destruction.

A 14-foot tandem-axle trailer loaded with chainsaws departed from the X-tended Missions Network in north Mississippi early Friday morning. Dennis Landrum, a director with the group, told me his five-man crew began clearing trees from yards and roofs in the Albany, Ga., area over the weekend.

They had plenty to do. Michael’s winds pounded the south Georgia city, uprooting massive oaks and snapping pines like matchsticks. Drenching rains and flooding also caused extensive damage, and at daybreak Thursday, storm fallout blocked 100 intersections in Albany alone.

Samaritan’s Purse, known best for their shoebox-stuffing program, also lends helping hands after disasters. As quickly as they could get there, Samaritan’s officials came to assess needs in both Albany and in the Florida Panhandle. The organization deployed two disaster relief units to the region and sent chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team.

Among the swath of five states that felt the brunt of Michael’s wrath, Florida’s devastation is distinct. In coastal Carrabelle, roads are ruined, their pavement buckled and washed out. To the west, Lynn Haven’s electrical grid is gone, and Mayor Margo Anderson predicts the power will be out for two months. Hospitals are evacuated in Bay County. Tyndale Air Force Base is closed.

In response, World Vision’s four truckloads of food, water, diapers, and tents arrived in Pensacola, Fla., late Friday. Their aid was distributed in hard-hit spots like Mexico Beach, Fla., a tiny tourist town nearly obliterated by Michael.

“A single truckload can carry enough supplies to serve 1,500 people,” said Reed Slattery, a World Vision spokesman. “We are working to get critical relief supplies to families and children that have had their lives flipped upside down.”

Michael’s life-flipping abilities are no longer in question. With a death toll of at least 17, experts have deemed it the third-strongest storm to hit the U.S. mainland. The great needs in Panama City led North Carolina-based ministry Hearts with Hands to outfit three tractor trailers with boxed meals and paper products for still-stunned residents. The goods were to be unloaded Monday morning in the Central Baptist Church parking lot, but impassable roads kept them at a distance. Central’s adjacent $5 million church facility, according to Pastor Bruce Barton, is a complete loss: “This area was hit by winds of 150 miles per hour, and I’d say about 80 percent of the city is destroyed. Power lines are everywhere, roofs are off. We had 80 trees on the church property, and none were left standing.” 

Barton on Tuesday continued the process of contacting elderly church members who don’t own cell phones, “making sure they’re alive.” He expressed concern for hurricane victims who not only lost their homes and possessions, but also their jobs: “We have a lot of educators in our congregation, and the schools are destroyed. My daughter is a dental hygienist. Nobody will be worried about getting their teeth cleaned any time soon.”

Meanwhile, the longtime pastor conducted an outdoor Sunday morning service that attracted some first-time visitors. “It’s a sad time, but I’ve noticed uplifted spirits in spite of it,” he observed. The church has ordered an outdoor tent for the coming months. “Should seat 450,” Barton said.

Disaster relief is an ongoing ministry for many Mississippians. William Perkins was behind his desk at the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board (MBCB) in Jackson when another name in hurricane history—Katrina—first made the news.

“Looking at the drone footage from Michael, I see a lot of similarities,” the MBCB spokesman noted, referring to flattened areas and concrete blocks. “Makes the hair on my arms stand up.”

Perkins recalled the lengthy post-Katrina recovery efforts on the coast: “Our portable kitchen served food in the parking lot of First Baptist, Biloxi for more than a year.” The 18-wheeled, self-contained unit is being staged for Michael-related service after returning from areas affected by Hurricane Florence. The mass-feeding kitchen can serve six thousand hot meals a day.   

“We meet needs for nourishment, and we also meet spiritual needs by showing disaster victims somebody cares,” Perkins explained. He described it as a teachable moment. “They see what knowing Jesus moves us to do, and how Jesus can move them.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.