in the trenches
congregations, ministries respond to Charley's devastation
From her living room, Brandy Swisher watched wide-eyed as Hurricane Charley's
powerful winds whipped through her neighborhood in Arcadia, Fla.,
about 80 miles southeast of Tampa. At first, Swisher, her mother,
Connie, a neighboring family and a visiting friend — who had left
Tampa to seek safety in Arcadia — exercised no precautions besides
prayer. But when the winds began toppling trees, shredding their
carport into thin aluminum strips and ripping large chunks of
roof off the house they scrambled into a bathroom for cover. The
neighbor's children lay low in the bathtub as the five adults
huddled in prayer.
was a traumatic experience, but I was never fearful for my life,"
says Swisher, 25, a staff member at Florida's First Assembly of
God in Wauchula. "God is our peace in the storm. I just trusted
Him to sustain us."
did. But after the storm had passed, the Swisher home was left
in tatters. Swisher and her mother salvaged all the belongings
they could before leaving to stay with friends.
Swishers were one of several Assemblies of God families impacted
by Hurricane Charley, which hit the southwest coast of Florida
on August 13. Tampa residents had evacuated, but the storm suddenly
changed direction, leaving those to the south unprepared. Charley
turned out to be the nation's most severe weather since Hurricane
Andrew in 1992 — which until the September 11 terrorist attacks
had been the nation's most expensive disaster.
Assemblies of God has established a hurricane relief fund.
Contributions may be sent to: Assemblies of God Headquarters,
Benev-Hurricane Relief, 1445 N. Boonville Ave., Springfield,
MO 65802-1894. Donors should write 874001-030007 on their
wanting to contribute online to the relief fund should go
to the A/G Web site, http://www.ag.org,
click on contributions and enter ministry identification
number 030007. Contributions may be made by credit card.
all, 25 people died because of Charley and 500,000 structures
were damaged or destroyed. Winds whipped up to 145 miles per hour
and caused a surge of seawater to hit 15 feet high in some areas.
Damage to insured homes alone is estimated at $11 billion. Federal
officials declared 25 counties disaster areas. More than a million
Floridians lost electrical power.
Gorda, a retirement community of 15,000 located in an inlet about
30 miles northeast of Fort Myers, was one of the hardest-hit areas.
The storm flattened row after row of mobile homes, uprooted trees,
and destroyed homes and businesses. Splintered wood and shattered
glass were scattered throughout the city.
homes are plentiful in Punta Gorda's Charlotte County, where more
than one-third of the population is 65 or older. Retirees looking
for inexpensive living accommodations often live in the trailers,
believing it's worth the risk. Donna, the last hurricane to strike
southwest Florida, blew through in 1960.
Charley's wake, many Floridians were left with no phone service,
no running water, no ice to fight the heat, no diapers to change
the babies and no gas to fill the cars and generator tanks.
a shopping center in Port Charlotte, three miles east of Punta
Gorda, some victims waited up to two hours in 90-degree heat for
bags of ice two days after the hurricane hit.
Assemblies of God and affiliated ministries responded quickly
to Hurricane Charley. The Springfield, Mo.-based Convoy of Hope
immediately dispatched half a dozen trucks with relief supplies
to Florida even as the hurricane closed in on the peninsula. The
trucks arrived in Punta Gorda before other relief agencies.
were walking around with their heads in their hands, in desperation,
in a daze," says COH representative Steve Ewing. "We gave them
some water and it's like you gave them a bar of gold." Ewing and
other COH representatives spent time praying for people stunned
by the disaster.
10 days after the disaster, COH had provided 61 truckloads of
water, food, ice, cleaning supplies, baby products, paper products,
generators and other supplies. With temperatures soaring into
the high 90s and tap water unavailable for more than a week in
hard-hit areas such as Punta Gorda, Convoy met a great demand
for drinking water and ice. The relief effort initially cost Convoy
$350,000, which included a sizable chunk to shuttle trucks, workers
and supplies to the affected areas.
of Hope has been a blessing to the city and to our church people,"
says Assemblies of God Peninsular Florida District Superintendent
Terry Raburn. "They have been on-site almost since the storm passed."
Federal Emergency Management Agency requested that Convoy of Hope
stay for a prolonged period to assist in meeting needs. Convoy
also worked with churches to set up small distribution points
in Fort Myers and Arcadia.
of Hope worker Kc Kopaska, who is disfigured from a fiery
car crash in which he lost his fingers 28 years ago, arrived in
Punta Gorda four hours after Charley hit.
can identify with people who have lost everything, or feel like
they have," Kopaska says. "I know what it is like to rebuild a
Assemblies of God Benevolence Disaster Relief Fund donated $50,000
to Convoy of Hope immediately after Charley hit to help finance
the truckloads of supplies. The department also gave funds to
meet the short-term food, water and shelter needs of Assemblies
of God churches, pastors and laypeople.
200 Assemblies of God adherents who escaped the devastation —
and even some who didn't — converged on Punta Gorda to help in
the days after the tragedy.
Coast Church in Englewood went unscathed, but Senior Pastor Dennis
Postell Jr. and 40 church members traveled 30 miles to assist
Abundant Life in Punta Gorda, where his father, Dennis Postell
Sr., is pastor.
help from Golden Gate Assembly of God in Naples and Venice Assembly
of God, West Coast Church set up several tents in the Abundant
Life parking lot. The hurricane destroyed the Abundant Life metal
cooked meals for the displaced as well as distributed groceries,
diapers, toilet paper and insect repellent to residents in lower-income
also cooperated in offering short-term housing to elderly people
and those with children who had no place to stay. "There is devastation,
but great hope," Postell says. "I have seen God's love going everywhere."
Volpe, pastor of Community Christian Assembly of God in Jupiter,
was one of the first on the scene in Punta Gorda as a police chaplain
with the Palm Beach County sheriff's office.
really looked like a war zone," Volpe says. "Trailer parks looked
like someone had set a bomb off. There was aluminum up on the
credits Convoy of Hope staff and church volunteers with helping
relieve stress and shock of victims by providing calm, orderly
assistance. Volpe had the opportunity to counsel and encourage
100 displaced Punta Gorda special-needs and elderly residents
who were sheltered in a school gymnasium.
was able to share how quickly most people bounced back from Hurricane
Andrew," Volpe says. "Most people were receptive to prayer."
building is demolished," says Dennis Postell Sr., pastor of Abundant
Life, "but our church is alive and well."
Postell's optimistic outlook he was still concerned [one week
after Charley] for the well-being of several members of his congregation
who were unaccounted for. Postell also worries about the 31 missionaries
the church supports. "Not being able to support our missionaries
is a great concern of mine," he says. "We don't want them to go
the storm was devastating Postell and his congregation are intent
on using it for good.
some of the hardest days are yet to come God is going to get us
through this," says Postell. "And we are going to continue to
show the community the love of Christ."
Myers First Assembly, where Dan Betzer is senior pastor, sustained
more than $500,000 in losses, including extensive damage to walkways,
roof tiles and shingles, and a large portico joining the main
auditorium and new children's ministry center. Yet volunteers
helped the church get up and running hours after the storm by
cleaning damaged property, establishing a distribution point for
Convoy of Hope and opening the gymnasium to the community where
residents could escape the Florida heat, find something to eat
and drink, and even take a shower.
was an all-hands-on-deck time for our church," says Brad Liebe,
34, executive pastor of the church.
falling banyan tree killed one Fort Myers First Assembly attendee
in his yard during the storm. Friends and relatives says Danny
Williams, 25, felt secure under the 55-year-old big tree in his
backyard. He had furnished a shed beneath its branches with a
sofa, television set and videocassette recorder.
had just returned to his residence after visiting next-door neighbor
Katheryn Green. "He told us not to worry about the storm because
his tree would cushion the wind and protect us," Green recalls.
North Port's Gulf Coast Assembly of God, located 13 miles north
of Punta Gorda, sustained only minor damage, members of the congregation
didn't fare as well. Pastor Keith Jones says nine church families
are displaced, 14 had residences heavily damaged, and 17 lost
their businesses or jobs.
worked with Convoy the first week making sure church members had
food, water and generators. "We went door to door making sure
everyone was alive," Jones says. "The terrain had changed so much
because all the landmarks like street signs and trees were gone."
hurricane damaged at least 15 Assemblies of God churches, causing
millions of dollars worth of damage. In addition to Abundant Life
in Punta Gorda, and Trompeta del Cielo in Orlando, Florida's First
Assembly of God in Wauchula is considered a total loss.
Wauchula church sustained more than $500,000 in damage. The roof
came open on the east side and water flooded the building, destroying
drywall, electrical work, furniture and ceilings.
church has been condemned," says Ruth Joudry, whose husband,
Peter, pastors the church. "The sanctuary is open to the heavens."
residents didn't expect the winds to cause so much damage because
the town of 4,400 is 40 miles from the coast.
was a shock because we never thought of hurricanes being so fierce
this far inland," Joudry says. "It also was not predicted to come
Peter Joudry preached to 40 residents who showed up for Sunday
service two days after the Friday hurricane in a small, undamaged
room of the church. "He preached from Jeremiah where it says,
'We shall arise and rebuild,' " Ruth Joudry says. "People
gave testimony of God's goodness for the miracles they saw during
is also optimistic and sees opportunity in the aftermath of the
storm. "Disasters make us all very equal, very quickly," Liebe
says. "But there is a real knowledge right now that there is a
God and that He will help us and ultimately use this storm for
the destruction, District Superintendent Terry Raburn recognizes
God's providence in that only 100 families who attended Fellowship
churches lost their homes.
know that sounds like a lot, but when all things are considered
it's really a blessing," Raburn says. "God and His people have
been really amazing. Families have been sharing bottled water,
canned goods and clothing."
to Raburn and Southeastern Spanish District Superintendent Edward
Martinez, other properties sustaining significant damage include:
The buildings on the grounds of Calvary Assembly of God in Port
Charlotte, including the major sections of church roof being ripped
off. Rain damaged school computers and carpeting.
Masterpiece Gardens, the Peninsular Florida district camp and
conference center, had all six buildings on campus damaged for
a loss of $100,000. More than 1,000 trees were downed or damaged.
Although a staff trailer and storage building are total losses,
Raburn said repairs already are being made to other structures
on the grounds.
Part of the roof of the new youth building where Iglesia La Nuevo
Jerusalem meets in Kissimmee was blown off, resulting in water
damage to chairs and equipment.
Rosa de Saron in Fort Myers had its roof torn off. The storm destroyed
pews, new electrical equipment and carpeting. Congregants moved
into the gymnasium, which had chairs, for services.
Cypress Cathedral in Winter Haven lost part of its roof over the
roof of Cristiana Vida Nueva in Sanford collapsed, causing flood
damage to the ground floor.
First Assembly of God in Fort Meade sustained moderate damage
to the roof, eastern wall and interior.
many hurricane victims are returning to some semblance of normalcy,
the damage has left many long-term financial needs for Assemblies
of God ministers and laypeople.
are being allocated for long-term needs such as replacing housing,
clothing, computers, appliances and furniture that were underinsured.
Even when insurance covered property and possessions sufficiently,
it didn't finance cleanup and debris removal.
Assemblies of God has established a hurricane relief fund. Contributions
may be sent to: Assemblies of God Headquarters, Benev-Hurricane
Relief, 1445 N. Boonville Ave., Springfield, MO 65802-1894. Donors
should write 874001-030007 on their checks.
wanting to contribute online to the relief fund should go to the
A/G Web site, http://www.ag.org,
click on contributions and enter ministry identification number
030007. Contributions may be made by credit card.
donors also may contribute online or send funds to the headquarters
long-term needs might be three months removed from the short-term
needs," said Benevolences Director Robert Michels. "People who
have survived a natural disaster don't know immediately what their
needs will be. It takes months in some cases."
life goes on, it's not religion as usual.
a church structure can take years because of the demand that will
be on contractors," said Pastor Dennis Postell Jr.
Port Pastor Jones has urged his congregants to look at the big
been encouraging people to realize this situation is temporary,"
Jones says. "It's important to hold our possessions and homes
the final analysis, Christians realize the recovery process has
been much smoother thanks to the generosity of the faithful.
thank God for everybody who has extended a hand to us during this
disaster," Raburn said. "We are just so grateful."
W. Kennedy is news editor of Today's Pentecostal Evangel. Kirk Noonan is
associate editor. The Associated Press and A/G News contributed
to this report.
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