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Compassion in the trenches

Fellowship, congregations, ministries respond to Charley's devastation

By Kirk Noonan and John W. Kennedy

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.

"It 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."

He 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Those 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.

In 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.

Punta 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.

Mobile 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.

In 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.

At 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.

RELIEF RESPONSE

The 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.

"People 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.

Within 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.

"Convoy 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."

The 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.

Convoy 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.

"I can identify with people who have lost everything, or feel like they have," Kopaska says. "I know what it is like to rebuild a life."

The 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.

About 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.

West 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.

With 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 building.

Volunteers cooked meals for the displaced as well as distributed groceries, diapers, toilet paper and insect repellent to residents in lower-income neighborhoods.

Churches 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."

Bob 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.

"It really looked like a war zone," Volpe says. "Trailer parks looked like someone had set a bomb off. There was aluminum up on the trees."

Volpe 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.

"I was able to share how quickly most people bounced back from Hurricane Andrew," Volpe says. "Most people were receptive to prayer."

"Our building is demolished," says Dennis Postell Sr., pastor of Abundant Life, "but our church is alive and well."

Despite 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 without."

Though the storm was devastating Postell and his congregation are intent on using it for good. 

"Though 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."

Fort 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.

"It was an all-hands-on-deck time for our church," says Brad Liebe, 34, executive pastor of the church.

A 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.

Williams 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.

Although 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.

Jones 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."

CHURCHES DAMAGED

The 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.

The 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.

"The church has been condemned," says Ruth Joudry, whose husband,   Peter, pastors the church. "The sanctuary is open to the heavens."

Wauchula residents didn't expect the winds to cause so much damage because the town of 4,400 is 40 miles from the coast.

"It was a shock because we never thought of hurricanes being so fierce this far inland," Joudry says. "It also was not predicted to come our way."

Nevertheless, 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 the storm."

Liebe 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 good."

Despite the destruction, District Superintendent Terry Raburn recognizes God's providence in that only 100 families who attended Fellowship churches lost their homes.

"I 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."

According 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 educational area.

— 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.

HELP STILL NEEDED

Although 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.

Funds 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.

The 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.

Those 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.

Benevolences.ag.org donors also may contribute online or send funds to the headquarters address.

"The 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."

While life goes on, it's not religion as usual.

"Building a church structure can take years because of the demand that will be on contractors," said Pastor Dennis Postell Jr.

North Port Pastor Jones has urged his congregants to look at the big picture.

"I've been encouraging people to realize this situation is temporary," Jones says. "It's important to hold our possessions and homes loosely."                 

In the final analysis, Christians realize the recovery process has been much smoother thanks to the generosity of the faithful.

"We thank God for everybody who has extended a hand to us during this disaster," Raburn said. "We are just so grateful." 


John 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.

E-mail your comments to pe@ag.org.

 

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