On Sunday, February 26, 2023, a group of eight persons from across our conference, including UMVIM Coordinator Rev. David Stilgenbauer, traveled nearly 1,000 miles to Ft. Myers, Florida to provide hurricane relief assistance.
What hurricane, you might ask. Hurricane Ian struck the southwest coast of Florida on September 28, 2022, and was the third costliest weather disaster on record and the costliest in Florida. The estimated cost of damage from Ian was $113 billion. Ian was responsible for at least 160 deaths, including 149 in Florida which made it the deadliest hurricane in that state since 1935. Ian, a high-end category 4 hurricane, had sustained winds of 155 mph and a top wind gust reported at 215 mph. There was a 16-foot storm surge!
One devastating characteristic of the storm according to the residents, was how slowly the storm moved – it kept hammering them for 10 hours. The areas of Ft. Myers, Pine Island, Sanibel Island, and Cape Coral were hit particularly hard. Since it has been over five months and the storm and recovery efforts are no longer in the news, it is easy forget about the need. However, as you might imagine, after a devastating disaster such as Hurricane Ian, the need for relief and recovery will continue for several years.
Did you know, or could you even imagine, that on Wednesday, March 8th, the day before we left Florida to return home, was the first day that power was restored to the Ft. Myers beach area? Over five months since the hurricane hit and they just now have power to begin the extensive part of the long-term recovery! And on that day, they also recovered a car from Naples Bay that was lost in the storm.
To date, there are still 55 cars and boats unaccounted for. We saw a boat stranded in a yard and a few in wooded areas. FEMA and UMCOR are just now transitioning from early response relief work to long-term recovery. Typically, long-term recovery takes about 10 times as long as the ERT (early response). Since the ERT has taken five months, that means that long-term recovery will take 50 months, or a little over four years.
Our team stayed one night at Washington Street UM Church in Columbia, South Carolina, on the way to and from Florida to break up the nearly 13 hours of driving (not counting stops). Once we arrived in Ft. Myers, Florida, Buckingham Presbyterian Church became our home for the 10 nights we were there.
During worship on Sunday morning March 5th, Buckingham Presbyterian was commissioned as a host site for work teams by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance group. Our team was the first “official” team staying at this facility. Another team was to arrive a few days after we departed. It was an honor during worship to be able to lay hands on a member of that church whose name is Bob as he was prayed over and commissioned by the church as coordinator of work teams. The church is a great facility for work teams with inflatable beds, cots, a full kitchen, laundry facilities, and showers.
Our days typically began around 6am, breakfast at 7am, devotions at 7:30am, and leaving for the worksite around 8am. We packed a lunch and plenty of hydration! Each day we worked, the temperature reached the low to mid 90’s which is unusually hot for this time of year. On the hottest day it was 97 degrees when we got off of the roof. We would work until about 3:30pm or until the heat made us stop. We would return to the church and shower and fix dinner and then devotions again at 7:30pm. Bedtime was usually early for most of the team as we were tired and needed to recharge before the next day.
We completed 12 jobs while we were there – three involved cutting trees and removing the brush, one interior ceiling was reattached, and eight roofs received new or repaired tarps. Did I mention it has been over five months since the storm? There are still so many homes with tarps. One home we re-tarped was the third time it needed to be tarped! The first two were destroyed by the sun and wind and the home was leaking again. This particular homeowner, Kathy, said that she paid her insurance premium one day late and the insurance company told her that since there was a disaster there was no grace period and they would not be paying for any damage. Kathy is raising three grandkids and caring for her 85-year-old mother.
We met Andy and his dog Alexa. He was living in a camper beside his house which had two feet of water inside during the storm. We cleared out a couple of fallen and damaged trees. The palm tree that was blown down was planted by his grandparents when they built the home in 1974.
One tarp that we had to reattach and repair was on the home of a family from Haiti with 10 members of the family living there. We also had to suit up in Tyvek to spray for mold in their bathroom. We worked on a leaking tarp for Pastor Robert Fletcher of the True Temple of Faith Missionary Baptist Church. He holds worship services in his home. His wife had a stroke in 2012 and is blind and cannot walk. His son recently died at the age of 43. And yet, with all of the trials in life, he was praising God for God’s presence and provision and thanked us over and over for helping.
We had to cut back a tree with limbs over the house and we found out that the homeowner is from Parkersburg! She grew up about a block from where one of the members of our team grew up – you can start singing “It’s a Small World Afterall.”
Our last three roof jobs were for the same family—a woman, her brother’s house, and her daughter’s house. She called to tell us how thankful she was that we were helping them. Each homeowner with which we had contact expressed deep gratitude that we would come all the way to Florida to help them. Our team worked in the North Ft Myers, Lehigh, Cape Coral, and Port Charlotte areas.
On Wednesday night, March 1st, we all set our alarms for 12:30am (yes, just after midnight) and went outside to watch the SpaceX rocket launch. Even though the blastoff was on the other side of the state, we could see the flames from the rockets as a red glow! It was a unique experience.
Our Saturday “fun day” was spent getting caught up with some tasks and driving along the coast from Bonita Springs to Ft. Myers Beach. The devastation is unreal. It looks like the storm happened last week. Did I mention the hurricane hit over five months ago? The beach is still closed and there is still a curfew in place. Very few places open – a few food trucks and one or two businesses/hotels. The project coordinator told us that there are 4,000 people in Lee County who needed assistance and they still have 150 of them to get to! After five months. They hope to get to them all by the end of March.
We saw work trailers from the Florida Conference UMC and their Gulf Central District, the North Carolina Conference UMC, Florida Conference United Church of Christ, and Lynn Haven UMC out of Panama City, Fl. We worked with Steve who is the project coordinator for the area. And Charlie, who came from St. Petersburg, Fl. to continue to work on site assessments. Did you notice that all of the folks we witnessed working in recovery are churches?
The United Methodist Committee on Relief, UMCOR, is one of the primary sources for work teams. A lot of organizations helped immediately following the hurricane, but did I mention that it has been over five months since the hurricane? Many groups have gone home and are probably going to the next disaster (probably one that is in the news). But it is the churches who remain and have committed to be there and work for the next few years until the job is done! We are thankful to be part of that group!
Our group consisted of Rev. David Stilgenbauer, Rev. Donald Stilgenbauer, Bob Cover, Carolyn Gorrell, Barb Koster, Bill Wade, Arnie Casto, and Rev. Steven Hamrick. We followed the first rule of disaster relief and any kind of mission work—be flexible! Do what you are asked to do and not what you want to do or presume needs done.
We worked as a cohesive team. When we were putting a tarp on a roof, we usually had three on the roof and five on the ground. We all stayed busy and helped complete the job in a timely manner. We actually worked so quickly and efficiently that they had to find us more jobs because in the first four days we completed all of the ones assigned to us!
We pray that we represented Christ well and were able to express the love of God in a very real and tangible way. We are confident that we made a difference to each homeowner for whom we worked. It also made a difference in us. As one serves God by serving others, we are connected to Jesus who came to serve and not be served. When you have the opportunity, I want to encourage you to be part of a mission team. It might just happen that when you return you will be more active in service within your own community.
Rev. Steve Hamrick, pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church, Ripley, Little Kanawha District wrote this article and provided pictures. To learn more about Disaster Response in the West Virginia Conference, click here.