Hurricane Charley died down to a tropical storm by Sunday, but it left behind a trace of destruction that left 16 confirmed dead, hundreds missing, thousands homeless and nearly a million without electricity. While humanitarian and government aid groups began assisting the victims with “the largest response since 9/11,” churches gathered their parishioners to offer God’s comfort in the midst of widespread uncertainty and grief.
"I believe that God is at work, even in Charley," said the Rev. Scott Borden, pastor of the 600-member First Alliance Church in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Despite the severe damages sustained by the church’s sanctuary, dozens of his parishioners gathered at the courtyard immediately after the storm had passed to pray and comfort each other. By Sunday, a majority of his flock had come out to church – some in their Sunday best, others in sweatshirts and jeans – to lift up songs of praise and gratitude for their protection.
"I've been waiting for church services ever since I heard that storm was coming," said parishioners Cassie Fryfogle, who spent the day helping clear their neighbors’ damaged streets.
The Rev. LeeRoy Martin of Christ the King Lutheran Church, whose sanctuary suffered partial damages, said that on a positive note, the storm allowed people to realize the value of their spiritual lives over their material goods.
"I guess at a time like this, you realize the significance of spiritual values when everything else is blown away," Martin said.
According to Federal agents, the hardest-hit areas appeared to be the retirement community of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte in Charlotte County.
President Bush, who on Friday declared Florida a “major disaster area”, visited the two communities via helicopter to assess the damages and offer his condolences.
"A lot of people's lives are turned upside down,” said Bush. "What I’m telling you is that a lot of help will be in this part of the world it’s gonna take a while to rebuild it but the government’s job is to help epopel rebuild their lives and that’s what’s happening."
Bush opened the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to the victims in those two areas, along with residents in Manatee, Lee and Sarasota counties.
According to the FEMA director Michael Brown, however, finding the victims alone may take several weeks, especially since Punta Gorda was largely a mobile home based community.
“We literally have thousands of people without homes who have spread out all over Florida and probably neighboring states,” Brown told NBC's "Today" show Monday.
Brown also noted that restoring power to the nearly 1 million homes and businesses would also take weeks. Currently, 2,300 people have been guided into emergency shelters for immediate needs; 11,000 others have applied for disaster aid over the weekend alone.
"We're immediately providing them food and shelter and clothing just to provide them with their immediate needs," said Brown.
By Monday, the FEMA had sent out teams of medical, urban rescue and communication workers, at least 60 semitrailers containing cots, blankets, meals, portable toilets, wash kits and other necessities and truckloads of water and ice – some residents walked several hours in 90 degree weather for the aid.
The American Red Cross, which had been on scene since immediately after the storm hit, said the agency has eight mobile kitchens and five feeding centers capable of serving 9,000 meals a day; the units will be up and running by Monday.
"This is the largest Red Cross response since Sept. 11," explained J.B. Hunt, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.
Workers from New Image Towing and Recovery also came out from Georgia to help the victims of Charley.
"It's terrible. I'm much in prayer for all of them," said worker Carolyn Norton. "I feel so bad for everybody and I'm glad we could be a part of helping. As little as it sounds, bringing those things down here, I guess it's a whole lot," she said.
Christian groups, including the Salvation Army, the Assemblies of God’s Convoy of Hope and the Southern Baptist disaster response group were also on scene to provide “heart to hands” ministry to the victims.
According to the Southern Baptist’s BP news, volunteers from several states came over to Florida to run the Florida Baptist Convention’s mobile feeding units, to establish incident command system and to launch mass feeding and setup operations.
“We will need lots of assistance and patience as we begin to minister to a hurting Florida," said Fritz Wilson, disaster relief coordinator and director of Florida Baptist Men. "The main goal is to show the people of Florida God's love in practical ways so we earn the right to share the Gospel of God's love even in difficult times."
Wilson explained that practical methods are a key to ministering to the victims.
"The key to a successful response will be responding in an organized and directed method that concentrates on what we can do and know our limitations," Wilson said. "If we try to do too much too fast we will only add to the problems instead of helping resolve them. If we try to go beyond our reasonable abilities and skills we will be ineffective."
By Monday, Southern Baptist feeding units from Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama are expected to be in position via the denomination’s North American Mission Board. Most of the units will be set up in Punta Gorda, North Port and Charlotte Fla.
Residents in Charlotte, Manatee, Lee and Sarasota counties can apply for federal assistance by calling FEMA at 1(800)621-3362 or 1(800)462-7585 for the hearing and speech-impaired, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Up to 25 other counties have been declared “disaster areas,” and may be eligible for federally funded assistance.
Financial donations to the Southern Baptist Convention can be sent to: Hurricane Charley Relief, Florida Baptist Convention, 1230 Hendricks Ave., Jacksonville, FL 32207. Currently, the disaster relief operations are not prepared to receive collected items of any type.
Donations can also be made to the Salvation Army via phone or email. To give to the survivors of Hurricane Charely, please visit: www.salvationarmy.org or call: 1800 Sal-Army