Damaged churches open doors

Just after Hurricane Charley hit, the damaged Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church received a grant - and promptly gave it to two neighboring churches.

BY SUSAN KIM | DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. | August 25, 2004

Just after Hurricane Charley hit, the damaged Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church received a grant - and promptly gave it to two neighboring churches.

"Those two churches lost everything," explained the Rev. Larry Deitch, pastor at the unique drive-in church that serves about 350 carloads each Sunday.

But the drive-in church isn't looking at minor damage - it lost one-third of the roof over its Sunday school area and its entire chapel roof, resulting in significant water damage. Its treasured grand piano was destroyed. "We're looking at $50,000 to $60,000 in damages," said Deitch.

The grant - called an “initial solidarity grant” and offered as an expression of concern from Week of Compassion on behalf of Disciples churches nationwide - was best used to help someone else, he explained.

"Insurance will cover all but our deductible. We feel very fortunate," said Deitch.

The Sunday after Charley hit, Deitch challenged his congregation to contribute funds to their neighboring Christian churches to even further supplement the grant.

In the midst of disaster, churches - even those with significant damage - often step up to help their neighboring congregations.

Church World Service (CWS) has found many mid-Florida churches, temples and synagogues were damaged by Hurricane Charley.

Yet ministry continues within and across faith communities, said Lesli Remaly, a CWS Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison.

"Despite the destruction to buildings and infrastructure, those of our denominational partners in the region who are functioning are beginning to mobilize in certain areas and are working directly to provide services to those who are most in need," Remaly said.

"We're still identifying church camps and sites that were not damaged, as centers to house thousands of volunteers who've come from all over the U.S. and who are currently staying in hotels and motels that may still be needed to house survivors. This is just one way the faith community comes to the frontlines in times of disaster," she said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) projections show more than 200,000 structures have been damaged across Florida. As of Wednesday afternoon, some 112,000 people had registered with FEMA, and more than 50,000 people were still without power.

FEMA has deployed housing inspectors and, attempting to put into a place a housing plan for hundreds of displaced people, has purchased 4,284 travel trailers and more than 4,000 mobile homes. FEMA plans to open a total of 19 disaster recovery centers, both mobile and fixed sites.

Assessments by the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church show 83 United Methodist church facilities were damaged. Other denominations are still tallying their damages.

And so Florida churches - even damaged ones - have been offering hurricane survivors everything from water to a listening ear. There are support groups for elderly people, care for children, and home-cooked food. There is a focus among churches on the needs of migrant workers. And teams of volunteers are being deployed from churches to clean up debris and repair what homes they can.

Repairing churches themselves can often become a healthy focal point for a community, said Scott Cline, now vice chair for the Maryland Interfaith Recovery Team, a group addressing long-term recovery needs in the wake of last year's Hurricane Isabel.

Cline, who also responded in North Carolina when Hurricane Floyd devastated many communities in 1999, said he saw "quite a few churches that were hurting" still able to offer relief and support after Floyd.

"Churches were still a meeting place and focal point," he remembered.

Cline said he saw many instances of churches helping each other repair buildings. "Those not damaged sent work teams and materials to rebuild churches," he said. "And mainline denominations often helped storefront churches that had no affiliation with a national group."

Similarly, following flooding in West Virginia, responders in that state observed communities gathering to repair their churches even before they repaired their own homes, said Dick Krajeski of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. "Depending on the community, for some people, taking care of that church building is more important than taking care of their own house. Churches are such a symbol of community," he said.

Also church members will often simultaneously tarp their own roof, and open their doors as a comfort station to distribute relief supplies, said Krajeski and others.

And that's because it's a mission of faith, said Barbara Tripp, director of the Marion Edwards Recovery Center Initiatives, affiliated with the North Carolina Conference United Methodist Church.

In the wake of both Hurricane Isabel and Hurricane Floyd, Tripp said she saw damaged churches do what they could.

"If a church can do anything, they will do it," she said.

Even if a church is damaged beyond repair, congregations often respond however they can, she said. "If the structure is not safe, you can't open as a comfort station. We don't want to put people in jeopardy. But there is a lot of good feeling that the church is not just four walls."

One North Carolina church that had to be gutted because of flood damage in the wake of Hurricane Isabel opened its grounds as a distribution point, she said. "You couldn't go in the church itself, but, boy, were they operating. The church is definitely not just four walls."

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