By Barbara Denman
September 21, 2012
MIAMI—Carolyn McAdams began weeping as she walked into the sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Cutler Ridge 20 years ago. Though the walls were still standing, the ceiling had caved in, insulation hung in chunks and several inches of water stood on the floor.
“This is the only church I have attended since I was a child,” she said. “My home is gone, my car is gone and I’ve lost my church.”
As Tropical Storm Isaac glanced off the Sunshine State on its trek towards Louisiana the last week of August, many Florida Baptists relived another storm which almost 20 years to the date whipped through Miami, demolishing everything in its path.
Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 storm with 150 miles-per-hour sustained winds, struck the Miami-Dade metropolis on Aug. 24, 1992. When it completed its march of terror at least 38 persons were dead, 250,000 persons were homeless and nearly a million persons were without access to food, drinking water, power, telephone service or basic commodities—for weeks. Economically, the storm wreaked an estimated $20 billion in damages and 85,000 jobs were lost in Florida.
For Florida Baptists, the hurricane damaged 35 churches—20 severely. Wayside Baptist Church in Kendall became the “poster child” for the destruction as news media far and wide focused on the gaping hole in its sanctuary wall. The harm to other churches may not have been as visible from the outside, but little was salvageable as the roofs crashed in and the storm’s rain and fury pelted pews, pulpits, carpets and walls.
The livelihoods of thousands of church members were instantaneously cut off, crippling the existence of the churches. Many residents—and church members—left the region as trucks carrying all of their life’s possessions created an exodus on the turnpike and interstates.
In 1992, the weekly budget of Glendale Baptist Church in Miami was $13,000. The week after Andrew, the offering was only $3,000 as nearly 99 percent of church members’ homes were damaged. Other churches faced similar dilemmas.
Those who remained in the area battled for survival in a location with no food, water or in many cases, hope.
Driving down Highway 1 south of Miami the day after the storm made landfall, Cecil Seagle dodged hanging electrical wires, detached stoplights, cement slabs and shards of metal from buildings and roofs. He stopped at First Baptist Church of Perrine (now Christ Fellowship) to assess the damage and found walls intact but utter destruction throughout the sanctuary.
“Desolation engulfed me when I took my first trek through the stricken area,” Seagle recalled. “It looked like reports from a war zone. My first thought, ‘Dear God, what do we do? What can we do? Where do we begin?’”
Serving as the Florida Baptists’ Men’s Director, which included the disaster relief response, Seagle did not know on that day he would spend the next 30 months sleeping in a church gym and living in a recreational vehicle as he directed thousands of Baptist volunteers to help rebuild the region.
Among Seagle’s first actions was stationing the Convention’s mobile mass feeding kitchen at First Cutler Ridge. It would soon be followed by 13 other Southern Baptist feeding units which eventually served more than two million meals to Andrew survivors during the relief stage.
Southern Baptists blanketed the region and became known for their generosity and compassion. Years later Florida Baptist Max Mayfield, now retired as NOAA Hurricane Center Director, recalled that the family of the Center’s Deputy Director Jerry Jarrell received their first hot meal post Andrew in a Southern Baptist feeding site.
Saying he often heard “bragging” about Southern Baptist and other faith-based feeding programs, Mayfield said it “was a great testimony for Baptists and the Cooperative Program.”
Immediately after the storm, South Florida residents in Cutler Ridge lined up half a city block for food from the mobile kitchen. The Convention developed commodity distribution onsite, sorting, organizing and giving away food, bottled water, ice, medical supplies, toiletries, diapers and household cleaning products.
Most of the volunteers, including Convention employees who were there from the very first, slept on floors in the church sanctuary, Sunday school rooms and fellowship halls. Soon the Florida Baptist mobile dental unit with volunteer medical personnel was positioned there to give medical attention to survivors with wounds and illnesses. Child care was provided so that parents could work and clean up their homes.
Although the Cutler Ridge building was destroyed, the church became a lighthouse of hope for the entire community, said member and disaster relief volunteer Dan Chandler. “Many people that were helped through the DR units being at our church, eventually joined (the congregation), saying we were the only ones that helped them. Even today I run into people who still will talk about the church on the corner that fed and helped them.”
Chandler, a long-term disaster relief volunteer, recalled that Pastor Charles Koch was not around for the first five days after the storm while he handled family issues. “When he got back I said, ‘Pastor Charlie, I hope you don't mind what we have done by taking over the church for a relief center without asking you.’
“He looked at me, smiled and said ‘Danny it is not our church, it is God’s church and I am sure it is OK with Him.’”
Convention retiree Hugh Cater was the only Florida Baptist employee with on-site disaster relief experience at the time and directed the feeding unit operation at Cutler Ridge for nearly 10 weeks.
Cater told of a man from the neighborhood who shared with him that when the winds arrived, “he prayed to Allah for protection—and the winds tore off his roof.” Going to the center of his home, he prayed to Allah again, and his front wall was destroyed. Praying to Allah once more from his bathtub, the walls came down, the man explained.
After sitting in the rubble for some time, the man told Cater he “decided he needed a new god.” When the Florida Baptist feeding unit arrived at the church, the man arrived at the site for food. When two volunteers witnessed to him, “the man accepted Jesus as Savior,” Cater said.
“We introduced him to the church’s pastor. What greater memory could there be?”
At each of the churches where the 14 SBC feeding units were stationed, similar commodity distributions were established as 14,000 Southern Baptist volunteers over an eight week period provided food services, child care, medical care, debris clean-up, temporary repairs to damaged buildings, grief and spiritual counseling.
Seagle recalled, “We decided that whether those in need were Buddhist or Baptist they would be served and ministered to in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Other response and government agencies also poured their relief efforts in the region helping South Floridians survive, but few offered the hope of eternal life, Seagle said.
Mike Daily, church and community director for the Miami Baptist Association for the past 25 years, recalled the response as “a huge opportunity for ministry. People who are vulnerable and suffering are open and welcome anybody who could provide hope—in a tremendous amount of darkness.”
“Walking around the neighborhood in the days after Andrew,” he said. “I could truly understand how Jesus wept as he looked at the multitudes and saw them as sheep without a shepherd. People were walking around, talking over and again about the experiences they had gone through.”
“A lot of blessings came out of the storm and response,” Daily said, “but it wasn’t fun getting there.”
Prior to the hurricane, Daily was trying to put together resources to develop a medical clinic to help South Dade’s migrant population. The hurricane placed a huge spotlight on the many people who did not have access to affordable health care, bringing much needed awareness to the medical community.
Dailey coordinated a collaborative effort with Baptist Health of South Florida to start the Good News Care Center in Florida City, which now two decades later continues to thrive. Staffed by volunteer physicians and students in the health care field, the center provides no-cost health care to Dade county residents who are uninsured. In 2011, the clinic reported 17,894 patient visits, 69 volunteers, 67 licensed medical professionals as volunteers and $8 million in donated medical services donated.
To help Miami pastors through the difficult days, the Florida Baptist Convention provided salary supplements totaling $104,000 as well as $800,000 in direct support and counseling to pastors and staff.
While many churches were insured, others were not fully insured to repair the damage. Once again, Seagle said, using funds donated in hurricane relief, the Convention provided $1.49 million to reconstruct churches and coordinated volunteer construction teams in the area. Churches from other Florida communities were linked up to partner and meet specific needs of the Miami churches.
Three months after Andrew struck, as the power and infrastructure were restored, much of Miami-Dade’s commerce returned to normal. Grocery stores, restaurants and banks were up and running ending the need for most of the emergency relief.
The Convention staff moved its recovery operations and command center from the Pembroke Road church to First Church in Florida City, located in the heart of the most damaged area. The community is adjacent to Homestead where 90 percent of the homes were destroyed from the hurricanes direct hit.
From that location, Seagle organized thousands of Southern Baptist volunteers from across America to rebuild homes of the uninsured and under-insured. Vowing to stay as long as donations and volunteers were available, the Convention coordinated the rebuilding of more than 600 homes and 13 churches.
When Hurricane Andrew hit, Florida Baptists had 500 trained volunteers and one feeding unit. Twenty years later the Florida Baptist disaster relief and recovery ministry has grown to 6,500 active, trained volunteers. The Florida Baptist DR fleet includes two mass feeding units, while churches and associations have developed response ministries with 78 clean-up recovery units, 16 heavy equipment tractors and skid steers, a bucket truck, chain saw maintenance, three communications units, two children care units; nine shower/laundry portables and other emergency vehicles.
“We were undermanned” during Andrew, recalled John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention. “We did not have adequate volunteers trained; did not have our staff organized nor prepared and had inadequate equipment.”
In the succeeding years, disaster relief became a priority for the Convention and was fully staffed and funded, carrying out more than 100 relief efforts since that time. With the passing of years, Florida Baptists are recognized as a leader in Southern Baptist disaster relief.
Disaster relief both in the state and in other nations will be among Sullivan’s legacies, said Seagle, who now serves as the executive director of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana.
Few of those on the Convention staff can forget immediately after Andrew, Sullivan arrived in South Florida and worked in the warehouse, organizing commodities, sleeping in churches and eating from the feeding unit. Either he or a staff member personally visited almost every pastor and church to determine and meet needs.
Sullivan remembered when an elderly man approached the feeding unit and said he could not find his house. Sullivan carried him in an automobile to the address and both discovered that the house was totally blown away. The sheer hopelessness experienced by the man at that time, Sullivan said, will never escape his mind.
Seagle said that the magnitude of the response would not have been possible without Sullivan, who “made many, many key decisions during Andrew.” Among the decisions was that all Convention staff “would be on call and would serve the people of Florida in the Name of Jesus Christ,” during a disaster. That policy remains in effect today as the staff is organized and ready to be mobilized.
The response resulted in kingdom growth in two ways, Sullivan recently said, as Miami churches began to “minister in their communities as never before,” he said. Secondly, the Convention was recognized in the multi-cultural setting and with languages groups “as those who care,” jumpstarting the Convention’s ethnic mission work in the region.
When Seagle looks back on the time two decades ago, he believes, “We have never been better, we never worked harder and to this day we remember His Presence among us.”