Communities in 25 counties in the panhandle of Florida, stretching from Pensacola to Lake City, have been devastated by flash floods so severe that a great amount of money and volunteer time will be required to help those whose lives and homes were effected. Bill Wealand, disaster ministry coordinator for the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ says that's a key reason why the Florida Conference is joining an interfaith effort to begin cleanup of the damage of the Gulf Coast region.
"It's impossible for any [single] faith to do this on their own. We have to do it together," Wealand said.
The Florida Conference's Disaster Ministry Team has actively worked with other faith groups and has already collected more than 100 bucket cleanup kits and about 400 hygiene kits assembled by UCC congregations, and sent them to a staging area at a congregation in Ocala, Fla., so those supplies can quickly be trailered to the panhandle when the Florida Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster calls for them.
"We have one trailer providing provisions for volunteer workers in the central part of the panhandle," Wealand said. "The second one we will probably take to the Pensacola area next week.
"We will be moving flood clean-up kits and hygiene kits to distribute where needed," Wealand added. "One partner thinks there will be a large number of families in need of help. There are three different groups doing damage assessment and we will know more in a few days."
The trailers serve two purposes, Wealand explained. First, they can transport relief kits and supplies to affected areas. Second, each trailer has a generator and tools, so as volunteers come to Florida from a distance they have tools to use for site cleanup and rebuilding work.
As much as 19 inches of rain fell in the area on April 30, and rushing water washed away homes, left some roads in ruins and made other roads largely impassable. Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency, and said that crews rescued more than 300 people. The storms that flooded southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle are part of the same system that brought a rash of tornadoes through the Midwest and South, killing about 38 people.
Wealand said that members of two UCC congregations in Pensacola and Pensacola Beach have seen "pretty extensive" damage to their homes. "We don't have another UCC church in the panhandle until Tallahassee, but I haven't learned of any members who have had any damage there," he added. "It's still early, and that could change."
The Florida Conference Disaster Ministry team is also preparing for the rebuilding process when flooding begins to subside and debris removal is complete, though it could take several weeks. Wealand said that faith partners and disaster organizations will do a complete damage assessment.
"We'll try to identify those parcels that are uninsured and underinsured to provide assistance, and with Zach [Wolgemuth] and Mary [Schaller Blaufuss] helping recruit volunteer workers to come for at least for a year to do recovery work," Wealand said.
Wolgemuth and Blaufuss are part of the UCC Disaster Ministries Team, which is supporting the conference in its recovery effort.
"UCC Disaster Ministries has already sent a grant [of $3,000] to CWS for material aid distribution, and we will likely be supporting the Florida Conference response as assessments are completed, and we develop a better understanding of needs in the panhandle," Wolgemuth said.
The Florida Conference is asking UCC members to consider sending financial assistance to help affected families. Checks should be sent to the Florida Conference United Church of Christ, 924 N. Magnolia Ave., Suite 250, Orlando, FL 32803, marked for disaster ministry.
"The recovery on this, as is often the case, will be a long time. In 2011, we finished the recovery from a set of storms that hit in 2004. It's amazing that you don't uncover that somebody who is really in need of assistance takes years, sometimes."