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Religious groups joined forces to help Hurricane Andrew's victims

ChristianityMeteorological DisastersHurricanes and Tropical StormsBaptistHomesteadMormonism

Shortly after the winds stopped screaming and the patio chairs stopped flying, Pastor Joseph Coats and his family hurried to Glendale Baptist Church.

Hurricane Andrew, they found, had ruined the sanctuary. The roof had been staved in by a wind-driven two-by-four. The church bus was on the other side of the Turnpike, apparently thrown by some whirlwind.

Tears began rolling down the pastor's cheeks. He was 69 and planning retirement.

"All he said was, `God is gonna make a way,'" recalls son Mark, then the church's youth minister.

Help was, in fact, soon to come for the church, as well as for thousands of Miami-Dade County residents hit hard on Aug. 24, 1992.

A Baptist disaster team arrived from Tennessee, serving 700,000 meals in its three months at the church in the Richmond Heights section. Thirteen other mobile soup kitchens came to the area courtesy of the Baptists, plus more than 40 quick-serve canteen trucks by the Salvation Army, and an advance truck by the Mormon Church -- many of them setting up within a day after the hurricane left.

Joining them were more than a half-dozen religious groups -- Catholic, Methodist, Mennonite, Jewish, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Christian Reform and others -- the leading edge of aid and recovery in those first desperate days.

They rushed to provide food, water, shelter, rebuilding expertise -- and no less important, hope and courage. And some stayed up to five years.

It was a shining moment for faith-based organizations, both in South Florida and nationally.

"They got there before the government, even state and local," says Prof. Betty Morrow, a researcher with the International Hurricane Center at Florida International University. "[Hurricane Andrew] showed the importance of nongovernmental organizations, including religious groups."

Rabbi Solomon Schiff agrees. "The religious response was significant and brought tangible results," says Schiff, a board member of the commission We Will Rebuild. "And not just in buildings. When you give people a home, or a church or synagogue, you rebuild their psyche and purpose for living."

The first daysAt Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Hollywood, burly general contractor Frank Knight returned from touring Perrine and Homestead, tearful at seeing children playing in rubble.

"I told my staff, `I'm shutting the company down,'" says Knight, now a lay minister at the church. "My office became the church relief office."

He and four fellow members collected food, clothing and toys and headed back. They pitched a blue-and-white gospel tent at Homestead's Campbell Middle School, feeding 1,500 people the first day. Operation Good News was born.

Within a month, they were joined by volunteers from about 30 charismatic, Pentecostal and "full gospel" churches in Broward and Miami-Dade. The broad, stony field became a campsite for relief workers and a landing spot for Coast Guard helicopters.

In Miami, evangelical relief veteran Tom Willey called his bosses at World Relief in New York. "They said to do whatever is necessary," he says. "So I called my foster brother, who owned a hardware store and lumber yard."

The next day, they connected with First Assembly of God in Homestead, which rounded up a work crew. By Wednesday, they had "dried in" 25 houses, or made temporary repairs. They also gave $50 grants to 100 families for food and gas.

World Relief, the disaster relief arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, followed up with work crews for Princeton, Naranja, Goulds and other places.

Glendale Baptist was just one part of a military-scale campaign mounted by the Southern Baptist Convention -- a project that lasted months and cost $3.2 million. Fourteen mobile kitchens from 10 states converged on south Miami-Dade, some of them up and running within hours after Hurricane Andrew left. The Baptists also rebuilt 710 homes.

More than 14,000 volunteers cycled in and out, feeding, cleaning and counseling. Staffers of the Jacksonville-based Florida Baptist Convention coordinated the work, staying until the job was done -- 2,001 days later.

The aid helped the victims become the helpers: Even with its smashed-in roof, Glendale became the scene for food lines that often curled around the building.

"People brought food, clothing, water -- in one day we unloaded three tractor-trailer trucks," recalls the Rev. Mark Coats. "We were supplying practically every house in the Richmond Heights area."

In the hard-hit Kendall area, the Alper Jewish Community Center became a clearinghouse for relief supplies -- everything from ice to bread to batteries to diapers -- supplied by the truckload from other JCCs in Broward and Palm Beach counties. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation raised about $3 million for the recovery.

"We made an early decision to be a place to fill those first needs," says Jacob Solomon of the federation, which also sponsored job counseling. "I had just taken over as executive director, and I lost half of my own house. So I was very focused."

Catholic Charities, a branch of the Archdiocese of Miami, mounted a massive assault on the people's plight. With combined funding of $40 million, the organization used five parishes in the stricken area as command posts for their neighborhoods. The largest site, St. Ann Mission in Naranja, had a day-care center and a feeding program that distributed more than 16 million pounds of food. The site ran on solar cells donated by the Florida Solar Energy Center.

St. Ann was also the site for "Tent City," which housed 300 homeless people with help from about 40 organizations -- state, local, national, educational and religious.

"It was the finest example of inter-agency cooperation I've ever seen," says Bruce Netter of North Miami Beach, emergency manager for Catholic Charities' relief work after the hurricane. "And it has yet to be equaled since."

At St. Joachim, the Rev. Antonio Silvio started a rebuilding program called Operation Hope. More than 30 homes were rebuilt, using skilled parishioners and materials donated from area stores.

For weeks the church fed more than a thousand people a day, making sure those serving them were lay people, not police or military. Some of the neighbors were from Central or South America, where people fear uniformed men, the priest explained.

The food supplies began two days after the storm: Three vans arrived from San Isidro in Pompano Beach, where Silvio served before St. Joachim, bringing bread and Gatorade. That turned into a flood of supplies, with three or four trucks arriving daily from as far as New York or California.

"It was the church taking the role of the mother caring for the hungry and thirsty children," Silvio says. "For the first few days, the only place people could get help was St. Joachim."

From Palm Beach County came Jack Brown, a member of St. Rita in Wellington. St. Joachim was one of three parishes Brown felt compelled to help, helping organize crews and supplies at his parish.

Even during the first week, Brown could see south Miami-Dade would recover, he says. "I'm blue collar and I knew it could be fixed. Others would come back talking about the damage. I came back talking about all the charity I saw."

Like a mighty armyAt a fairground in Homestead, a red circus tent was pitched, and the Salvation Army opened shop. Under the big top was a village of smaller tents, for planning and counseling. During a tour of the area, billionaire Ross Perot bought an abandoned strip mall for the group, and the Salvationists' Volunteer Village was founded.

The village also housed The Coalition, a coordinating body for the 125 workers who stayed at the 26 cottages each week. All told, the alliance took care of 500 to 600 houses, sometimes one group adding to the work started by another.

"Other organizations had the volunteers; we had the offices," says Luis Azan, a former Salvation Army worker who headed the coalition. "So we took over as the head, and gave the arms the work to do."

Two of those arms belonged to Richard Ford, a non-practicing Methodist near Harrisburg, Pa. Hearing that Mennonite co-workers were volunteering in South Florida, Ford took some time off for the same.

He asked for directions from a Salvation Army officer, who talked him into organizing the emergency warehouse. Ford then graduated to rebuilding, and to coordinating the volunteers.

After three months, he called his boss in Pennsylvania to say he wasn't coming back. Instead, he became a long-term disaster worker, helping after tornadoes in Oklahoma, a flood in the Florida Panhandle, and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

"I've never found anything that fills the void better," explains Ford, now the maintenance supervisor at the Salvation Army Miami post. "We feed not just the body but the soul. I tell people that they are not receiving it from the Salvation Army; they're receiving it from God."

The Mormon Church mobilized like a mighty army, fixing 3,700 homes, a synagogue and a Pentecostal church and dumping 2,100 truckloads of debris. The Mormons sent a "spearhead unit," a tractor-trailer with food, water, tools and bedding from its Atlanta base before the storm hit South Florida, setting up even as Andrew left.

George Holden, president of the Fort Lauderdale Stake, toured the stricken area and set up distribution centers in Kendall and Homestead. Living out of tents, the Mormons worked in crews of seven. They filled immediate needs from the Bishops' Storehouse, a warehouse in Davie stocked by South Florida's 18,000 church members.

To coordinate efforts, the Homestead Stake Center asked for 10 Spanish translators, says church welfare official Albert Benzion of Miramar. He found 100, to his own amazement.

Shelter from the stormLutheran disaster workers designed small, prefabricated sheds to give 100 homeless families temporary shelter. Called HAVE Houses -- for the Lutherans' project, Helping Andrew Victims Ecumenically -- the 10-by-20-foot structures could be assembled by inexperienced volunteers.

Homestead's ironically named St. Andrew Church became a distribution center for other Lutheran churches, although its own sanctuary lost its roof and had to be demolished. Yet the church was rebuilt less than three years later, through $300,000 donated from all over the country. Even the main crucifix -- broken apart and scattered -- was restored, with money from a family at the church.

Sometimes it seemed the nation's religious communities mustered all their powers for South Florida. At one time or another, the region saw 14,000 Southern Baptists, 1,604 Mennonites, 8,500 Methodists, 2,000 Lutherans, 19,000 youths with an interdenominational program called Project Serve. There were more than 12,000 Mormons, many of them in identical yellow T-shirts -- so ubiquitous, they were known simply as the Yellowshirts.

"Crosses and yarmulkes and the Salvation Army shield, they all became visible signs for people to go to," says Judith Bunker, who supervised hurricane recovery for Lutheran Disaster Response. "It was a significant role: finding and feeding people, asking `How are you?'"

To care for the many volunteers, several villages arose. The Interfaith Coalition for the Andrew Recovery Effort -- or simply, ICARE -- built a village at a former missile base. Starting with 16 tents from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, the group built a complex of cabins and a kitchen -- even boasting an English chef from Buckingham Palace.

Some 400 people stayed there each week, from evangelical and mainline denominations. The volunteers would gather each night and share war stories. They even put on skits and concerts, with various church groups taking one night or another.

Not all was harmony, though. Some of the relief workers objected to the 15-minute devotions that the evangelicals wanted, pushing to get out and work instead. The evangelicals held their prayer times separately thereafter.

Their overseers sometimes clashed as well during weekly meetings, in spats fueled by interchurch competition and sleep deprivation. It was often Rabbi Schiff who calmed things down, says Mary Lou Cole, who served as ICARE executive director.

"He would say something subtle and wise, and get us back on task," she recalls. "He was the most Christian of the bunch."

Still, the coalition lasted for a year and a half, with church groups cycling people in and out, with some repeaters. By closing time, the volunteers had rebuilt or fixed up nearly 1,600 houses, Cole estimates.

And in the War Zone, there was no competition as the workers shared goods and knowledge.

World Relief bought mapping software for ICARE, allowing the coalition to pinpoint individual houses for their state of repair and insurance. Organizations often traded wares, like plywood for toilets. In Homestead, a laywoman helping at First United Methodist Church found Mormons repairing her house.

The Mormons' Albert Benzion marveled at the way a hurricane could level differences as it flattened walls. "Jews, Mormons, Baptists, we worked shoulder to shoulder. Mexican, black, Cuban, Native American -- no questions. All sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.

"I think a lot of good came out of Hurricane Andrew," Benzion says.

Kathleen Hartzler, of the Homestead Mennonite Church, recalls thanking a military man for helping keep order in South Florida during the recovery. She was surprised at the answer.

"He said, `No, thank you,'" recalls Hartzler, who directed volunteer projects. "He told me that the churches were what held the community from falling apart."

Treating the traumas

As the work progressed, another need emerged: treating psychological and emotional traumas.

While Salvation Army employees handled the nuts and bolts of relief and rebuilding, their officers talked and prayed with storm victims. The Lutherans organized a support group for eight pastors who were suffering under the dual responsibility of their churches and their own houses.

At First United Methodist Church of Homestead, members tried their own therapy on kids: assigning them tasks in cleanup, food donations and other responsibilities. The work helped the youths feel empowered instead of victimized, church members say.

"I went from sitting at home to doing something," says Matt Goodman, who was 12 at the time. "It got my mind off my own problems and onto helping others."

And the year after the storm, the United Methodist Committee on Relief brought a science teacher from the Midwest. His task: teaching kids to fly kites.

"He taught them to love the wind again," Lynette Fields of UMCOR says. "Many of them had become frightened by wind, especially that big storm that followed the hurricane."

Mental health needs injected new life into the Counseling Ministry of South Florida, a small project of the United Church of Christ. Founded in the early 1980s, the ministry had four active counselors. But after Hurricane Andrew, several mainline Protestant bodies chipped in, mushrooming the group's annual budget from $5,000 to $150,000 and from four to 15 counselors. They also expanded their caseload from 100 to 3,000 people each year.

Looking back, many people say they're actually glad they went through Hurricane Andrew. While they don't wish the same on anyone, they say it taught important lessons of faith and community.

Pastor Mark Coats now has his own church, Grace of God Baptist in Goulds. He looks back on Hurricane Andrew as an experience of divine faithfulness and the faith of his father, who died this past April.

"I feel like that New Testament story where Jesus said, `O ye of little faith,'" he says. "Because we saw that God really will provide for our every need.

"We experienced that, brother."

James D. Davis can be reached at jdavis@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4730.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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