“I know you love me because you keep coming back.” This coming from a spunky 81-year-old woman living with her disabled son in their flood-ravaged home in Pensacola, FL. Four weeks prior, this neighborhood – along with numerous other neighborhoods throughout the county – experienced historic flooding after the same storm system that spawned deadly tornadoes in Kansas, Arkansas and Mississippi later dropped 24 inches of rain in 24 hours on Pensacola and surrounding communities.
As the rains came down over the city, the flood waters rose almost two feet in our new friend’s home, stranding her and her son on their beds until help arrived. The receding water took with it their former sense of security, leaving their personal belongings in ruins and their home uninhabitable (in theory … without somewhere else to go, many elderly, disabled, single parents and uninsured residents continued to live in the swiftly-deteriorating conditions of their homes).
Upon hearing her story, Operation Blessing stepped in to assist with the clean up process, infusing help and hope into their need for a restored home.
Responding to Pensacola
Our Operation Blessing US Disaster Relief convoy, consisting of our sizable Mobile Command Center, trucks, work trailers, Penskes and SUVs, often attracts a fair amount of attention as it pulls into a disheveled community on the heels of a disaster … but I love the bold statement it makes, alerting the community to our presence and positioning them to take their first steps out of the muck and the rubble.
After spending almost two weeks with Operation Blessing in Tupelo, MS organizing debris removal following the April 28 tornadoes, I joined the Operation Blessing USDR team responding to the Pensacola flooding. For the next five weeks Operation Blessing staff and volunteers continued to assist residents in the affected areas by salvaging personal effects, removing wet drywall and tarping roofs.
As we wrap our arms around wet carpets and construction debris, we also try to wrap our hearts and minds around the exhaustion, grief and uncertainty experienced by the affected residents.
In the wake of a disaster, Operation Blessing and its volunteers set out to not only share the burden of physical recovery but of emotional and spiritual recovery as well. As we wrap our arms around wet carpets and construction debris, we also try to wrap our hearts and minds around the exhaustion, grief and uncertainty experienced by the affected residents.
A Flood of Uninsured Flood Victims
It was during the latter part of our deployment in Pensacola when we first met this special lady. Summoned at the request of a FEMA representative advising her on the necessary gutting and dry-out procedures preceding drywall replacement, Operation Blessing was invited in to the early stages of her recovery process. Like so many of the affected residents, she looked to FEMA for financial assistance, as the vast majority of Pensacola flood victims did not have flood insurance.
Many homeowners with property located near I-98, the primary east-west artery through the city, and inland were not accustomed to holding flood insurance policies, as raised elevations in the central part of the city had previously protected their homes from high water. Without flood insurance these homeowners were reluctant, at first, to engage in the demolition process without the promise of repair.
But as the weeks passed, and the mold grew (with assistance from the Florida heat and humidity), more and more homeowners turned to FEMA, OB and other relief organizations to get the help they so desperately needed but could not afford.
Trust in the Trenches
Our friend was understandably hesitant to trust Operation Blessing volunteers with the gutting process. It wasn’t easy for her to open her home to a group of strangers armed with crowbars, hammers and screwdrivers with the intent to tear out four feet of drywall throughout her home … but a month of mold growth and related health concerns convinced her it was time.
We were honored with the opportunity to walk with her on the first few steps of her journey from disaster to recovery. Trust was built through the course of multiple conversations, before, during and after the demolition began, and with trust came relationship and support.
A recipient of President George H.W. Bush’s “Points of Light” award for her notable community service to the region, our friend displayed to us the same mental toughness while cleaning up her home as it must have required to clean up her city. In light of her outward show of strength I don’t think I realized how much my visits leading up to and during the project meant to her … until she said those words, “I know you love me because you keep coming back.”
But I knew what she meant. When the right person – or the right organization – steps in at the right moment during a difficult season, their presence can bridge the divide between despair and hope.
When the right person – or the right organization – steps in at the right moment during a difficult season, their presence can bridge the divide between despair and hope.
After losing her home and most of her possessions in the path of the EF-4 tornado that devastated Washington, IL last November, one tornado victim stated, “I was ready to close the book and walk away [from her scattered belongings] because it was mentally draining. I was done. … Next thing I know there are 16 people from Operation Blessing helping me go through things. Operation Blessing found tons of stuff and put it in totes for us.” View the Hunter Family Story >>
Operation Blessing’s presence of help and hope has provided – and continues to provide – these families, and many others like them, with the resources they need to take their first tentative steps toward recovery.
When disaster strikes its painful blow to life as we once knew it – whether that be natural disasters, personal, professional or otherwise – we often need people to just be there, to listen to our story as we process our pain, our questions and our next steps, and to help us start to dig out of the rubble.
(Please forgive the following pop culture reference, as the message is just too good to ignore …) A recent evening escape to see The Amazing Spiderman 2 ended with this monologue from Spiderman’s love interest, “Gwen,” “There will be days where you feel all alone, and that’s when hope is needed most. No matter how buried it gets, or how lost you feel, you must promise me that you will hold on to hope. Keep it alive. We have to be greater than what we suffer. My wish for you is to become hope; people need that.”
“To be greater than what we suffer,” challenges me to trust that God has a plan for the hope I’ve found in the midst of my pain and brokenness, and to act in a manner “worthy of the calling I have received.” (Ephesians 4:1) “To become hope” for others, even as my hope struggles at times, drives me to continue to find ways to bring light in to the darkness of disaster and difficulty.
“We have to be greater than what we suffer. My wish for you is to become hope.”
There’s healing in hope, for the giver as much as the receiver. And for those of us who know Christ – and who claim to trust God even with life’s darkest moments – we have hope to spare and to share.
Operation Blessing and its volunteers know we can’t solve all the challenges accompanying natural disasters, but we can come alongside its victims with our presence, our help and our Hope during a vulnerable season of pain and loss … “because we care.”
- Operation Blessing Teams Respond to Deadly Tornadoes (Tupelo, MS) >> http://www.ob.org/operation-blessing-teams-respond-to-deadly-tornadoes/
- Flood Victims Face Devastation in Florida (Pensacola, FL) >> http://www.ob.org/flood-victims-face-devastation-in-florida/
- Operation Blessing International on Facebook >> https://www.facebook.com/operationblessing