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US churches offer shelter and prayers in the wake of Hurricane Irma

15 September 2017


Operation clean-up: residents at the First Baptist Church, in Everglade City, Florida

Operation clean-up: residents at the First Baptist Church, in Everglade City, Florida

CHURCHES across the United States have been giving shelter, supplying aid, raising funds, and praying for the victims of Hurricane Irma, which continued its way up the East Coast this week.

At least 18 people died when the hurricane hit south Florida on Sunday, having wreaked havoc through the Caribbean Islands in the days before. More than six million homes in Florida were without power, and emergency services and agencies came to the aid of the tens of thousands of residents who decided to ignore mandatory evacuation orders and brace the storm.

Homes, schools, and businesses were flattened by high winds and rain, and roads were submerged by floodwater. The British Red Cross estimated that as many as 26 million people may have been affected by Irma.

In the US, 12 fatalities were reported in Florida, three in Georgia, and one in South Carolina, while the death toll in the Caribbean reached 37 this week. Cuba and the Virgin Islands were among the worst affected regions.

Church services were cancelled and guidance issued as communities scrambled to protect fixtures, insurance-policy information, and other valuables.

The Bishop of Central Florida, the Rt Revd Greg Brewer, urged his flock to help others by volunteering parish halls as relief distribution centres, and offering prayers and relevant skills to rebuild communities. Some church buildings were flattened in the path of the hurricane.

On the eastern coast, cities took a direct hit, including Miami, while aerial footage in the Florida Keys showed serious damage to its buildings and roads. Reports on Wednesday suggested that a quarter of homes had been destroyed.

Miami headed the list of the most vulnerable cities to climate-change-induced coastal flooding in the report Act Now or Pay Later, published by Christian Aid last year (News, 20 May 2016). More than $3.5-trillion of its assets were reported to be at risk from flooding by 2070.

The international climate spokesman for Christian Aid, Mohamed Adow, said: “We’re starting to see what happens when climate breakdown occurs on a global scale. While we’re seeing the richest country on earth struggling to cope with the devastation of extreme weather, don’t forget the 40 million people affected by floods in South Asia, an area without anywhere near the same infrastructure or resources to cope.

“As seas get warmer, providing more energy to tropical storms, the people of Florida and the Caribbean will continue to suffer until leaders like Trump start to reduce the carbon emissions which drive climate change.”

President Trump has been criticised by Christian Aid for his “reckless attitude” in withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement (News, 9 June). He was visited Florida on Thursday.

PAIrma’s aftermath: Mirta Mendez walks through the debris at the Seabreeze trailer park in the Florida Keys, on TuesdayPAIrma’s aftermath: Mirta Mendez walks through the debris at the Seabreeze trailer park in the Florida Keys, on Tuesday

Hurricane Irma was downgraded to a depressed tropical storm on Monday as it moved towards Atlanta, but it still caused significant damage in Georgia.

The Episcopal Diocese of Georgia rescheduled a planned Revival with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, the Most Revd Michael Curry, in Honey Creek, to concentrate on the clean-up there. The Revival was due to take place on 17 September, but has been postponed until January.

In a reflection on Monday, Bishop Curry said: “It may be that we cannot solve everything, and we cannot do everything. But we can do something, no matter what. We can pray. We can give. If possible, we can sign up and go to work. We can pray for those who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey and Irma.”

Thought to be the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, Irma made landfall on the Leeward Islands, in the north-eastern Caribbean, as a Category 5 hurricane on Wednesday of last week. It was downgraded to Category 4 as it reached the Turks and Caicos Islands, before hitting Florida over the weekend.

REUTERSFlood damage: Pastor Louicesse Dorsaint and his wife, Maria, in front of their church, Haitian United Evangelical Mission, in Immokalee, Florida, on Tuesday

World Vision reported on Wednesday that more than 6200 people in Haiti were still living in shelters, having fled to the north-east of the country as Irma made its way through the Caribbean.

A farmer from Cap Haitien, Anio Petit-Frere, told the charity: “The high winds began during the night while we were sleeping. It destroyed much of our banana crop. I don’t know how I will feed my four children.”

World Vision fears that flooding has destroyed more than 50 per cent of the millet harvest in the central department region. Its Haiti National director, Flore-Marie V. Laurent, said: “Many families are afraid of sudden water surges. Hurricane Irma has pushed already vulnerable communities into an even more insecure existence.”

The impact in the Dominican Republic was not as severe as expected, however. Luis Pereira, the humanitarian and emergency affairs director at World Vision’s Latin America and Caribbean office, said: “Thankfully, Hurricane Irma was not as devastating as we had feared. Our prayers were heard, and we have been blessed.

“World Vision staff have been busy assessing the damage, and so there is no indication of widespread destruction. The mobilisation by government of the army, the fire brigade, civil defence, and other agencies, supported by NGOs, has done a great job of keeping people safe during the passage of Hurricane Irma. Food packets, water, and some essential supplies have been distributed.”

Other areas were not so fortunate. A state of emergency was called in the British Virgin Islands, east of Puerto Rico, where aid was being delivered by the British Government. The Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, has raised the relief fund for British Overseas Territories that are affected from £12 million to £32 million.

Early estimates suggest that the economic impact on the Caribbean could be as much as £30 million.

PASubmerged: a street is flooded in Havana, Cuba, on Sunday, after Hurricane Irma

The Provincial Council of the Mothers’ Union in the Province of the West Indies expressed its sorrow for the region, where its members and churches were identifying how best to respond. “We mourn with all those who have lost loved ones, especially with one of our own delegates who has lost a family member in the British Virgin Islands,” a statement read.

“Grants are being considered from the Mothers’ Union Disaster Fund in the Province of the West Indies, and the worldwide Mothers’ Union Relief Fund, once plans have been made.

“We continue to ask for prayers from Mothers’ Union members and the Church around the world for all those who have been affected by this tragedy and for all those who are acting to respond in the relief effort.”

Meanwhile, the tropical storm Jose gathered strength in the wake of Irma, and was upgraded to a category two hurricane. It loomed over the Atlantic, drifting between the Bahamas and Bermuda on Thursday, threatening to make landfall by the weekend.

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