As members of the Gross family huddled amid mattresses in a narrow hallway, Hurricane Charley ripped their home from around them. The family listened and prayed as Charley screamed around the house like a buzz-saw unleashed, chewing up the pool cage, lanai, and carport, then shearing off steel-bolted porch pillars, walls, and most of the roof, opening the interior to torrential rains.
After the storm screamed north, Ralph Gross and his daughter Sarah had emerged to survey the wreckage when four neighbors walked up. "See?" one neighbor spat, knowing the Grosses were Christians. "This is the God you have, who would allow this kind of pain and destruction."
Sarah, 15, looked the man in the eye and said: "No, you've missed it: This is the God who delivered you."
As thousands of relief workers deliver aid to the most devastated parts of Florida, some hurricane survivors are, like the Grosses, thankful for God's mercy. Others are in despair.
Charley, a vicious storm that doubled in scale 20 minutes before roaring ashore in southwestern Florida on Aug. 13, killed 19 people and destroyed $11 billion in property, leaving thousands homeless and millions without power or fresh water. The storm's freakish winds shredded trailer parks into cole slaw and left a trail of suburban destruction that victims said looked more like bomb damage than a hurricane's wake.
By Aug. 17 the Federal Emergency Management Agency had received 23,500 aid applications and issued $2 million in relief payments. Meanwhile, dozens of relief agencies fanned out across the torn region, providing storm victims with food, supplies, and temporary shelter.
Though Charley tore their home from around them, Mr. Gross said God sheltered his family until the storm churned past. Thirteen family members, including grown sons and daughters plus grandkids, had gathered at his home to ride out the whirlwind. The men lined the hallway and connecting bathroom with mattresses. After the women and children had crowded into the makeshift refuge, they bent a queen-size mattress over their heads and covered their own with pillows.
"We heard the house being destroyed around us," Mr. Gross said. One by one, Charley snatched out four steel-bolted porch pillars "as easily as we blow out candles. The wind first pulled out a whole wall, then switched directions and smashed the wall back up against the house. We heard the shingles go, then the plywood being torn from the roof. At the end, the only thing standing was the hallway and bathroom, including the sheetrock over our heads."
It was not the loss of his home but the faith of his children and grandchildren that caused Mr. Gross's voice finally to break as he told his story: After the storm passed, "my 7-year-old grandson just couldn't stop saying how good God is."
Religious groups have streamed into Florida to put that message into action, joining the American Red Cross, which has set up more than 250 disaster-relief shelters in Florida and 40 in the Carolinas. The Salvation Army, Presbyterian Church in America Disaster Relief, and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee quickly sent in teams, as did the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which is operating at least 12 "feeding units" and 26 chainsaw teams from three command centers.
Working with the SBC, the Florida Baptist Convention (FBC) set up its relief headquarters at South Biscayne Baptist Church in North Port, Fla. FBC volunteers are clearing trees and debris for the uninsured, assisting migrants and elderly victims, and rain-proofing storm-damaged homes. At seven church-based feeding units, FBC volunteers-some from as far away as Mississippi-cooked beef stew and spaghetti in huge kettles, packed the hot food into Styrofoam to-go boxes, then loaded the meals into Red Cross vehicles that roved storm-ravaged neighborhoods, delivering hot grub to folks who had lived for days on granola bars and crackers.
The mood in such neighborhoods, said FBC director of communications Barbara Denman, "is beyond shock. Subdivisions have been basically leveled. Many of these people don't have resources. They are delighted to see anyone who will offer any kind of advice or suggestions."
This is particularly true of the elderly, who often live alone and sometimes can't leave home to find help on their own. Demographically, Charlotte County, where Charley first made landfall, is older than any other county in the United States. Thirty-five percent of residents there are 65 or older, while 8 percent are over 80. On Aug. 16, the Florida Department of Elder Affairs marshaled workers to begin checking on seniors in storm-torn counties.
But it will take time to reach them all. "I am still scared," Mary Haggerty, 86, told the St. Petersburg Times on Aug 17. "No official people have come by to see if we are alive. What if one of us died? Who cares? You would think the sheriff would come by, but they haven't. I think older people are being overlooked."
One group that didn't overlook the elderly: scores of scam artists who wasted no time swooping in to victimize victims, sometimes by pushing contracting and insurance schemes. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida legislators passed laws that regulate prices on necessities such as food, water, and hotel rooms in the immediate period following a disaster. Within three days after Charley hit, the state attorney general's office had already fielded nearly 1,000 complaints concerning jacked-up prices and fake contractors or other swindles, and had filed at least four civil lawsuits.
But while some storm victims suffered from bilkers, Charley's boiling clouds also brought some silver linings. Luke Green, senior pastor at Faith Grace Ministries in Fort Myers, Fla., was out of town when Charley raged through. But someone called him with the news that the storm had broken out a church window.
When he returned to Fort Myers, "I walked up to the church building thinking we'd just have to board up the broken window, and go on and have service. But when I opened the door and walked inside … there was water four to six inches deep standing all over the floor, and the rain was still pouring down. You could stand inside the church and look straight up into the sky because the whole roof was gone."
The 100-member congregation lost everything but its P.A. system. Still, good news emerged: A nearby Seventh Day Adventist church was not only willing to let Faith Grace use its facilities but also wants to sell an older building because it plans to build a new one.
But what is old to the Adventists is new to Faith Grace. Though the building Charley destroyed was built more than 60 years ago and was in slow but steady decay, the church had no plans to move. Now it will move to the Adventist facility, "a 250 percent improvement," Mr. Green said.
Meanwhile, Ralph Gross and his family believe they have it better than some storm victims, even though Charley snatched their Port Charlotte home from around them. They're bunking in with extended family. They spend days at their church, First Presbyterian in North Port, helping victims like those in nearby Arcadia, where Charley blew orange farmers into bankruptcy and their families are boiling river water to drink.
Where will the Grosses live next?
"Don't know yet," Mr. Gross replied cheerfully. He and his wife work in Christian education in a poorer agricultural area and don't earn a lot. "But it'll be there when we're finished with people who have more need than we have. I'm very confident in my God."