Serving Eastern North Carolina Clergy During Hurricane Florence
By Melanie Raskin
When you think of hurricane relief, you envision truckloads of bottled water and canned foods, clothing and diapers, medical supplies and money. You don’t often think of spiritual care — the kind of counseling that convinces you that all things are possible, even in the aftermath of a destructive hurricane.
That’s what happened following Hurricane Florence, the wettest tropical cyclone to ever hit eastern North Carolina. From Sept. 12-15, 2018, Florence pounded the state with wind speeds of more than 100 mph. Water proved even more deadly and damaging, as storm surges of nine to 13 feet were topped by devastating rainfall of up to 30 inches. Many towns were completely under water — in every way, including spiritually.
The clergy in Wilmington and the small towns surrounding it, as well as those at New Hanover Medical Center, worked round-the-clock with their communities. Like the people they were serving, many clergy were living without power, food and water, their homes badly damaged. One exhausted pastor expressed the bright and shining ray of hope: “I knew before it quit raining that the Baptist Men of North Carolina and CareNet would show up to work alongside us.”
They did. The story of working alongside church clergy in the trenches began right after the storm, said Terry Tackett, regional director of Coastal Region CareNet, a community-based, counseling ministry offering pastoral care and psychotherapy services to people of all ages, regardless of denomination. An affiliate of CareNet Inc., which is a subsidiary of Wake Forest Baptist Health, the center has clinics across the state, including in Wilmington, Jacksonville, Shallotte and Bolivia in southeastern North Carolina.
The local missionary in charge of the Cape Fear network of Baptist churches set up a meeting with area pastors and CareNet in Burgaw, ground zero for Florence, two weeks into the recovery effort. To Tackett, it was a pivotal gathering designed to support and renew the strength of the local clergy. “Fifteen pastors from that hard-hit area came together with us and the Baptist Men Disaster Relief Team for dinner and to share their stories of stress and being overwhelmed,” Tackett said. “There were a lot of tears and hugs. It was a powerful time, connecting these pastors and telling them about our resources for their congregations, their communities and themselves. We made sure they knew they were not alone.”
It was exactly what the ravaged towns around Wilmington needed to know. That included Wilmington’s New Hanover Medical Center, the 769-bed hospital where the chaplaincy department and its student chaplain residents were serving the pastoral needs of more than 200 hospital staff as well as patients. Some chaplains had sheltered in place for as long as 10 days, with no chance to reconnect with family at home. All were eager to serve, despite having lost homes and family members.
The hospital chaplaincy program had been in the midst of a rejuvenation, and the baptism by fire wrought by Hurricane Florence tempered their steel, according to Glenn Davis, supervisor of the First Responder Chaplaincy Program at Wake Forest Baptist Health. His job? To help police, firefighters, EMTs and others do their jobs and make sure first responders feel supported, while they support others. Davis extended his mission to include the chaplains at New Hanover Medical Center. He counseled the chaplaincy team by phone. Following the storm, he heard stories of trying to juggle chaplains living at the hospital for days, unable to leave and check in with family because of road conditions; of a lack of food and medicine; and of having to figure out how to increase capacity so helicopters could land with supplies, since flooding had closed many roads.
Davis continues to support via phone and visits to talk about post-traumatic growth — how to revitalize and adapt to what the hurricane taught them, ways to better integrate with the community, especially local churches, and methods to improve communication. “There’s a new found sense of purpose when people unite around a common goal to help,” Davis said. “I rediscover all the time that compassion is having proximity to someone’s pain, giving them hope and returning them to baseline functioning. Our attitude is, we won’t abandon you in this time of need. “Most of us find that we didn’t go into ministry to be lost in minutia. We want to help people. Being out there — whether it’s a full-blown disaster affecting an entire community or simply showing up and making a difference in someone’s life on the worst day of their life — is powerful, life-altering.”
Powerful Hurricane Florence altered lives in eastern North Carolina and the teams who helped. All of the institutions had to perform their jobs seamlessly with each other, and it worked. It was the perfect storm of care and cooperation at a tough time in a hard-hit place, supporting the people on the front lines who were supporting others spiritually.
Months later, the support continues. Coastal Region CareNet operates a satellite office in Burgaw one day a week. Wake Forest Baptist is providing scholarship funds via its foundation to people affected by the hurricane who need counseling services. Davis continues partnering with New Hanover Medical Center to help put processes in place for disaster preparedness and to keep staff refreshed and focused. The Baptist Men are still helping with disaster relief.
“We believe actions speak louder than words,” said CareNet President Bryan Hatcher. “This is an instance of making the word ‘prayer’ an active verb. When we allow ourselves to be part of God’s response to prayer, it makes a difference in a more impactful way. Prayer does miracles, but when prayer becomes someone knocking on your door to help after a hurricane, it changes lives. We are always looking for the opportunity to do good, to demonstrate God’s love by caring for others, including the clergy who care for us. That’s what this experience was all about.”