Sorry, Charley -- God Is Good
Since Hurricane Charley wasn't predicted to hit his city, Russ Hickman (MDiv '71) didn't evacuate his home. But at the last minute, Charley took a right turn--and as it bore into Port Charlotte, Florida, went from Category 2 to Category 4, with winds up to 180 miles per hour.
"There was no time to board up windows," says Hickman, who is senior pastor of Port Charlotte's First Presbyterian Church. As he held onto the triple-glass door in his den, feeling the massive force of the winds coming at him, Hickman's wife called from the other end of the house: the neighbor's roof was coming off. Hickman ran to see, and came back to the den 30 seconds later to find that all doors and windows on that side of the house had blown simultaneously. Chunks of glass were everywhere--"glass that would have been in me if I'd stayed in that den," he says.
The ferocity of Charley was like nothing he has ever seen, says Hickman. His church suffered $2 million in damage. About 20 families lost their homes.
Katherine, one church member, happened to be in the hospital when Charley struck. Upon her release, friends came to pick her up and, very gently on the way home, explained to Katherine that she had no home left. It had been reduced to splinters, her car smashed beneath.
"Port Charlotte was like a war zone," Hickman says. Buildings, trees, signs downed. No electricity for two weeks. The first night Hickman tried to make his way home after dark, he got lost. "There were no lights, no trees, no landmarks--nothing but pitch black," he says. "I couldn't find my own road, the one I'd turned onto thousands of times before."
Like in a war zone, emotions have been on edge ever since Charley. "People twitch just to hear the word 'storm,'" Hickman says. And like in a war zone, restoration comes slowly. There aren't enough workers or equipment to go around. Many will have to wait months for repairs. Others have to haggle with insurance companies over estimates. Nerves are frayed everywhere.
"All people talk about is Charley," says Hickman. "There's no other topic." But in the talking is coming healing. People are beginning to regain their sense of humor as they talk, Hickman observes, and in that he sees a move toward normalcy. "Charley jokes are starting to spread," he says, "and that's a good thing."
There have been many silver linings, in fact, to the Charley cloud. God's grace has been evident. Despite extensive property damage, the members of Hickman's congregation suffered no serious injuries.
And God's people have reached out to one another. Charley downed countless trees on First Presbyterian's seven-acre campus--an indescribable scene, Hickman says, until a group of 50 volunteers from neighboring communities came, armed with brand-new chainsaws. "They chopped up trees and cleaned up branches, and when they were done, from street level you almost couldn't tell we'd been damaged," Hickman says with gratitude.
Teen groups came from nearby towns to clean up homes. Groups from other Florida Presbyterian churches came to do visitations, systematically checking on each member of the Port Charlotte church to assess and report on individual needs. Five men from one community still come to Port Charlotte every Wednesday, volunteering to chop down and remove tree debris for anyone who needs it.
Since First Presbyterian's education building--which housed a preschool--was damaged, it moved the school to its Fellowship Hall ... and, in the early weeks following Charley, opened the school to any Port Charlotte children who needed to come. "We wanted to offer this service to the community so that parents could go back to work," Hickman says.
First Presbyterian didn't let Charley keep its people from worshipping. "We've continued to have two services every Sunday," says Hickman, "even the Sunday right after the hurricane." Attendance is down because so many members have had to relocate to other cities while their homes are rebuilt or repaired--but the church is getting new visitors. "I think Charley helped some people start thinking about the importance of being in a church family," Hickman says.
The trials have been intense, but the people of First Presbyterian Church have not let Charley defeat them. One teenage church member summed it up best with a can of spray paint. Across the tarp that covered a demolished roof, the teenager boldly wrote in giant letters: "Sorry, Charley--God is good!"