Photo: In 2004, Salvation Army Florida Divisional Commander Steven Hedgren greets President George W. Bush in the aftermath of Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.
Tampa, FL (August 11, 2014) – For Floridians, Alabamans, and many others living in the southeastern United States, 2004 will always be remembered as the year of the “Big Four” hurricanes: Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. The four storms caused billions of dollars in damages in the U.S. – at the time ranking the 2004 hurricane season as the costliest on record – the brunt of which was felt in Florida where all four storms made landfall. Within the Sunshine State and nearby Alabama, The Salvation Army met the storm’s fury with hope and comfort, mobilizing hundreds of mobile feeding units, tractor-trailer sized field kitchens, and thousands of disaster workers to provide food, water, emotional and spiritual care, and other forms of emergency aid to survivors and rescue workers.
Commissioner Steven Hedgren commanded The Salvation Army’s Florida Division during that very busy hurricane season. “We certainly prayed a good deal during those months,” he recalled, “For the people impacted by the storms, the rescue workers who responded, and our communities. But we also provided an enormous amount of practical aid: food, drinks, essential supplies, and emotional and spiritual support. We were mobilized on a scale we had not seen since Hurricane Andrew and privileged to have tremendous support from our friends in local, state, and federal government. I was very proud that The Salvation Army was part of that emergency management team.”
Kevin Smith, The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services director for Florida, recalled the challenges the Army faced, “If you live in Florida, you know you have to prepare for hurricanes. It’s something we take very seriously, and we have a very strong disaster services program. We always worry about the next big storm – the next Hurricane Andrew – but we prepare to handle that type of an event. 2004 – with four storms– that was something else altogether. During those two months, there wasn’t a single Salvation Army unit in Florida not doing disaster work.”
With each new storm making landfall roughly ten days after the last, the greatest challenge was logistical as The Salvation Army moved personnel and equipment from one side of the state to the other. “Keeping track of our people and equipment was very difficult,” Smith added, “Units might be serving in Fort Lauderdale or Stuart, FL. one day and need to be all the way to Pensacola or Mobile, AL, the next. We were constantly shifting resources, but even when a new storm threatened, our disaster workers did not want to stop serving. They knew there were people counting on us, and they served as long as they could, holed-up until the storm passed, and when it was safe, they were right back out there.”
Mobilizing hundreds of canteens (i.e. mobile kitchens) from across the country, field kitchens from Florida and Texas, warehouses, Salvation Army church facilities, and temporary service sites set-up in parking lots, The Salvation Army provided:
3,051,839 Meals Served
31,779 Food Boxes Distributed
19,439 Clean Up Kits Distributed
1,193,964 Gallons Water Distributed
796,229 Bags of Ice Distributed
223,398 Hours Served
Majors Gene and Debra Gesner, the Salvation Army leaders in Port Charlotte, FL, recalled the fury of Hurricane Charley as it made landfall. The pair provided refuge for members of their congregation within the local Salvation Army church as the storm struck. Major Gene Gesner recalls:
Our family went through the hurricane in the back hallway of the chapel. My wife always recalls the lights that continued to flicker on our cross for a few minutes after the electricity went down. I remember hearing the crash as the front entryway window broke and half of the roof came off. God kept us safely behind the cross that day. We continued to hear debris hitting the Corps building for the remainder of the storm and emerged to see aluminum pieces from the trailer park on the other side of the road piled against the west side of our building. Although The Salvation Army properties suffered much from Charley, our people stood with us and continued to help our community in the aftermath of the storm. We thank God for keeping us safe and giving us the strength to see us through the long period of recovery and the reconstruction of the corps.
“Unfortunately 2004’s record-setting hurricane season statistics was quickly shattered the next year as Katrina, Rita, and Wilma hit,” Smith added, “But all these storms of the past should serve as reminders that the time to prepare for the next disaster is today. Don’t wait. Build a disaster supply kit and put in it the things you will need. Have a plan. If you have to evacuate, where will you go and how will you get there? And most importantly, take storms like these seriously. Follow the advice of local government officials. If they tell you to leave, do so. Don’t risk your life or the lives of those you love. It’s just not worth it.”
While hoping the next major disaster is a long way off, The Salvation Army of Florida continues to improve its preparedness capabilities, adding 13 new feeding units since 2004. The region has a fleet of 44 mobile kitchens, two tractor-trailer-sized field kitchens, one command unit, one communications trailer, and five shower units – all able to deploy within 24 hours. The Salvation Army also operates a 50,000 square foot warehouse in Tampa which houses more than 60 pieces of field support equipment and disaster supplies. This disaster center can also be transformed into a command post for The Salvation Army during a statewide emergency. The division offers regular disaster training to affiliated volunteers and has a roster of nearly 3,000 volunteers stationed throughout the Sunshine State.
For more information on hurricane preparedness, visit The Salvation Army’s disaster website at www.disaster.salvationarmyusa.org. And, to commemorate the anniversary of the 2004 storms, The Salvation Army will release a special episode of SAToday on Thursday, August 14, 2014. To view, please visit https://www.youtube.com/user/SalvationArmyToday. Finally, for the firsthand account of Majors Gene and Debra Gesners’ experience during Hurricane Charley and to see images of the damage the storm wrought on the Port Charlotte corps, watch the video below or visit http://youtu.be/tuwnl6DPPGE.