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Romans 12:13 (NIV) reads “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” This weekend, under very trying and difficult circumstances, the people of Coffee County did that very thing. With Matthew, a major hurricane, taking an uncertain and destructive path toward land anywhere from South Florida to coastal Georgia, people were driven from their homes all along the coast. They headed west and north, most an uncertain journey with no real destination in mind. They had to get out of the way of the storm yet they didn’t know where they would end up.
As they drove farther from the coast, they found that the first wave of evacuees had claimed most of the hotel rooms along the major arteries. Douglas was a popular spot for people from the northeast Florida/Georgia coast areas. By Thursday, most hotel rooms in Coffee County were full. Yet people weren’t through coming in. After the initial wave came through Thursday, another group of people arrived Friday night. With nowhere to go, they turned to the one option they had left – a Red Cross shelter.
The City of Douglas, along with the cooperation of the Red Cross, local agencies, churches, businesses, and individuals, opened Central Square Complex to evacuees. The Red Cross donated 500 cots and 1,000 blankets to the shelter. Volunteers from the city, county, sheriff’s office, Coffee Regional Medical Center, police department, health department, and other agencies staffed the shelter. A number of private individuals also gave of their time and resources to assist the evacuees.
People came to Douglas under difficult circumstances at best. Their homes and livelihoods were in danger. They had little more than the clothes on their backs. They were tired, hungry, and in need of a break from travel. It’s not easy to accommodate people who are in such states of stress.
As it turned out, Douglas was a perfect place for evacuees to stop. About 100 miles from the coast – depending on which coast from which you measure – and fairly insulated from the storm, Douglas was a convenient place to rest. It wasn’t too far from their homes but far enough to get out of the way of the storm. The Coffee County community didn’t receive much in the way of storm damage. According to data available from the Clyde Kirkland Farm weather station, only an inch of rain fell on Friday and the maximum winds came in at just over 32 mph. As such, evacuees were safe in Douglas.
The trick would be finding people to staff the shelter and making sure everyone had what they needed. Thankfully, that wouldn’t be a big obstacle to overcome. The people and businesses of the community came together to support the evacuation effort. The number of volunteers and businesses that donated is too numerous to attempt to name. Suffice it to say that just about every restaurant, business, and agency in Coffee County that could assist offered a helping hand. From food to blankets to entertainment to medicine, evacuees were not in need.
A total of 377 people stayed at Central Square. Another 90 or so stopped at Senda DeVida Iglesia church, where pastors Victor and Aida Mendoza do a tremendous (and often unheralded) work. By Saturday afternoon, there were about 60 individuals left at Central Square. Officials monitoring the shelter stated they expected at least a few people to stay until at least Wednesday. Volunteers remained unfazed by having to staff the shelter that long – they were willing to do whatever it took to make evacuees as comfortable as possible.
“It’s been pretty rough in our community lately,” said one volunteer. “But everybody laid all that aside this weekend and came together to take care of our visitors. It’s been a real blessing to see.”
Becky Carver, Perinatal Health coordinator with the Southeast Health District, posted the following on her Facebook page Saturday night: “As I reflect on today, I feel humbled and blessed. Being able to work with the evacuees has been absolutely wonderful. Being able to serve others and to help meet their needs is awesome. We serve a great Heavenly Father that loves each of us. I was inspired by the outpouring of love from our great community. When a need was identified there was someone there to help meet that need -- locate a community resource, to go above and beyond their call of duty to meet the needs of others. A huge shout out to some of our local pharmacies, EMS staff, home health supply agencies, firemen, EMA director, city officials, sheriff and police, and others that I can't remember right now. I saw our community being the hands and feet of Jesus and it was wonderful. Some of these evacuees have left a lasting impression on my heart and I will remember them for years to come. Please continue to keep them on your prayers as many of them are not being allowed back into their counties yet. I can say I am truly blessed tonight!”
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