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A Sunday of Sermons, Tales and Tears

Pensacola's faithful try to make sense of Ivan's wrath while Bush consoles victims. To the north, hundreds flee the storm's remnants.

September 20, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

PENSACOLA, Fla. — The readings at Olive Baptist Church on Sunday morning were from the Old Testament, verses about the voice of the Lord shaking the wilderness and mountains slipping into the sea.

Slowly, during a hymn about shelter, people began to cry. When the pastor told them to kneel and pray, their shoulders began to shake, and men and women sobbed as they finally let go of their emotions, three days after Hurricane Ivan struck.

All over this churchgoing city, pastors tried to make sense of the destruction that the storm left behind. Some preached about Noah, and waters that cleansed wickedness from a corrupted city; others preached about a benevolent God who will help them survive nature's blow.

"I'm sitting here in tears this morning," said Marion Bidell, 74, who slipped into Olive Baptist because her church was too damaged to open for worship. "I'm just gracious that he [God] spared my life."

The remnants of Hurricane Ivan moved farther north Sunday, engulfing a riverside park and residential neighborhood in Wheeling, W.Va. Hundreds of people were forced to evacuate their homes across Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Ivan has caused at least 50 deaths in the United States, 18 of them in Florida, according to that state's official report Sunday.

President Bush visited Pensacola in the morning, touring the Quina Vista neighborhood, his third such visit to Florida this hurricane season.

Amid the field of debris that was her house, Karen Heinold began to cry as Bush approached, and the president hugged her and kissed her on the head. Her husband called out to Bush, "God bless you," and asked for the president's autograph.

A few hours later, in Orange Beach, Ala., Bush called Ivan's destruction "terrible."

He flew by helicopter over the hardest-hit areas.

"I want to tell the citizens of this part of the world that we're praying for you, that we'll get help out here as quickly as we can, and that we ask God's blessings on you and your family," Bush said.

In Pensacola, the jagged end of the Interstate 10 bridge still juts out into the water over Escambia Bay, a reminder that a truck driver plunged to his death when it collapsed. Along demolished residential streets, homeowners spray-painted signs reading, "Looters will be shot," and "This property protected by Smith & Wesson." National Guardsmen with rifles slung across their backs stand at intersections and feeding stations.

Columns of utility trucks fanned out through the city Sunday to make repairs, while grateful homeowners cheered and waved from their porches.

Worshippers at Olive Baptist Church, which has 6,000 members, clung together in the lobby, trading stories about what happened Wednesday night and early Thursday morning.

The church's maintenance man arrived later than usual; he had been trapped in his house by two fallen oak trees for two days, unable to call for help because he had no phone service. The morning after the storm, he could barely squeeze his hand out the door.

The church was still damp and dimly lighted. A handful of members had spent the night of the storm there, trying to sweep water out a door with brooms until the wind became so strong it knocked them off their feet. The youth pastor, Dave Paxton, 52, climbed onto a water-loaded roof at 4 a.m., trying to unclog drains while he dodged flying debris. Transformers exploded in blue flashes in the sky.

The fact that Olive Baptist was not damaged -- unlike the West Florida Hospital next door -- was a miraculous and significant event, said Troy Bush, the church's minister of evangelism.

"It is as though God demonstrated his relationship with us," he said.

In a rousing sermon, Pastor Ted Traylor invited members to approach the altar and rededicate themselves to Christ. Men and women wandered up to church elders and sobbed in their arms. Traylor said Hurricane Ivan would cause a great wave of change to roll over Pensacola, replacing materialistic concerns with religious fervor.

"Lord, we have a deep, deep need," he said. "God, send revival to this old city. We've been wicked. You have caught our attention."

In other churches, ministers framed the storm as a neutral and random act of nature. A member of Allen Newton's congregation had asked him gravely if the storm presaged the end of the world, and in his sermon, he argued against attributing religious meaning to it.

"I said the opposite: I told them, God didn't put a scope on Pensacola and pull the trigger. We live in a fallen world," said Newton, pastor of the Community Life Center of Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church.

Theology was a secondary concern, though, in a city still weeks, if not months, away from normal life. Worshipers here wanted more than anything to exchange stories.

In churches all over the city, people described climbing into their attics and putting life jackets on their children, lashing doors closed with electrical cords, bracing against garage doors to keep them from collapsing, and climbing onto kitchen counters while the water slowly rose around them. As they spoke about it, they wept, and their friends embraced them.

"You know, it was like a train that never stopped," said Pam Childs, 45. "It was the worst ongoing havoc. You could not really rest. There are no adjectives to describe it."

The Rev. George Richard Washington, the pastor of the Houser Road AME Zion Church, said his early service had attracted worshippers he had not seen in several years.

"We have been through hell," Washington said in the lull before his 11 a.m. service. "I've seen steel that just bent, that just turned. Steel! I have seen a bridge lifted up. Where is God in all of that?"

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