A weeklong battle with a wildfire in North Myrtle Beach has prompted a disaster relief response from Southern Baptists in the state, including a significant contingent of chaplains serving as crisis counselors.
The fire, which began April 21, has burned nearly 20,000 acres in Horry County and destroyed about 75 homes, according to WMBF-TV. Gov. Mark Sanford estimates the damage that spread across 30 square miles of land has exceeded $16 million.
Cliff Satterwhite, disaster relief director for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, said workers from three Baptist associations were manning a fixed feeding unit at First Baptist Church in North Myrtle Beach.
Meanwhile, as many as 30 Southern Baptist crisis counselors from across South Carolina were on site at one time, Satterwhite said. Now the number has dwindled as the needs shift.
“Basically we were a presence there,” Satterwhite said of the chaplains. “There was not a denominational thing going on. It didn’t matter whether we were Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian. We just had people there to walk with the people as they went in, give them cold water, be there as a shoulder to cry on or someone to hug.”
For those families whose homes were not insured, the Waccamaw Baptist Association in Conway has set up the Highway 31 Fire Fund. Contributions may be sent to P.O. Box 356, Conway, SC 29528.
“It’s named for Highway 31 because it runs basically through the entire fire area,” Satterwhite said. “The South Carolina Baptist Convention was able to send some emergency funds to the association. That fund is there to help victims who fall through the cracks, who don’t have full coverage insurance. I know five families that have no insurance whatsoever.”
In the coming days, South Carolina disaster relief workers will host a crisis intervention session with homeowners as well as with firefighters and other emergency management personnel, Satterwhite said.
“If you don’t debrief from this kind of situation, it plays on your mind for a while,” he said. “So we’ll do group crisis intervention, and that will probably start the end of this week.”
Also, residents in the area are facing weeks of cleanup and restoration efforts, Satterwhite said.
“The fire was so hot that certain segments of some streets it would burn four houses, then there would be two houses not burned, but the siding would be melted and they had water damage or smoke damage,” he said.
Teams from Charleston Baptist Association, Florence Baptist Association and Santee Baptist Association have been preparing meals in the kitchen at First Baptist and sending them out for distribution with the Red Cross.
“We’ve been feeding three meals a day,” Satterwhite said. “The biggest day was 861. Most days, breakfast, lunch and supper total 600. These are to victims and to firefighters and forestry people who have been working the fires.”
South Carolina Baptists also set up a shower unit behind the Bass Pro Shop in North Myrtle Beach, Satterwhite said.
“They had evacuated 4,000 people from one big subdivision called Barefoot Resort in North Myrtle Beach,” Satterwhite said. Most of the people in the Barefoot subdivision were insured, he said, and more than half of the homes that were destroyed were summer homes.
“There were some other folks on the other side of the county off Highway 90 who were evacuated. They evacuated a nursing home and an elementary school because the winds were doing crazy things with the fires,” Satterwhite reported.
“There were no injuries or deaths, which is remarkable. At the coast sometimes, the winds are higher than they are inland,” he said. “That’s a good thing in the summertime because when it’s hot, you have a breeze. It’s a bad thing when you have a fire.”
As of Tuesday morning, officials said the fire was 100 percent contained, but they noted that means it’s under control but hasn’t stopped burning completely.
“They’re waiting for all the hotspots to go out,” Satterwhite said. “There still have been a few little fires that have picked up where they thought they were out. They’re calling it needle drop where pine trees are dropping needles that are dry onto a hot spot, and another little fire starts up.”
Because the situation was still dangerous, officials had been restricting access to the affected areas. Only disaster responders including the Red Cross and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers were being allowed in alongside the residents as they returned to their properties.
“We’re feeding people, giving them bottled water, walking with them through the process,” Satterwhite said.
The South Carolina Baptist Convention is marking the 20th anniversary of its disaster relief program this year. So far in 2009 they have responded to the ice storm in Kentucky and four tornadoes in South Carolina in addition to the North Myrtle Beach fire. -BP