SILER CITY — As Hurricane Ian ravaged Florida, knocking out power lines, tearing roofs off homes and upending lives, Josh Smith knew he had to take action.
It isn’t the first time in recent years he’s seen storms do serious damage to his neighbors across the southeastern United States. From Irma to Florence and every hurricane in between, the storms kept coming — and so did the needs of those communities.
While Chatham County has also been hit by the storms, its damages were much more manageable. Smith and his colleagues at the Community Baptist Church in Siler City developed Chatham Cares Disaster Relief.
Chatham Cares initially began in 2017 as a one-time project to send disaster relief supplies to Hurricane Irma victims in Naples, Florida. Smith, director of Chatham Cares and a pastor at the church, began to plan, organize and build a team of volunteers from the church, along with the support of Sheriff Mike Roberson and the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office.
But when the storms kept coming, Smith and Chatham Cares kept feeling the need to help. They provided necessities to those in need like flashlights, batteries, insect repellent and non-perishable foods.
Last week, Smith and his team put calls out to the community to volunteer and donate goods for relief in Florida after Ian. They parked a 53-foot truck from Darrell Andrews Trucking outside various stops in the county, including the Piggly Wiggly in Siler City and the Sheriff’s Office in Pittsboro. They packed it full of water, food and other supplies — and even tools to help patch up damaged roofs — then drove nine hours down to Florida to deliver assistance.
“Our heartbeat as a ministry is giving people an organization for disaster relief that they knew they could trust,” Smith told the News + Record. “There’s a lot of good people that want to do good things, they just don’t know what to do.”
Although the ministry is tied to Community Baptist, Smith says it’s about much more than the church — it’s for the community. That’s why they partnered with Roberson and the Sheriff’s Office to give the organization further credibility. Chatham Cares also donates 100% of items and financial donations to those affected by the storm.
Smith said the operation is only possible through the volunteering of people across the county including more than 40 volunteers, hundreds of donations and the relief drives at community-powered organizations across Chatham.
Over the donation period last week, dozens of Chatham residents pitched in to fill the truck. Some packed boxes, others organized the truck; all the while, Smith communicated with Tri-City Baptist Church in Port Charlotte to determine what items were most needed. The church in Port Charlotte was where the supplies from Chatham Cares were given.
“When we go on site, our goal is for the local church and the local pastor to be the heroes,” Smith said. “I’m going to be back in North Carolina in a week from now, or a month from now, when those people still need somebody to pray with them, but they will see that church that helped out with the need and they become the hero.”
Throughout the week, Smith said he would communicate constantly with the Tri-City Baptist Pastor Jay Sheppard about the community’s needs. For example, Sheppard told Smith that damaged roofs needed heavy wooden planks to hold down tarps and other makeshift solutions. So, Smith put out a call for dozens of 4x8 planks of lumber — and soon enough he was stocked full thanks to donations from a local supplier, Belk Building Supply. Or another day, Sheppard called asking for special moisture-wicking fans that were out of stock in Port Charlotte. Chatham volunteers rounded up five of them to put on the truck.
“Whatever the need is, we try to tailor to what they’re saying on the ground,” Smith said.
When Smith and five other church members finally did arrive in Florida, they made sure they had a game plan to unload materials and start giving supplies to people in need. The Chatham Cares network came through. Because of Smith’s previous experience in Naples, which is just an hour away from Port Charlotte, he was able to get churches he previously worked with during Irma to help unload and organize.
Tri-City Baptist already had a forklift on the ground ready to help unload the truck and people from the surrounding community also came to help.
Smith said the donation was a massive success because of the impact it had on Port Charlotte. The small Florida church had been turned into a distribution center, with volunteers showing families around and asking what their needs are to make sure they are adequately helped.
“Their operation was incredible,” Smith said. “It was just amazing to see them trying to meet the needs of all the people.”
In a normal week, Tri-City Baptist has about 200 members attend. When Ian hit, they had more than 500 people on the property each day. Even so, they found a way to both distribute necessary goods, and feed families with a hot dinner every night.
“We wanted to be that first wave of relief,” Smith said. “The humanitarian side is the focal point. We know there needs to be a second wave with clothing and rebuilding but normally that is a couple weeks out.”
The goal of Chatham Cares is to be on site of a storm seven to 10 days after a storm hits. They made it down to Port Charlotte seven days after the initial landfall of Ian. Smith and company were in the hurricane-stricken area for just more than 24 hours.
“Whether people gave $1 or $1,000, I think it’s important that people know where their donations went,” Smith said. “When a big storm hits, our goal is always to be on ground zero.”
For more information about Chatham Cares, visit chathamcares.org. All donations will go directly to Hurricane Ian relief efforts, with money going to the Tri-City Baptist Church earmarked for local storm relief.
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @b_rappaport.
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