Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwestern Florida on September 28, 2022, as a dangerous, high-end Category 4 storm after plowing a path of destruction through the Caribbean. By wind speed, Ian was the fifth most powerful storm to ever hit the country. It was also among the costliest in American history, causing an estimated $67 billion in privately insured property damage across five states ( The New York Times , Dec 2, 2022).
On September 28, Matt Newburg, evangelist for the Southwest Florida Church of Christ, was exhausted. As the flood waters were rising, the Newburg family headed to his father’s house on Florida’s east coast. He was fielding calls non-stop from church members, people needing help and people asking how they could help. Photos from the storm wreckage flooded his phone; it looked like a bomb went off. “I was just sick of thinking, trying to sort through all the details,” Matt said. “No one in our church had experience with disaster relief or how to manage resources. At first, only first responders were allowed into the hard-hit areas, and they concentrated on search and rescue.” Thankfully, none of the members of the Southwest Florida Church lost their life to the hurricane.
In the four months since Ian, Matt has taken stock and considered: What did I learn? How can my church be better prepared? What can I pass on to other congregations when a natural disaster knocks on their door?
First, it’s essential to know your church and understand how they are connected to one another. “We are a church of 125 members with 70 children; I like to say 200 souls,” said Matt. “Although we meet together as a big group on Sundays, we are really a church of close-knit family groups.” Being close-knit is key, because by 11 AM on September 29, the day after the storm, all of the “200 souls” were accounted for. Matt knew the condition of the flock because all of the family group leaders called and checked in. Later, on a relief effort conference call, several astonished evangelists asked how Matt got this number so quickly, especially with power outages. “It’s just how Matt builds his ministry,” said Tony Fernandez, Broward Church evangelist.
Secondly, Matt learned that leadership in a crisis is crucial. Dave Tomlinson, HOPE worldwide’s senior director for disaster response, brought tremendous expertise and practical know-how to relief efforts. “There is no way I can put into words the relief I felt when Dave showed up. He knew what to do. He knew how to put a tarp on a roof, about removing wet personal items; he gave advice on leaving a dwelling because it was uninhabitable.”
Initially, some of Dave’s advice seemed counter-intuitive for disciples who were trying to be selfless and serve their community. Paul told the Galatians to “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10). Dave’s advice: Take care of the family of believers first so they can then help their neighbors. “Dave taught me how to lead and process the constant barrage of incoming information, how to prioritize needs,” said Matt.
Thirdly, Matt now understands what puts the “hope” into HOPE worldwide . They met the greatest need in the Naples/Ft. Myers area at that time – volunteers, resources and know-how. As a disciple, Matt’s been giving to HOPEww for 27 years. When a disaster put his church and community on the receiving end of HOPEww’s services, “it was a big ‘Aha!’ moment for us,” said Matt. “Our church met together after Hurricane Ian, and when it came time for the HOPEww offering, our gathering was charged with this profound sense of gratitude.”
Lastly, Matt witnessed the unity of the Florida family of churches and the powerful bonds of brotherhood. In 2010 Keith Davis, evangelist for Jax Church (Jacksonville), experienced a “1000 year flood” in Nashville and learned first-hand what it was like to see your home flooded. Keith enlisted the help of a rehabilitation specialist; the two of them spent a whole week working in the hard-hit areas, taking on projects and saving disciples thousands of dollars in recovery and repair. The South Florida Ministries quickly marshaled supplies and generators to fill a 50’ truck and delivered them just days after the disaster. A few weeks later, while the Southwest Florida Church gathered for worship, 40 Anchor Point Church (Tampa) volunteers cleaned up storm-damaged properties of their brothers and sisters. And they returned to serve three more times! In the days ahead, volunteers from sister congregations in Florida continue to help with the cleanup. For the future, Keith is hoping to put together a Florida family of churches “crisis strategy,” which could identify what each church has to offer the next time a crisis hits.
“Life doesn’t stop just because a storm came,” Matt said. “Work and school still happen, and peoples’ homes are in shambles. Some have storm fatigue; others will need counseling due to the strain and stress on their marriage and families. We are looking for ways to address these needs in our church.”
Matt reflected again on the collaborative spirit of the Florida churches. “This level of selfless service is unique to our family of churches. There is a healthy interdependence. God has stitched us together through the Holy Spirit, and I am so grateful. We are a smaller church here in Florida, but I never want to be on the outside, looking in.”
Hurricane Ian may have been the costliest storm to date, but what Matt values most is the brotherhood connections between the Florida churches – they’re priceless. “I thirst for the fellowship and brotherhood of our statewide leadership meetings.” said Matt. “People know me and understand me. And I know them. We need each other.”