RCA chaplain Derek Vande Slunt shares his first-hand experiences of the days surrounding Hurricane Florence’s landfall.
By Derek Vande Slunt
Derek Vande Slunt is an RCA chaplain serving on the U.S. Marine Corps Cherry Point base in Havelock, North Carolina. He was on duty when Hurricane Florence came through the area on September 14 and shares some of those experiences.
“What would you take with you if you had to leave your home and didn’t know if anything would be left upon your return?” This is what many residents had to ask themselves as they evacuated their homes when impending Hurricane Florence headed toward them three weeks ago.
As the hurricane approached, our base set up two storm shelters, one in the Cherry Tree House gymnasium and one in the Marine Dome. Canvas cots for sleeping were lined up in rows across the spaces. Many people came, including retired military personnel and on-base workers who didn’t or couldn’t evacuate. For most of us, this was our first hurricane, and we were following the guidance of veterans who had been through severe storms before.
Hurricanes are slow in coming, and this one was also slow to leave. The sideways rain got everywhere. The forceful wind slammed my hand in a door when I was going to visit one of the two shelters. Fortunately, the shelters had window shields that kept hurricane winds from damaging the windows, but all night long, we heard the howling like a train and sound like hail or ice hitting the shields. Many tornadoes also spun off the north side of the storm and hit our area, so at times we had to move into the restrooms for a more secure location.
During the storm, we stayed in contact with family and friends through cellphones and Facebook. Many friends and neighbors who had evacuated wondered if their homes made it through the storm or if they would have homes to return to. A group called God’s Pit Crew had assembled relief buckets prior to the storm, and many of the shelter residents found these to be a welcome blessing amid the uncertainty.
While in the shelters, I met a number of people, including a retired master sergeant and his wife who needed an oxygen machine; a couple with three small dogs and five puppies whose home had flooded and were unable to find a vacant hotel; an active duty couple with two small children; a grandfather and his high school aged, award-winning athlete grandson, who no longer had a home to return to; a young woman with a deployed husband, two little girls, and one on the way; and a woman recovering from surgery, accompanied by the family and corpsmen who changed her bandages.
Chaplain ministry is doing what matters, where it matters, when it matters most. It’s about building relationships with people so that when they need help, they know where to go and whom they can trust. During Hurricane Florence, I got to do what God has called me to do: care for people. I was the only chaplain to cover both of the shelters, and none of the normal relational resources like counseling were available during the hurricane. So, I saw my role as a connector to God’s presence, being a shelter in the storm.
One of the ways I was able to provide a shelter during the storm was offering evening prayer every night before we turned off the lights. I used the hour before to walk around and talk with the shelter residents (which I also did every morning) and then ended the day with a short devotion and prayer, listing what we could be thankful for, mourning what we had lost, lifting up those still in crisis, and looking forward in faith to the unknown future.
On the Sunday following the storm, no churches were open, so I offered a worship service in the shelter’s activity room. Young kids were playing foosball during the meditation, and dogs were trying to sing with us from the next room. Yet it was a place of shelter in the storm. God’s presence needed to be felt and declared, especially during a crisis.
As recovery began and roads were cleared, people left the shelter to check on their homes. Some had to return for at least a few days post-hurricane until power was restored to their homes. There were many who had lost shingles or had trees on their homes and needed help cleaning up their yards. There were also homes in our neighborhood that were okay, so we took pictures and video to reassure the residents and calm their nerves.
We got to know many of our neighbors better during this time. We were able to connect with and support them in a way that we couldn’t before. For example, my family had new neighbors move in the week prior to the storm. We hadn’t even learned their names before they knocked on our door and asked my wife to hold their house key and check on their place since they were evacuating.
The shelters remained busy, even as residents returned to their homes. One night, we hosted 210 people who came to us from a flooded homeless shelter in New Bern. They were older, had fewer economic resources, and some had medical issues. The base doubled its shelter personnel to help them.
Our larger shelter also hosted many recovery workers. We hosted 250 linemen who were glad for a shower and cot after long workdays of restoring power lines. Ordinarily, in cases like this, they said they just sleep in their trucks and often struggle to find food and water.
Personally, I find myself grateful to God that the tornado that hit our neighborhood—and left us without power for over two weeks—didn’t hit our homes directly. My wife said God had angels protecting our homes and our chapel so that we could use them as ministry stations during storm recovery. It was frustrating waiting for power, trying to do laundry at the barracks, and relying on others for help. But my family cleared yards in the daytime, took cold showers at the house, and then cooked supper and slept in the chapel kitchen night after night.
Through it all, we found comfort, truth, and promise in the words of Isaiah 25:4 (NIV): “You [God] have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm, and a shade from the heat.”
All of us will be affected by some kind of storms in our life. What will you hold onto through your storms? Think of what you don’t want to leave behind. Often these things are intangibles—faith, hope, love, joy, Jesus. Focusing on what things the storms cannot take away from us will help us become stronger in the things and relationships that will last.