Sep. 29—As Hurricane Ian pounded the west coast of Florida on Wednesday, volunteers 600 miles from its eye were preparing to send workers and supplies to help those who would suffer in the storm's aftermath.
The United Methodist Disaster Relief Warehouse in Decatur, operating under United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR), was busy loading a truck with donated supplies for eventual delivery in Florida. Project Unify, based in Decatur and operating through Church of Christ congregations, was preparing to personally deliver supplies and provide volunteer labor.
Cindy Sandlin, Decatur's UMCOR warehouse director, said an initial step is getting supplies from Decatur to a spot close — but not too close — to where they will be needed.
"We're staging supplies in the Atlanta warehouse that we had stored here so they can be transported directly down into the peninsula," Sandlin said.
Some of the supplies, Sandlin said, are tarps, coverings for windows that have been blown out, treatments for mold, and generators.
UMCOR's origin can be traced to 1940, before the United Methodist Church was formed, and Sandlin said the Decatur disaster relief warehouse has been operational since about 2011.
"The funding for these supplies came through congregations in the United Methodist Church," she said.
Sandlin said they are not sending supplies to Florida yet because they do not want to put supplies in an area that could be struck by the hurricane.
"They'll be able to move supplies once it moves past the main peninsula of Florida," she said.
Sandlin said UMCOR and the local disaster warehouse, located at 3220 U.S. 31 S., are particularly important to the Southeastern U.S.
"We're prone to not only hurricanes from both the Atlantic and the Gulf, we also have a tendency to experience tornadoes. And it's sometimes just torrential rain that causes localized flooding in areas across the Southeast," Sandlin said. "The warehouse being located in Decatur is kind of a great central location to respond into several different states."
Cody Michael, outreach minister with Project Unify, said the program started in 2018 as the then-Grant Street Church of Christ's Crisis Response Group with just one congregation but became Project Unify in 2020.
"We decided this is bigger than just us; we need to do this together as the Kingdom," he said.
The project now includes Church of Christ congregations in Flint, Hartselle, Priceville, Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma with the Decatur church overseeing them all.
For the next couple of weeks, Michael said, they are accepting donations including grab-and-go snack food, small bottles of Gatorade, hygiene and baby products and pet food. He said the donations they have received so far are from church congregations and individuals.
The first group of five volunteers is leaving Sunday and heading to Cape Coral, Florida, Michael said. Cape Coral is just outside Fort Myers and within miles of where the eye of Hurricane Ian hit Wednesday.
"We'll start ... cleaning the debris, (removing downed) trees, tarping roofs, helping to just get everything where you have a sense of normalcy again," he said.
Michael said they will try to set up Bible studies and give supplies to anyone in need, including utility workers.
"Once people start coming back in (after evacuations), we will not only bring our trailer down with all our donated items from north Alabama as well as Tennessee and Georgia, but we will also have an 18-wheeler group called National Disaster Relief Effort," he said. "They bring an 18-wheeler down of materials and we help distribute that to people in need."
Michael said the first Project Unify group will stay through Oct. 7 and then groups will rotate, staying for no more than a week at a time so that no one will be away from their families for an extended period.
The purpose of Project Unify, Michael said, is to spread the gospel and serve.
"We attempt to set up Bible studies as we go but regardless of whether someone wants to have a Bible study or not, we're still going to serve them like Jesus would," he said. "We want to spread the gospel, we want to serve others, but we also want to show the compassion that Jesus has for each one of us as well."
To donate or volunteer with the United Methodist Disaster Relief Warehouse, visit umdisasterwarehouse.com. To volunteer with Project Unify, call 256-353-4256. Donations can be dropped off for Project Unify at the Decatur Church of Christ located at 2833 Danville Road S.W.
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