“Food’s ready!” Pastor Steve Lawes shouted to a room full of volunteers and residents Wednesday at Vineyard Community Church on Big Pine Key.
The sanctuary looks like a combination of a store and restaurant where Lawes has been working every day since Sept. 17 in the aftermath of Category 4 Hurricane Irma, which had struck a week earlier.
Lawes, who has pastored the church at 100 County Road for more than two decades and was in the Keys for hurricanes Georges in 1998 and Wilma in 2005, was cooking a small buffet of food for residents looking for a hot meal and volunteers who have come from all over South Florida.
“Georges kind of devastated one side of the island and Wilma got the other side, but this one got everything for 20 miles,” he said over pans full of pasta.
The flow of people seeking food and supplies has slowed down and the church is no longer accepting donations, but there are still plenty in stock. They are neatly organized in rows, like grocery aisles. Lawes said at one point, almost half the room was full but it has slowly dwindled down.
Now, he said post-hurricane operations are shifting toward help outside the church. He said about 1,600 volunteers have come to help in recent weeks and they are being sent out into the neighborhoods from Big Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key, mile marker 15.
Lawes lives on Cudjoe Key, ground zero where Irma made landfall Sept. 10. Power at his house returned just over a week ago.
“There are still people where I live that don’t have power back,” he said. “There are still a lot of people needing help.”
That’s where the volunteers come into play. Mike Torres of Bayside Community Church in Manatee County is one of them.
As project manager, he and a few others were sitting next to a group of computers Wednesday that looked as complex as a government emergency operations center. Torres was setting up a network that other churches are connected to. It’s where supplies and work orders are entered, and if the volunteers at Vineyard can’t help, another church can pick up the order.
“We’re trying to help clean up debris and trailers and things like that. We haven’t done a whole lot of fixing yet, but hopefully we will soon,” Lawes said.
Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219