"If you want to know the truth, I would have much rather lost the church sign than the roof", exclaims Jo Ann Richards, property chairman of First Christian Church of hurricane-ravaged Port Arthur, Texas. "Standing inside our church the morning after, all we could see was sky".
Hurricane Rita hit land just southeast of Port Arthur, Texas in the pre-dawn hours of September 24th, 2005. First Christian Church was left alone to fend for itself as everyone in the congregation was long gone; packed up and safely scattered points southwesterly. Indeed, Jo Ann and her family had already fled hundreds of miles away to Waco, Texas, bunking with relatives.
Rita then pounded Port Arthur mercilessly with 120 mph winds; occasionally lashing 175-mph gusts upon the town by the time daybreak crept in. First Christian's church building was constructed in 1983. The collective feeling was that it would fare better than some of the older structures around town.
"Driving back to Port Arthur in the aftermath, every sign in Jefferson County was on the ground: McDonalds', Wendy's, all gas stations... not to mention every single car dealer. I'm not just saying damaged; I'm saying crumpled up and on the ground", describes Jo Ann. "So as we approached the church, our hopes were dimming".
"Rounding the corner, the first thing we could see was the church sign. It was intact in every way", she recalls. "The letters hadn't even moved an inch. Coming closer, though, we could painfully see that our beloved church building was decimated"."We lost the roof but not our sign", sighs Jo Ann.
The choir room which once held a hundred years of printed sheet music was now a gaping hole; hymnals silenced forever by water damage. Later, First Christian's insurance company would put total estimated damage at nine-hundred thousand dollars.Rita left town.
The first thing Pastor Neil Lindley did was put a simple, three-word message on the church sign: ALIVE AND WELL. "Unless you had gone through what our congregation experienced, there's no way you could even begin to understand what that sign meant to us once the winds died down", explains Jo Ann. "We needed to get the word out".And they continued getting the word out. After the church gymnasium was cobbled together as a temporary chapel their roadside sign announced service hours in contrast to what had originally been perceived as a "vanished church". The sign set the record straight.
First Christian then offered the same gymnasium to its neighboring Seventh Day Adventist church whose building suffered even worse damage at the hands of Rita. "As they worship on Saturdays it was easy to juggle service schedules", says Jo Ann. "Again, the surviving sign got the word out and kept two separate congregations informed. In addition, the Adventists conducted their weekday elementary school inside the gymnasium. Our church sign was working overtime!"
"What a blessing that our church sign survived Rita. There was a reason".Jo Ann chuckles as she ponders, "If and when Stewart Signs decides to manufacture roofs, our church will be your first customer!"
Jo Ann Richards
First Christian Church
Port Arthur, TX