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Church damaged by Idalia receives check from Florida governor

Pastor Donnie Ownby and his wife Lisa accept a $25,000 gift from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Sept. 8 to be used toward rebuilding Horseshoe Beach First Baptist Church.

HORSESHOE BEACH, Fla. (BP) – Donnie Ownby’s plan in August was to move to this village in the Big Bend region of Florida after being called to lead First Baptist Church. Semi-retirement for the longtime Tennessean was expected to accompany work as a pastor.

Ownby and his wife, Lisa, moved most of their belongings to the church’s parsonage toward the end of the month before returning to the Knoxville area for a scheduled doctor’s visit. They were set to return after the Labor Day weekend but received a phone call.

Horseshoe Beach First Baptist’s sanctuary and nursery were just two areas of the church with extensive damage from Hurricane Idalia. Photo courtesy of Melanie Bloodworth.

“They said I better wait a little while,” Ownby said. “The hurricane had hit, and the house and church were filled with about seven feet of water.”

Hurricane Idalia reached Category 4 strength shortly before making landfall as a Category 3 in the Big Bend region on Aug. 30. Horseshoe Beach was on the eastward side of the storm, where the water surge is greatest.

First Baptist lost its piano, pews and sound system to the storm, with Bibles and hymnals floating in the debris.

Recovery help has come from various directions. Ownby was at a ball field in Chiefland on Sept. 8 to meet Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who on his third visit to the stricken area presented a $25,000 check to the church for rebuilding.

“I talked with him for a brief second. I tell people he was in awe of meeting me,” Ownby joked.

Melanie Bloodworth, a member of First Baptist and the church’s secretary, said the damage is the worst she’s ever seen in the area.

“The old timers agree. Anything on the ground is gone and needing to be replaced,” she said. “People lost their homes and many aren’t going to be able to afford to rebuild because of updated building codes. A lot of property will probably go up for sale.”

Horseshoe Beach isn’t the picture people get of Florida. Don’t imagine Destin or Daytona. It’s a small fishing village, Bloodworth said, and pretty much all recreational at that. A few shrimp boats dot the coastline.

“We don’t have the rolling waves and big beaches,” she said. “The tide comes in and then it goes out.”

Ownby learned that the church did not have rising water insurance, just liability. Still in the process of moving, he had also not yet secured insurance on his personal items.

“My wife and I had bought a new washer and dryer, new television stand and new TV. It came to around $6,000,” he said. “She used the washing machine once that first day.”

Horseshoe Beach First Baptist’s sanctuary and nursery were just two areas of the church with extensive damage from Hurricane Idalia. Photo courtesy of Melanie Bloodworth.

Those, as well as family mementos and approximately $8,000 worth of theology books accrued over 52 years of ministry, were either destroyed or heavily damaged.

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams joined those from Florida Baptist Disaster Relief in the cleanup effort.

“They stepped up to the plate amazingly,” Ownby said. “I’m kind of in awe of all they’ve done. This church is full of elderly people like me, and [Disaster Relief] did the things that needed to be done.”

Many of the homes in Horseshoe Beach are second ones owned by those living in Jacksonville, Lake City, south Florida and even into Georgia and Alabama, said Bloodworth.

“When they’re here, they come to church,” she said.

Worship services the Sunday after the storm were held at Horseshoe Point, looking out into the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is the only church in town,” said Bloodworth, who has focused her cleanup on the small shed behind the church. “It’s my goal to make sure this little church stays here. This community needs it.”