PANAMA CITY, Fla. (BP) — Hurricane Michael damaged at least 50 Southern Baptist church buildings in Florida and Georgia, according to initial estimates, with some virtually destroyed.
But that hasn’t stopped the congregations from doing the work of ministry.
“Some of the deacons are doing some reconnaissance for us, trying to find out some of the needs” in the community in order to initiate ministries, said Dwight Woods, pastor of Family of God Baptist Church in Panama City, Fla., despite major damage to both of the 200-member church’s campuses.
At Family of God’s west campus, the fellowship hall collapsed and 30 feet of the sanctuary roof was ripped off by Michael, Woods told Baptist Press. The church’s east campus saw half of the roof torn off and module buildings damaged.
At least six people died when Michael made landfall along the Florida Panhandle Oct. 10 as a Category 4 hurricane and worked its way into Georgia and the Carolinas. Some 1.5 million homes and businesses in the Southeast were without power as of Oct. 11.
Many pastors and churches along the Gulf Coast still cannot be contacted because of cellphone and internet outages. Beyond Family of God Baptist Church in damage reported thus far, Michael filled some churches with water, ripped roofs off others and caused multiple church buildings to collapse.
“It’s like being hit by a bomb,” Woods said, “and your life is just disrupted, turned upside down, and you begin to try to put the pieces back together.”
Woodstock Church PCB in Panama City Beach, Fla., suffered only minor damage to its facility and has electricity to extend help to neighbors. The congregation housed 100 search and rescue team members from Louisiana, is offering food and shelter to displaced community members and has sent teams into Panama City to locate people whose families haven’t been able to contact them.
“We’re going to open up our facility and just be the church,” said Rick Young, pastor of Woodstock PCB, a satellite campus of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga.
Jim Barr, a member of First Baptist Church in Panama City — which sustained damage to its facility — rode out the storm in the bathtub of his fifth-floor condo in Panama City Beach and told BP the storm’s power was evident.
“It was a horrible experience,” Barr said. “The sound of the roaring winds was absolutely terrifying … a sound that I just don’t want to hear again ever. But I was blessed.”
Phyllis Poland, disaster relief coordinator and ministry assistant for the Northwest Coast Baptist Association in Lynn Haven, Fla., said at least five churches in the association, including Family of God, suffered “substantial damage.” One church lost its entire roof, another was flooded by three to four feet of water and another had its steeple bent over nearly 90 degrees.
“I have only seen the pictures of the catastrophic damage to our community,” Poland told BP. “My family and I evacuated due to the magnitude of Hurricane Michael. Please pray for the 51 congregations represented in the Northwest Coast Baptist Association and for Bay, Gulf and Franklin County families affected by this storm. Our communities are resilient and will represent the word TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More.”
Lewis Miller, west Florida regional catalyst for the Florida Baptist Convention, said at least 50-75 Florida churches were damaged by Michael and likely 100. In addition, the Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, Fla., tweeted that the school experienced “moderate to some heavy damage to buildings, trees, etc.,” but “all personnel are well.”
Georgia’s Christian Index newsjournal reported churches in south Georgia also were “heavily damaged,” including one whose fellowship hall and education building appeared to be a total loss.
“Houses are losing roofs,” Ken Cloud, director of missions for the Bowen Baptist Association in Bainbridge, Ga., said according to the Index. “Big pines are coming down. It’s like a war zone.”
Miller said “it’s going to take a long time” for the hardest-hit regions to recover. But the most difficult wait for some is for travel restrictions to be lifted so they can begin caring for others.
“They want to help,” Miller said. “A lot of people that were not affected by these storms have been through other storms. So having been through other storms and having had people respond to them, they know how important and helpful that is, and they now want to go to these who are hurting.”
Currently, Miller said, “the best thing [concerned believers] can do is pray and give to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief through the North American Mission Board or their Baptist state conventions.”