Before Hurricane Michael slammed into Panama City and the Florida Panhandle and left jaw-dropping carnage in its wake, The United Methodist Church was already planning how best to serve survivors of the ferocious Category 4 storm.
Pam Garrison, the Florida Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, was putting teams and systems in place to provide aid and comfort after first responders have done the initial work. It’s all part of a coordinated effort by the Conference, volunteers and professional agencies to help those displaced by the tragedy.
|Haley Nelson inspects damages to her family properties in the Panama City, Fla., spring field area after Hurricane Michael made landfall in Florida's Panhandle on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. Supercharged by abnormally warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle with terrifying winds of 155 mph Wednesday, splintering homes and submerging neighborhoods before continuing its march inland. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP)|
And Department of Ministry Protection Director LaNita Battles will be checking on reports of damaged churches throughout the region and helping those affected work through the maze of insurance claims, repairs, potential temporary relocation and other issues that may arise.
“It’s a tri-fold situation for the people of these churches,” Battles said. “They’re dealing with the situation at their own church while they’re trying to be a comfort to the community they serve and facing their own personal problems at home from the storm.”
Getting a devastated area back on its feet is a huge undertaking that fulfills a vital mission of the church.
“In times of crisis, people turn to churches,” Garrison said. “We have to be the hands and feet of Christ. We have to be the church.”
There is a network of about 300 certified early UM responders, and about 400 others who have been trained but let their certification lapse. They receive Garrison’s first notification to stand by because they may be needed to help with home repair, clearing debris and other necessary tasks to help families get back on their feet.
It is not a quick process. Many are still struggling more than a year after Hurricane Irma struck the state, and some are even trying to return to normal life two years after Hurricane Matthew.
Because Panama City is in the United Methodist Alabama-West Florida Conference, Garrison coordinates with leaders there. She expects that most of the Florida Conference resources will be directed toward Tallahassee and in low-lying areas like Apalachicola and Wakulla that are prone to devastating flooding.
State officials also have warned some affected residents could be without power for weeks or longer.
“The problem in Tallahassee is that there are a lot of trees there. They are generally bigger; and there are more of them, and if they are blown over and take power lines down, it’s not easy to get them back up and repaired,” Garrison said.
Anticipating wide-spread power outages and possible cell phone disruption, Garrison arranged to coordinate with some by ham radio.
The work of gathering information began as soon as the storm passed.
From there, assessments of what needs to be done will be made and crews will be dispatched to help in coordination with other service agencies. The effort is complicated by blocked roadways that can take many days or even weeks to clear, along with the uncertainty of when power will be restored.
“This doesn’t happen overnight,” Garrison said. “We know this will be a long process. But we’ll be there to help.”
--Joe Henderson is interim editor for the Florida Conference.