The Panhandle and its residents are still in need of help following Hurricane Michael.
Lives were forever changed when the category 4 storm pummelled through Northwest Florida. Many residents are still praying for better days and recovery… but their places to pray and worship were also forever altered.
Churches across the Panhandle and especially here in Bay County took a hard hit, a hit the rest of the nation has seemed to of already forgotten about.
“It’s hard to understand it unless you actually come here. So maybe come here and actually get a look at it, or come here and help,” said First Presbyterian Church Pastor, Ron Brown.
Brown, like other pastors in the Panhandle, is struggling to rebuild his church. First Presbyterian Church in downtown Panama City is just one of three properties Brown managed, all of which were destroyed.
Assessing the initial damage was a shock. Pastor John Ramsey of Harvest Worship Center was inside his church when the storm hit along with almost 20 others.
“We sheltered here at the church. We had about 18 people here and we’ve sheltered here before for other storms. Matter of fact, right before they built some of the newer elementary schools, they used to use this church as a hurricane shelter,” said Ramsey.
Everyone sheltering in the church was bunkering down in a room with no windows, a room thought to be safe until the walls started moving.
“The front walls blew in and when that happened the building just started to come apart,” said Ramsey. Thinking fast, the group split into two groups of about 10 people each and hid in tiny crawl spaces underneath the church stage.
Everyone waited out the storm in total darkness until it passed but nothing could prepare them for the damage done by Hurricane Michael.
“It was pretty scary, I mean… we were stunned. We were stunned that such a ferocious storm had damaged so much,” Ramsey said.
Now, it’s time to rebuild and figure out how to move forward… a task many churches are currently undertaking.
“We’re in the same boat many churches in the area are in. We’re just trying to figure out steps forward from here and how to handle it,” said Carlisle Baptist Church Pastor, Josh Fidler.
Pastor Fidler’s church in Callaway also took a hard hit. “All of our buildings with the exception of the one were in sustained pretty much, catastrophic damage. Basically, 75 to 80% of our buildings were gone,” Fidler said.
The debris of the destroyed buildings can still be seen in the church’s parking lot. Although most of the property was destroyed, Fidler said he sees the storm as a blessing in disguise that makes him appreciate what’s truly important.
“All of the fray, all of the things that don’t matter kind of blew away. We call them sacred cows sometimes things that people hold onto, they’re all gone and what matters is left, and that’s the people,” he said.
While Carlisle Baptist church focuses on their own recovery, they are also actively doing whatever they can to help those impacted by the storm in the community.
“We have relief workers staying on property so if there is debris clean up, things around the house that we can do… we have volunteer crews so just let us know and we’ll be happy to send them to you. Everybody’s hurting and we just want to be a part of the solution,” said Fidler.
While there are plans to rebuild these damaged sanctuaries, it is still going to be a difficult and lengthy process.
“Everything needs the same thing at the same time and even getting people to come out and give you bids, it’s a difficult process right now because the need is so great,” said Ramsey.
Pastor Ramsey said he is still trying to assess just how much money it will cost to fix everything. “Every layer of destruction, we find more stuff that we didn’t know so it’s looking more like we’re going to tear the sanctuary down and rebuild it,” said Ramsey.
Another issue with rebuilding is the fact that many of these churches did not have insurance. “Even the ones that did have insurance, it doesn’t cover everything,” said Ramsey. Pastor Ramsey’s church had insurance but lacked hurricane and wind coverage which lands them in the same boat as everyone else. They plan to apply for loans and assistance, but some volunteers from a church in Texas are here in the Panhandle to help Ramsey and his congregation.
“Their church was lost in Hurricane Harvey so immediately they contacted me and began to talk to me about some of the things we need to do and that’s been really valuable to us. We’re thankful for friends,” said Ramsey.
Pastor Jerry Hovater knows firsthand what it’s like to go through this process of losing everything and having to rebuild. After hearing Pastor Ramsey’s story, he immediately came to the Panhandle in an attempt to help in any way he can.
“This is different devastation. When I heard his story, when I saw what had happened here, I felt something for John. I know that feeling of feeling like people have forgotten you,” said Pastor Jerry Hovater f the Little Country Church in Neycaney, Texas.
Pastor Ramsey and others sympathize with Pastor Hovater and say they do feel forgotten by the rest of the nation.
“It saddens me because I feel like a lot of people think we’re already over it and we haven’t even started to get over it,” said Ramsey.
For now, these struggling and broken churches are doing whatever they can to move forward but they need help. Although they are applying for loans and whatever aid they can, they also plan to hold fundraising events to help get the money needed to rebuild, but one thing is for sure, they’ll need the community’s help.
“The biggest way people can help us of course, is a donation of any kind and there are lots of ways to donate to our church and any other church in need,” said Ramsey.