‘The church will be there,’ Presiding Bishop tells Florida hurricane survivors on long path to recovery

By David Paulsen
Posted Jan 14, 2019
Curry at Holy Nativity Episcopal School

Judy Hughes, head of school, leads Presiding Bishop Michael Curry on a tour of Holy Nativity Episcopal School in Panama City, Florida, on Jan. 12. The school is undergoing extensive repairs after being damaged in Hurricane Michael. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Panama City, Florida] A current of human electricity ran through the large crowd that had filled the sanctuary at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church. Post-hurricane emotional fatigue gave way to an undeniable, positive energy. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry could feel it.

“I have to admit, I wish it had been a different name than Michael,” Curry said, opening with a joke that generated a hearty laugh from the room of Hurricane Michael survivors, easily 300 strong.

When the rapidly intensifying storm made landfall near here on Oct. 10 with an estimated wind speed of 155 mph, some of these residents of Florida’s Panhandle lost everything or nearly everything. Even those who fared better than most awoke to a landscape forever altered and daily life upended – trees gone, homes damaged or destroyed, businesses darkened, schools closed, jobs up in the air, and a coastal region facing the uneasy question of how many of its residents would be coming back.

Curry spent last weekend in and around Panama City on a pastoral visit to these communities three months after the storm, encouraging them to share their stories of recovery and assuring them that the Episcopal Church has not forgotten or given up on them.

“To hear what you have done and are doing, therein is hope and grace and the power of love,” Curry said Jan. 12 at Holy Nativity, during the first of two listening sessions organized by the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. With the crowd filling every pew and spilling over to folding chairs on the sides and a standing area in the back, he praised them for their perseverance in the face of disaster.

Episcopalians here gave Curry a warm welcome literally from the moment he stepped off the plane at Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. The airport manager is a parishioner at Holy Nativity and greeted Curry at the gate.

Front of Holy Nativity school

Holy Nativity Episcopal School’s campus has been closed since Hurricane Michael, though classes are being held in portable classrooms nearby. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Curry’s first stop Jan. 12 was Holy Nativity Episcopal School, a few blocks from the church of the same name in The Cove, a beach-side neighborhood filled with modest houses and stunning oak trees. Hurricane Michael passed just east of Panama City, so its powerful Category 4 winds were aimed out to sea, sparing the city a devastating storm surge. At that strength, however, the wind did plenty of damage on its own, including to the school.

One of the trees felled by the storm landed on the school’s roof, creating a gaping hole over the school’s lobby and one of its classrooms, but as the presiding bishop arrived accompanied by Bishop Russell Kendrick, the progress on repairs was remarkable. A new roof was in place and renovations inside were well underway.

“Holy cow, they’ve gotten a lot done,” Kendrick said.

Judy Hughes, Holy Nativity’s head of school, welcomed them into the lobby and kicked off her tour with a short video about the storm damage and repairs. A projector and screen were set up on floors still stripped to the baseboards, and the group watched the video standing under exposed rafters.

Hughes’ goal is for her students to return to this school building by the fall, but their temporary accommodations are themselves quite an achievement. “We were the first school in Bay County to open,” Hughes said proudly. Classes resumed Oct. 29, in the hallways, courtyard and any other available spaces at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, and in additional space provided for by St. Thomas by the Sea Episcopal Church in Panama City Beach.

Teachers and students have since moved into 15 portable classrooms set up like a makeshift educational village on vacant land behind Holy Nativity Church, and spirits are running high again, Hughes said. The school, which teaches preschool to eighth grade, had about 285 students enrolled this year, and only about 20 have yet to return after the hurricane.

Curry thanked Hughes for the tour. His goal in scheduling this visit months after the storm was “to remind the church you’re still here.”

“The church will be there 10 years from now,” Curry said later, during the short drive from the school to the church. The vehicle passed a man jogging through The Cove. “We’re long-distance runners. We’re not sprinters,” Curry added.

Hurricane debris

Panama City, Florida, was spared a storm surge during Hurricane Michael, but with wind speed reaching an estimated 155 mph, damage in the city was widespread. Debris piles still are a common site. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Communities still in the thick of recovery

If storm recovery is a marathon, these coastal communities are in the early miles of the race.

Some properties have been cleared of downed trees and storm-tossed vegetation, while others appear untouched and frozen in a state of disarray. The smell of cut wood emanates from certain parts of Panama City, especially near lots that have been converted to mulching grounds.

Residents say that, in the initial aftermath of the hurricane, a massive amount of household debris was hauled to the curbs. Walls of junk rose along the sides of residential streets, broken only by the gaps left for driveways. Now neighborhoods are beginning to look like neighborhoods again, with debris heaps still scattered here and there, some towering taller than houses – furniture, bricks, drywall, large appliances, siding, anything that might have broken free or been damaged during the storm.

Some gas stations have reopened despite missing the roofs over their pumps. Many other businesses appear closed, either temporarily or for good. Those that have reopened struggle to get that message across with signs that say, “Yes We Are Open.” Business signs that have yet to be repaired speak in a kind of post-hurricane dialect. “SEAFOOD MARKET” becomes “EAF ARKE,” and “MARINE SERVICE” is now “MARI E ERVICE.”

Damaged building

More than $5 billion in losses have been reported in insurance claims from Hurricane Michael in Florida. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

The ubiquity of roof damage has launched thousands of homeowners on simultaneous searches for available roofers, creating a service backlog. Blue tarps are the most common stopgap until repairs can be made. Some roofs no longer exist to be repaired, either blown away or collapsed into the building, and occasionally there is no building left either, just a pile of rubble waiting to be cleared.

More than $5 billion in losses have been reported in insurance claims in Florida, according to the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation, with most of the claims coming from Panama City, Mexico Beach and other communities in Bay County.

The Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, with financial and logistical assistance from Episcopal Relief & Development, has worked closely with the eight Episcopal churches that sustained significant damage during Hurricane Michael, though all were able to resume Sunday services within two weeks of the storm.

On the day of Curry’s listening session at Holy Nativity, the roof was still clad in blue tarp and other protective materials. The session inside was a mix of laughter and tears, applause and “amens,” as about two dozen Episcopalians from across the region rose to speak to Curry about their experiences during and after the hurricane.

They shared stories of first responders’ heroic work, of one congregation’s newly homeless parishioners camping out in the parish hall, of neighbors sharing information over downed fences, of students glad to return to school to see their friends, of residents chipping in any way they could to help each other, and of a shared desire to return to daily life.

Curry thanked them for their stories, saying they echoed what he had heard from Episcopalians during his visit last month to the Diocese of East Carolina, which is recovering from its own disaster after Hurricane Florence.

“They started asking, ‘Who is our neighbor? Who may be worse off than we are?’” Curry said. “We’re kind of all in it together.”

Curry at listening session

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, left, and the Rev. Steve Bates, second to right, listen to Episcopalians share their stories of Hurricane Michael at a Jan. 12 session at Bates’ Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in Panama City, Florida. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Anna Eberhard said afterward that the presiding bishop’s visit was a tremendous personal boost for her and her family. Eberhard, a teacher at Holy Nativity Episcopal School and a member of the church, was displaced after the storm, forced to move more than hour away to Walton County until her house is repaired.

She and her two daughters still make the trip back each weekday for school, but by the weekend, they are too tired of traveling to attend Sunday services. “I’m without my church home,” she told Episcopal News Service, so returning to the church and her congregation for this session with Curry gave her “the feeling of the Holy Spirit.”

‘Serve each other in his spirit’

Curry’s second listening session was held at St. James Episcopal Church in Port St. Joe, Florida, a smaller coastal community east of Panama City. On the drive to Port St. Joe, the presiding bishop passed through Mexico Beach, the small community that was hit hardest by Hurricane Michael. This region felt the brunt of Michael’s powerful storm surge, which virtually wiped out Mexico Beach.

Mexico Beach

The community of Mexico Beach was virtually wiped out by the storm surge from Hurricane Michael. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

What is left of the community looked like a war zone, with buildings reduced to scrap or badly damaged. Roofs, if not missing altogether, were patched with blue tarp. The main road through town was dotted on the sides by pile after pile of debris, and part narrowed to one lane where roadway was eroded by the storm and had yet to be restored.

The scene in Port St. Joe was nearly as bleak, though the neighborhood around St. James is farther inland and was mostly spared the worst of the waves.

A crowd of about 125 people filled the church for Curry’s listening session. The tone was more subdued than in the morning session, but nearly 20 people stood to share their stories from Hurricane Michael.

Melina Elum, a member of St. James, told of hunkering down in her Port St. Joe home with her husband during the storm, “wondering if we were going to live.”

Elum said she prayed to God out loud and made a lot of promises while asking for protection. When the ordeal of the storm was over, “it was a relief, but it was also a responsibility when I realized what I promised,” she said. “I have more to do now because of that.”

Port St. Joe

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, center, and the Rev. Tommy Dwyer, left, listen to residents share their hurricane stories at Dwyer’s St. James Episcopal Church in Port St. Joe, Florida, on Jan. 12. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Anna Connell, who moved to Mexico Beach with her three children about three years ago, worked a nurse at Bay Medical Sacred Heart Hospital in Panama City. When the storm hit, the family fled, and when they returned, their house was gone. Connell also was left without a job because part of the hospital was destroyed.

Connell struggled to hold back tears as she told Curry about a phone conversation she had with her father after the hurricane. He told her to pray, so she did.

“It was the first time in my life that I ever completely gave myself to God. It was very humbling,” she said. “I still don’t have a plan, but I have peace.”

Curry thanked her and gave her a hug.

“The truth is, none of us has the strength to do it by ourselves,” he told the crowd. “Together we can.”

The next morning, Curry concluded his visit to the diocese by participating in Eucharist at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Panama City. During the hurricane, trees fell onto the administrative building at St. Andrew’s, crushing part of the roof, but the roof had been rebuilt by the time of Curry’s visit.

The church itself sustained only minor damage, so on the first Sunday after the storm, the congregation was able to return and worship there. That day, the Rev. Margaret Shepard, rector at St. Andrew’s, invited parishioners to write on poster-size paper their emotions on the theme “What Has Made You Sad/Angry” in the hurricane’s aftermath, a coping exercise recommended by an Episcopal Relief & Development official.

Among the responses: “So much loss and destruction.” “It made my aunt go away.” “Nothing is the same.” “Fear of starting over.”

Curry at St. Andrews

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaches Jan. 13 at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Panama City, Florida. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

The parishioners’ words were still on display as the sanctuary filled with more than 200 people for the service Jan. 13.

“Y’all got to listen. This Jesus has something to say,” Curry urged the congregation in his half-hour sermon. “He knows the way of life. … Follow him, love him and serve each other in his spirit.”

For a community that may be experiencing a collective fear of starting over, the call to serve each other echoed some of the responses that parishioners had added to a second sheet of paper hanging in the sanctuary, which asked, “What Bright Spot Have You Found?”

“Neighbors sharing and getting to know one another.”

“The deep goodness of people.”

“Coming to church!”

“God’s comforting presence.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.