Central Gulf Coast communities, churches assess damage from Hurricane Sally

By David Paulsen
Posted Sep 18, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] The latest hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast during this record-setting hurricane season has left churches and residents again assessing the damage, this time in communities served by the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast in southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

Hurricane Sally moved ashore early Sept. 16 over Gulf Shores, Alabama, as a Category 2 storm, with wind speeds reaching 105 mph. The storm has been blamed for at least two deaths and caused flooding, power outages and structural damage across the region. At least four Episcopal churches sustained property damage, as well as the diocese’s camp, Beckwith, in Fairhope, Alabama.

The Rev. Will Lowry, rector of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Gulf Shores, reported on Facebook that the church was dealing with downed tree limbs and water that seeped into the church. “Otherwise we seem to have done well,” Lowry said, though the storm caused varying degrees of damage to some parishioners’ homes.

An email update from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast said the diocesan offices were without power and phone service as of Sept. 17. Other closings were reported in the southern part of the diocese, including at St. Paul’s Episcopal Preschool in Daphne, Alabama.

Christ Episcopal Church in Pensacola, Florida, also reported the church was closed in the days after the storm, and it issued a call on Facebook asking parishioners to contact the parish’s clergy directly to report any damage or family needs.

“We are here on the journey with you as we recover,” the post said.

The Atlantic hurricane season typically runs from June through November, and the number of storms this year already has exhausted meteorologists’ list of names, the earliest that has ever happened. After Tropical Storm Wilfred formed this week, meteorologists shifted to using letters of the Greek alphabet for only the second time; the first was the devastating 2005 hurricane season, which included Katrina.

Just two weeks before Sally, Hurricane Laura made landfall over southwest Louisiana, near the Texas state line, as one of the most powerful storms to hit the Gulf Coast. More than a dozen deaths were blamed on the storm, with the worst of the damage centered in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana.

The recent storms and other increasingly frequent and intensifying natural disasters this year, from the West Coast wildfires to an Iowa windstorm, coincide with scientists’ warnings about the growing threats posed by climate change, especially ocean warming. The past five years are the five warmest years on record for global ocean temperatures.

“Warm ocean temperatures are one of the key factors that strengthen hurricane development when overall conditions are conducive for their formation and growth,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. “In the future, there may not necessarily be more hurricanes, but there will likely be more intense hurricanes that carry higher wind speeds and more precipitation as a result of global warming.”

Hurricane Sally reportedly dropped 30 inches of rain in some places, which combined with the storm surge caused heavy flooding in coastal communities.

Central Gulf Coast Bishop Russell Kendrick spent Sept. 18 traveling to some of the churches in his diocese that have been impacted by the hurricane. The diocese also was hit hard in October 2018 by Hurricane Michael, which made landfall farther east, near Panama City.

“Each storm leaves its own legacy,” Kendrick said in an emailed statement to Episcopal News Service. “Hurricane Sally really caught us off guard by the direction she took. Because of that, very few were prepared. Thankfully, while there is significant damage, the folks who live in this area are resilient and hopeful.”

The diocese is working with Episcopal Relief & Development to assist residents and business owners who are dealing with severe damage to their homes and businesses. Camp Beckwith, meanwhile, shared photos on Facebook showing trees downed by the storm, including one that hit a camp building.

In Pensacola, the storm knocked out power and phone service at Holy Cross Episcopal Church, according to a Sept. 17 YouTube update from the Rev. Rob Dixon, Holy Cross’ rector. Dixon offered encouragement to parishioners and asked them to let him know their needs and the needs of others in the community so the congregation could help coordinate assistance with the recovery.

“I hope you’re OK. I do want to encourage you all to join me right now in just taking a breath,” he said. “We’re going to get the work done.”

Dixon also invited them – while still following COVID-19 precautions – to gather with him at 9 a.m. Sept. 20 outside the church for a brief prayer. Afterward, they will work together to clear debris from the parish property.

“After Sunday, what we’re going to have is a plan for next week, for how we can be together the hands and feet of Christ for one another and our neighbors,” he said, “together how we can slowly and faithfully help to dig our way out after this mess of a hurricane.”

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