Hurricane Michael: Baptist volunteers putting pieces together

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PANAMA CITY, Fla.(BP) -- Freight trains overturned on the railroad tracks in Panama City, Fla. Power lines downed for miles around the Southeast. Hundreds of thousands of trees decapitated by the buzz saw named Hurricane Michael.

Despite the carnage, many churches in Panama City and beyond held Sunday morning services just four days after Michael made landfall. Mike Claunch, pastor of St. Andrew Baptist Church, reminded his congregation, "Michael came as a surprise to us, but it wasn't a surprise to God."

Florida's Gov. Rick Scott joined St. Andrew in worship. He told the congregation, "My prayers are with you, and I'm going to do everything I can, with a lot of other people, to help bring this community back."

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), also told the church, "Neighbor helping neighbor is the most powerful thing that can happen when things like this occur. So please continue to spread hope, spread love and go out, and do what you can."

Together, Gov. Scott, Long and the state of Florida's chief financial officer, Jimmy Patronis, heard Claunch tell his congregation that "God is love," quoting 1 John 4:8.

"God did not let go of his love when He allowed Hurricane Michael to roar through our community," said Claunch, who pastored First Baptist Church of Slidell, just off the shores of Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain, when Hurricane Katrina struck there in 2005. "God loves us. Our God is a good God. He just has good purposes that go beyond the physical suffering that we have endured and will endure yet in the time to come."

Across town at Hiland Park Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) team from Florida set up a kitchen and began serving meals to the community over the weekend in partnership with American Red Cross.

Micah Roden, a volunteer with Florida's SBDR team, arrived Friday morning (Oct. 12) with a team that grew to 50 volunteers.

"There is tremendous need," Roden said. "Some areas are completely devastated. Homes are gone. Every home has trees on it. Almost everyone we've talked to is significantly impacted."

Many of the churches, like Hiland Park and St. Andrew, suffered immense damage and yet continue to serve their communities by hosting and serving alongside SBDR teams.

"For our people to look over and see the yellow disaster relief [shirts and caps], that gives them a little bit of hope in this difficult situation," said Steven Kyle, pastor of Hiland Park. "They know what it stands for because we've been highly involved in disaster relief."

Aside from expecting quality service from SBDR, Kyle said, "It's going to be a spring board for us to be able to take the Gospel to hearts that are sensitive to it right now."

Another crew of Southern Baptist volunteers from Louisiana traveled to Marianna, Fla., which is 50 to 60 miles inland. Some of them described the damage of Hurricane Michael as worse than Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005.

"I've been doing this since the late 1990's, and I have never seen devastation this widespread. You never drive out of the disaster area," said David Abernathy, an SBDR volunteer with Louisiana who served with SBDR following Katrina.

In Marianna, stretches of Highway 90 appear similar to a war-torn country. Buildings wear scars as though they have been punctured by rockets. Mounds of rubble and debris that used to be building facades line the sidewalks.

The Louisiana SBDR team set up their kitchen and recovery equipment at the Chipola Baptist Association's Chipola Family Ministries facility in Marianna, serving alongside American Red Cross and the Florida National Guard.

"It's been the worst storm I've ever seen," said Coba Beasley, associational missions strategist. "And I hope to never see another one like it."

The Louisiana team received deliveries of food from Send Relief, the North American Mission Board's (NAMB) compassion ministry arm. Those shipments carried them through the first few days, enabling them to serve people in the community.

Abernathy said the response was "as smooth as I've seen it" in the opening days, even considering the level of destruction that had taken place.

Hurricane Michael clipped the southeast corner of Alabama, and Baptists in that state sent an SBDR team to Dothan, Ala. There, they served meals and sent out chainsaw crews to begin helping homeowners in the community whose property had been damaged by falling trees.

In Georgia, towns such as Bainbridge, Donalsonville and as far north as Albany felt the storm's catastrophic blow, and SBDR teams arrived to serve those towns.

Many of these volunteers had just finished serving survivors of Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas before answering the call to travel to Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

"Everybody is hurting from this storm," said David Melber, president of Send Relief. "Rural areas, urban areas, beach communities. The needs are everywhere. That's why Southern Baptists have to be everywhere too."

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