Hurricane Michael, the Category 4 hurricane that pulverized the Florida Panhandle on October 10, severely damaged three buildings of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bay County in Panama City, Florida. Leaders of the congregation say a number of members lost their homes.
“We need help,” said Gienah Harris, director of religious education at the 65-member lay-led fellowship. “Several people’s homes are completely destroyed,” she said, and others sustained severe damage. To the best of her knowledge, no one from the fellowship was injured during the storm.
As of October 18, it appears that other UU congregations in the region did not sustain damage to their buildings. The buildings of the UU Church in Tallahassee, Florida, for example, were not damaged, although they were without power for nearly a week, and services were cancelled on October 14. No members sustained injuries, but some have significant damage to their homes, said Anna Bethea, outreach specialist with the Unitarian Universalist Association, who is a member of the congregation.
The UUA encourages donations to its Disaster Relief Fund, which provides immediate aid to congregations affected by Hurricane Michael and other disasters. Congregations can apply for aid at uua.org/finance/grants .
Due to the efforts of two members of the Panama City fellowship, Stephen Harris-Dixon and Cheryl Kellogg, “most members and friends have been checked in with,” said Tiffany Sapp, a twelve-year member who currently is a ministerial intern in Tennessee. Several members, including Harris, evacuated to Birmingham, Alabama, while others went to Mobile or Montgomery, Alabama. People have started returning to Panama City to assess damage to their homes and the city. Gulf Power is working to get the main power infrastructure in the region repaired by October 24, Harris said, but the timing for getting power back on in individual homes is less certain.
The fellowship’s main building sustained water damage on the ceiling, Harris said, but is currently being used as a staging area by government emergency workers to distribute supplies and services to the community.
Both buildings that house the congregation’s children’s programs have holes and trees in the roof, said Harris, who spoke from her car on October 17 as she headed to the site to begin cleanup. One building was knocked off its foundation; the other has significant water damage and the roof has collapsed. Hymnals and supplies in the buildings are covered in mold. Harris is especially eager to replace the Spanish language hymnals as soon as possible, she said, both because the fellowship wants to continue to be welcoming to people who speak Spanish and because the fellowship’s children enjoy learning hymns in Spanish.
Harris created a pop-up service on October 14 at the Birmingham Botanical Garden that was attended in person by three UUFBC members, while others joined online. She was organizing a pop-up worship service for Sunday, October 21, in Panama City. Updates are available on the fellowship’s Facebook page.
“Not having a minister makes a crisis like this especially challenging for the fellowship,” said Sapp, “but Gienah Harris, our DRE, has been doing an amazing job at providing stability for both the church community and our little slice of Panama City. I’m impressed with my fellowship right now, they are being the extraordinary people that I always knew they were.”
Harris said the congregation’s religious education program serves eight to fifteen children, a number that fluctuates because the fellowship draws people from nearby military bases, who move in and out of the area.
Because some schools were destroyed or badly damaged, and others are being used as evacuation centers, the school district has encouraged people to make other plans for their children’s education, Harris said.
“Parents with children have no idea what to expect for their kids,” Sapp said.