“It was really bad timing,” she said. “We got stuck in-between the fires out west and (Hurricane) Dorian. Everyone just kind of forgot about us.”
Those were among the first words that our mission team heard last week when we arrived in Panama City to serve with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance as they worked on Hurricane Michael recovery efforts.
You remember Hurricane Michael, don’t you? It was the first Category 5 storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. And it didn’t just hit anywhere — it hit in Florida, our state.
On one hand it’s hard to imagine the horrific amount of damage a storm such as Michael can cause. But, at the same time, I think all Floridians are acutely aware, on some level, that at any given moment we could find ourselves in the same situation.
Still, Michael happened more than a year ago. You might think everyone would be over it by now. Of course, it’s been 14 years since Katrina and New Orleans still isn’t back to 100 percent.
The reality at this moment for Panama City, Lynn Haven and Mexico Beach isn’t hard to see. There is still debris everywhere. Homes are abandoned. Almost every restaurant, store and hotel is hiring but no one is there to apply because there is nowhere to live.
Bay High School is a disaster zone. Students are roaming from portable to portable as what appears to have been the gymnasium or cafeteria is still missing half of the building. Their Fine Arts building is surrounded by a chain link fence, covered in weeds, with a lonely music stand outside the front door as a stark reminder of all that was lost in the storm.
Bay County schools lost thousands of students in the past year.
Over at Mr. Ingram’s house, there’s nothing left but a shell of the home that Mr. Ingram has lived in for the past 40 years. After a year in a trailer, he thinks he will be able to move back into his home by Thanksgiving.
That is not likely to happen because, you see, Mr. Ingram is dependent on volunteers like us to restore his home and the volunteers simply aren’t coming. In talking with the project leader from SPB, the team leading the restoration, it had been almost a month since the previous team of volunteers had showed up.
For the Panhandle, recovery efforts have been feast or famine, totally dependent on what other crisis hits the headlines and attracts the attention and energy of the rest of the world.
That’s how it goes, right? There’s only so much of everything to go around ... even compassion.
After a year of living in trailers, of not having running water, of losing everything to the storm and having what was left covered in mold, you might think that the people would be bitter or frustrated or even downright angry.
Not a single one that we met.
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find people who have more understanding and that aforementioned compassion for the Bahamas than the people in the Panhandle. Maybe that’s because they’ve lived through the storm and are still getting up every day believing that tomorrow will be even better — that’s real hope.
Of all the things we saw, all the people we met, all of the homes we worked on, there was one thing that rose to the surface everywhere we went — our presence was wanted, needed and appreciated.
To a person, we heard over and over again, “Thank you for coming, for remembering us, for being here with us.”
As followers of Jesus, that’s exactly what we’re called to do and be — witnesses to Jesus Christ, God WITH us!
When we show up as an act of faith, we remind those in the midst of the storm that God is still with them. He has not forgotten them or moved on to something else.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone in need is show up when everyone else has disappeared.
Should that day ever come when Bradenton takes the hit of a massive storm, I’d like to believe that there are brothers and sisters out there in our state (and our country) who will show up for us and say, “We’re here. We’re with you.”
You won’t forget, will you?
The Rev. Dr. Hope Italiano Lee, lead pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church and The Well, can be reached at 941-794-6229, firstname.lastname@example.org or biggreenchurch.org. Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday’s Bradenton Herald written by local clergy members.