First responders have been working in areas pummeled by Hurricane Michael since moments after the killer storm departed.
Now, the faith-based providers of long-term recovery services, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, are awaiting the OK from authorities to enter the most ravaged areas, especially wiped-out Florida Panhandle communities.
“All we know is it is devastated, and we can’t get in there yet,” said Ray Johnson, coordinator of CBF Florida.
They’re not the only ones. There are several places in Florida that even rescue workers have yet to reach due to the destruction, according to FEMA.
The Category 4 hurricane came ashore near Mexico Beach in Florida’s Bay County on Oct. 10. It then tore through Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, leaving flooding, destruction and more than 1.5 million businesses and homes without power before eventually heading back to sea. At least 11 people were killed.
In Florida, parts of the state are so damaged that utility crews are struggling to find staging areas from which to operate, Johnson said.
CBF Florida has confirmed that its member churches in the region – including Ebenezer Baptist Church in Monticello, Bluewater Community Church in Niceville and Seeker Fellowship Church in Fort Walton Beach – have reported in.
“They’re doing fine,” said Rachel Gunter Shapard, CBF Florida’s associate coordinator.
The Fellowship does not have congregations in Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe or Panama City, she added.
CBF Florida is preparing to funnel volunteer cleanup and recovery teams to the most affected areas – when they finally open up.
Having to wait is not unusual for organizations that specialize in long-term recovery versus those, like the Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Convention, that focus on immediate response ministry.
Long-range recovery efforts will continue in Michael-impacted areas months, even years, after television crews, FEMA and faith-based initial-responders are gone.
Examples include ongoing CBF-led recovery efforts in the Houston area, hit by Hurricane Harvey and those parts of Florida damaged by Hurricane Irma. Both storms occurred in 2017.
One asset the Fellowship has in the region is Kenny Phillips, a church planter with Seeker Fellowship and seasoned disaster responder who lives in Fort Walton Beach, Shapard said.
“He’s highly skilled in hosting and managing teams, muck-outs and rebuilds,” she said. “He does it all over the world.”
As it awaits the green light to assess and send teams, CBF Florida has been busy contacting friends and family members who have connections in the areas hit hardest by Michael.
“We always have to follow the relationships to get a better sense for what the needs are,” Shapard said.
Johnson said it may be that early help will come from regional churches less affected. That would include cities like Tallahassee and Pensacola.
“The problem now is even getting people in to assess,” he said. “That’s probably three to four more days.”