Storm-Savvy Area Seventy in Florida Staggered by Hurricane Michael’s Destructive Force

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News associate editor

  • 22 October 2018

A satellite image shows Hurricane Michael, center, in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, October 9, 2018.  Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Article Highlights

  • Many Church members’ homes experienced severe damage as a result of Hurricane Michael.
  • Helping Hands crews continue in cleanup efforts along the Florida Panhandle.

“This one will compare to any of the worst storms we’ve had in Florida, post-Hurricane Andrew.” —Elder Douglas B. Carter, Area Seventy

Elder Douglas B. Carter is a longtime Florida resident and priesthood leader. The Area Seventy has seen a fair share of hurricanes and been involved in several Church-sponsored cleanup efforts.

Big storms happen—it’s a harsh fact of life in the Sunshine State. But Hurricane Michael, he said, is a different class of monster.

“This one will compare to any of the worst storms we’ve had in Florida, post-Hurricane Andrew,” he said. “I think we will see the worst devastation that the state has seen in the past 20 years.”

Local priesthood and Relief Society leaders have been mobilized to respond to damage wrought by Hurricane Michael, which made landfall on October 10 along Florida Panhandle coastal communities as a category 4 hurricane.

Houses have been demolished, communities destroyed, and neighborhoods inundated by floodwaters. The storm also interrupted electrical service for hundreds of thousands of residents living in storm-impacted states.

Elder Carter spoke to the Church News about the storm’s impact on Latter-day Saints and Church-owned properties while traveling from his home in central Florida to the Panhandle.

One member was injured in a storm-related car accident but is expected to recover. All missionaries in storm-impacted regions are safe and accounted for. Twenty-one missionaries were displaced and relocated to other areas. Meanwhile, the homes of hundreds of Latter-day Saints were destroyed or suffered some degree of damage.

Three stakes “took the brunt” of the storm: the Dothan Alabama, Panama City Florida, and Tallahassee Florida Stakes. Several neighboring stakes—in Gainesville, Florida; Tifton, Georgia; and Macon, Georgia—were affected to lesser degrees.

Severe damage in Panama City

“Panama City is an absolute disaster,” Elder Carter said. Five member homes were destroyed, and at least 300 member homes were damaged, many significantly.

At press time, power was out for a significant portion of the stake.

“Only about 30 percent of the population is believed to be currently residing in the area of damage,” wrote Elder Carter in a damage assessment. “The remaining members are slowly returning to their homes, but most remain well outside the city living with friends and relatives or in hotels.”

Three of the seven meetinghouses in the stake suffered significant roof damage and other storm-related issues. The landscaping at other buildings will need to be repaired. “The stake center in Panama City lost its steeple and had some roof damage,” said Elder Carter.

Dothan congregations devastated

Meanwhile, two units from the Dothan Alabama Stake—the Marianna Ward in Florida and the Bainbridge Branch in Georgia—took “direct hits.” At least 465 member homes in the stake suffered some degree of damage.

In the days following the storm, several members in Marianna were trapped in their homes because of the multiplicity of trees down in their driveways and roads, said Elder Carter.

“The city does not look like its former self,” he added.

About 30 percent of the Marianna meetinghouse and roof was damaged. Water leaks spilled into the chapel, Relief Society room, and corner classrooms. No other structural damage was reported to buildings in the Dothan stake, although tree damage at the Bainbridge meetinghouse was significant.

Unreliable communication service undermined initial efforts to gather information from members living in Bainbridge.

Meanwhile, six member homes were damaged in the Tallahassee Florida Stake, where tree damage was also significant.

Relief on the way

Church-sponsored Helping Hands crews continue to fight a two-front battle.

Many volunteers from across the U.S. Southeast are responding to ongoing Hurricane Florence cleanup assignments in the Carolinas.

During the weekend of October 13–14, Helping Hands volunteers from four states and 36 stakes joined in cleanup efforts along the Florida Panhandle, reported Elder Carter. “We had 2,450 volunteers who worked a total of 34,850 hours. There were approximately 2,692 work orders completed.”

Several command centers in area stake centers were organized for ongoing Hurricane Michael cleanup efforts. Church welfare trucks have already delivered needed building supplies and relief provisions.

Elder Carter said the support from Church headquarters and the North America Southeast Area Presidency “has been absolutely phenomenal.”

Many disaster-savvy stake priesthood and Relief Society leaders in the area are adroit at organizing relief teams on short notice. “It’s great to have good people who are dedicated and willing to do whatever is needed to help,” he added.