Three years after Michael, community keeps faith

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The First United Methodist Church of Port St. Joe broke ground on a new grave Sunday morning, burying the dead from Hurricane Michael. 

To the day, three years after the Category 5 hurricane hurled a fiercely thrown brick of wind and rain into the church’s sanctuary, evoking the rampant vandalism the storm did throughout Gulf County, the church laid the past to rest. 

 Known as the “Service of Death and Resurrection,” the church Sunday morning began a two-week-long demolition of what remains of the sanctuary and its learning center on the third anniversary of Michael, which came in Oct. 10, 2018. 

 The hurricane ended the life of a sanctuary built in 1950, about 40 years after the house of worship had been first established. 

“The beautiful stained glass shattered from wind and wave. The dark wood of the pews and wainscoting became covered in salt,” wrote the Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Lentz, the church’s senior pastor, in a letter to the congregation last month. “Our high steeple was twisted by the elements. The sturdy block and brick walls came tumbling down. Even the historic altar, pulpit, and font floated away.  

 “We have looked at this wreckage for three years - an ever-present reminder of the injury that our community had sustained,” he penned. 

 Wounds from Hurricane Michael are still felt deeply in Gulf County, where insurance claims remain unsettled, and many have been forced to leave their homes and businesses behind. 

The storm claimed the lives of at least 74 people in multiple counties, and the National Center for Environmental Information estimated that Michael caused upwards of $18 billion in damage in Florida. 

“This October, what is left of the building comes down, and we will mourn,” Lentz said. “We will commit to God this sacred place like a family standing in the hot sun of a cemetery. We will stare at the dirt and dust that remains and grieve. 

 “And yet,” he continued. “Christian funerals are not devoid of hope. Our faith teaches that death can lead to resurrection and that endings can be beginnings. One day soon on the same holy ground a new red-brick building with stained glass will rise from the ashes and dust, its tower pointing heavenward.” 

Without homes, work opportunities or community gathering spaces, many were unable to rebuild their lives in Gulf County. The county’s population dropped by more than 2,00 immediately following the storm, and the most recent census shows numbers have not fully rebounded to their pre-hurricane levels. 

 For those that stayed, strengthening community ties became an essential part of the reconstruction.  

Bill Brown, the First United Methodist Church’s administrator, said the two buildings that run along Monument Avenue took major damage, rendering them unusable, prompting the church to hold services at the high school football field and Centennial Park.  

“They still held church services as best they could in the local area,” he said.  

 After volunteers worked to shore up the church’s damaged interior, the congregation was able to move services into the Great Hall and Rotunda, a wing of the church that had been completed just prior to the hurricane. 

 “It did not sustain as much damage, it was a quick repair,” Brown said. 

 The storm damaged hundreds of places of worship in Bay and Gulf counties, many of which were deemed beyond repair and sit in piles of rubble even three years later. In October 2020, the Northwest Coast Baptist Association reported eight of their 37 storm-damaged churches had yet to be repaired. 

 First United Methodist Church was able to salvage a little more than half of its stained glass, a dozen windows and the bottom halves of 10 of the 12. That glass is set to be incorporated into the new design. 

 The Methodist Learning Center, which houses the pre-school, Sunday School space and offices, will also spring back up. “Those two wings of campus will be totally rebuilt,” Brown said. “It will be quite a facility.” 

 Started in 1912, the local church is the largest in the conference that runs from Marianna to Panama City.  

Brown said in-person attendance averages between 150 to 225 congregants, with another 110 devices connecting on the streaming service, with people tuning in from Pensacola as well as Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.  

In addition to Lentz, Chelsey Brown serves as associate pastor.  

“We’re hoping that we’ll have a general contractor selected and break ground in January or February,” he said, estimating that it would take anywhere from 18 to 24 months for ReBuild version 2.0 to be completed, with the expected finish in time for Easter 2023 services.  

But for the next two weeks, the rubble on Monument Avenue will serve as reflection how far the community has come and a reminder that three years after the storm, there is still work to be done. 

The Star's reporter Wendy Weitzel contributed to this report.

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