The Forgotten Coast, Hurricane Recovery
On October 11, 2018, Hurricane Michael hit the Central Gulf Coast. The area especially devastated was sometimes know as the “forgotten coast” because of it’s lack of commercialization; east from Panama City through Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, Cape San Blass and St. George’s Island.
On February 21st, a 6 member recovery team made up of four local Episcopal Parishes from the Birmingham area went to Port St. Joe to work with a family trying to rebuild their home. Many of us had worked previously following other natural disasters over the years, but still were shocked at what we saw four and half months after this event. Many roofs were still tarped, trees on houses, piles of debris on the roads, houses in ruins still sitting unattended, trailers sitting on slabs where there were once homes. It seems this area had been forgotten in more ways than we knew.
We stayed at the Oak Grove Assembly of God Church and were graciously welcomed late at night by Jimmie, one of their lay leaders. Like all good hosts, Jimmie gave us a key to the church. Evidently, this had also served as a Red Cross headquarters and shelter.
The next two days we spent with the Peek family. This included Mathew the father, a deputy sheriff canine officer who works 12-hour shifts, his wife Meghan, 5 year old Julia and two year old James. They were all (including police dog Brix) in a FEMA trailer in front of their roof tarped home. During the hurricane, Mathew’s family evacuated (twice) while he was out rescuing other families. The ocean surge reached 56 inches inside their house and the wind knocked down 16 large trees in their back yard. Amazingly, none fell on their home.
Our work included cleaning out a large shed that had been untouched since the hurricane, removing and replacing all the windows in the house, removing and replacing doors, repositioned some framing, cleaned out and organized items that had been stored in various areas. This house still had no drywall or ceiling and only had concrete floors. Wiring was still in progress and the new roof shingles arrived while we were there after many weeks on order. We also continued to clean up debris on their large lot, removing part of a twisted chain link fence.
In addition to the physical labor, we most importantly heard their stories, met more of their extended families and broke bread together. We listened as they described their community as tight knit, not bitter about the issues that have challenged their recovery, and the ongoing needs in their community.
As Meghan and I walked through what was left of her backyard, we spotted this rising sunflower. She had no idea where it came from but we both felt it was a sign of a new beginning for her family. We are grateful to this family for allowing us to come into their lives, and experiencing God’s love in ways we could never have imagined.
CJ Van Slyke