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 clean-up 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.”
On Thursday, local priesthood and Relief Society leaders were still assessing the toll exacted by Hurricane Michael, which made landfall Wednesday along Florida Panhandle coastal communities as a Category 4 hurricane.
Homes have been demolished and neighborhoods inundated by floodwaters. Meanwhile, almost a half-million customers were reportedly without power Thursday 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.
There were no reports of injuries to members, and all missionaries in storm-impacted regions are safe and accounted for. But the homes of many Latter-day Saints were destroyed or suffered some degree of damage.
Three stakes “took the brunt” of the storm: Dothan Alabama, Panama City Florida and Tallahassee Florida stakes. Several neighboring stakes — 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. “We’ve had three member families who lost their homes completely, and we know of at least 50 other member families in the Panama City area whose homes were severely damaged.”
The Florida National Guard is guarding entry points into the city to prevent looters from entering, he said. Meanwhile, local Church officials Thursday were trying to assess damage at Church properties within the Panama City stake.
“We know the stake center in Panama City lost its steeple and had some roof damage,” said Elder Carter. “We can’t get to half of the other buildings in the stake because the roads are blocked by downed trees.”
Dothan congregations devastated by Michael
Meanwhile, two units from the Dothan Alabama Stake — the Marianna Ward in Florida and the Bainbridge Branch in Georgia — took “direct hits.”
“We have members in Marianna that are trapped in their homes because of the multiplicity of trees down in their driveways and roads,” he said.
Elder Carter has seen photos of the Marianna Ward meetinghouse. “About 20 percent of the roof is missing — you can see blue sky from inside the chapel.”
Dothan stake president Mark Salmon is asking for chain saws and tarps to help with immediate damage relief efforts, he added. “The stake president estimates that probably every member home [in Marianna] is either damaged or gone.”
Hit especially hard are any living in mobile homes.
Unreliable communication service was undermining efforts Thursday to gather up-to-date information from members living in Bainbridge. Initial damage assessments were also taking place across the Tallahassee stake.
Relief on the way
Helping Hands crews will be fighting a two-front battle this weekend.
Many volunteers from across the U.S. Southeast were already preparing for Hurricane Florence clean-up assignments in the Carolinas. “And we anticipate having about 3,000-4,000 workers on the ground in the Panhandle on Saturday morning,” he said.
Hurricane Michael made landfall just yesterday, so accessing storm-affected communities could prove tricky for Helping Hands crews.
“We’re going to have faith that the Lord is going to give us clear roads to be able to help the people,” said Elder Carter, choking back emotion.
Five command centers in area stake centers are being organized for this weekend’s Hurricane Michael clean-up efforts. Meanwhile, Church welfare trucks will be delivering needed building supplies and relief provisions over the coming days.
Elder Carter said the support from Church headquarters and the North America Southeast Area Presidency “has been absolutely phenomenal.”
Meanwhile, 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.