(Photo: Vietnam veteran Ray Moneymaker sits in his Panama City home that was severely damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018. He has since lost his wife to cancer and suffered a stroke. Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders’ work on his home is nearly complete.)
Note: With an abundance of caution and a close eye on ever-changing government and CDC guidelines, The Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders are now accepting volunteer teams again, beginning in July. Click here for more information.
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — When most folks think of Panama City, they picture palm trees, white sand beaches, blue-green gulf waters and spectacular high-rise condos. They picture “The Strip” — officially known as Front Beach Road — the main thoroughfare that carries tourists past hotels, restaurants and surf shops.
That’s not Panama City. That’s Panama City Beach, a completely different community across St. Andrews Bay’s Grand Lagoon from Panama City. Panama City is where most Bay County residents live. Panama City is where medical offices, tire repair shops and dollar stores abound.
Both Panama City and Panama City Beach were hit hard by Hurricane Michael in the fall of 2018. In Panama City Beach, it’s difficult to find any evidence that a Category 5 hurricane ever hit nearby. In parts of Panama City, though, it still looks like one hit just last week.
One of those parts still dealing with the devastation is Springfield, a small town enveloped by the much larger Panama City. This is where the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders have focused their efforts in Florida. (The Disaster ReBuilders also have bases in New Bern, North Carolina, and Webster, Texas.) It is an area where the poverty rate officially tops 21 percent, but the housing stock looked far poorer than that even before the hurricane. It is a community that desperately needs help, yet its residents are reluctant to ask for any.
“They’re great people who’ve welcomed us in,” said Aaron Ratliff, the Disaster ReBuilders’ construction manager in Florida, a position he also held in North Carolina and Texas. “They’re very humble. With most of our families we’ve got to pry out of them what they need. Most of them won’t ask for any more than the bare basics.”
“Help my brother first”
One of those people who desperately needed help was Ray Moneymaker, whose house suffered wind and water damage from Michael. The storm’s landfall terrified him and his wife as they believed it would come ashore as a Category 3 instead of the intense Category 5 it wound up becoming. After the storm he was focused on trying to get his wife the oxygen she needed to live. Eventually, the struggle to secure oxygen was lost, and she died. Then he suffered a stroke that has left him mostly confined to his wheelchair, from which he has spent most of the past year staring at moldy walls and damaged floors. After being burned by offers to help that turned into scams, he gave up.
The Disaster ReBuilders were working on several projects and were about to take on another for Sandra Palma, a 67-year-old battling breast cancer while raising a granddaughter. Though her home was seriously damaged, she told the ReBuilders, “Help my brother first.”
Because her brother lives just two doors down the street, they undertook both projects at once, and both houses are nearly 100 percent complete despite the Disaster ReBuilders’ having to put a hold on volunteer teams until July due to the pandemic. A few volunteers, though, have kept the work going.
Just before the volunteer teams stopped arriving, a group of eight students from Ohio’s Wittenberg University was the last team to serve in Panama City. They knew there would be devastation, but they were shocked at how much work remains to be done in the Springfield area. Most also expected the severely damaged homes upon which they worked to be empty.
“I figured there would be some buildings that were kind of crumbling, but I didn’t figure that there would be as many people living in those homes,” said freshman Lauren Welker, who has family in Destin, about 55 miles west. “I was expecting that we would come into a house that was nearly destroyed and put up some walls and things like that. I wasn’t expecting the homeowner to actually be here and living in these conditions, but it’s cool to come in and help them restore their lives.”
An all-too-common theme
Because Mayola Watson was staying with her daughter Jacqueline Franklin in Texas at the time Hurricane Michael hit, she did not experience the power of the storm. But upon her return to check on the home in which she has lived since the age of 6, she did experience something all too familiar in the neighborhood — shysters who preyed upon desperate storm survivors, the same kind of fraud to which the Moneymakers and others fell victim just a few blocks away.
“When we got here, everything on the inside had come crashing down,” said Franklin, who has since moved to Florida to help her mother deal with the aftermath. “Everything was mildewed and smelling. We tried to get some people to help clean up, and they wound up destroying the house. I took out money and tried to get the house put back together, and then they scammed us. There’s about seven people up and down the street here who got taken by the same guy.”
So, it sounded too good to be true when the Disaster ReBuilders said they would restore the home. It’s a situation Fuller Center groups have faced more than once when encountering families who have fallen victim to shysters or could not get government help.
“You guys were a blessing to us,” Franklin said. “You came to us and said, ‘OK, we’re going to fix the house.’ When y’all said that, with my sister and brother, we dropped to our knees because we were so happy that someone came along and helped us out in light of everything that had happened to us before.”
That joy has been overtaken by working alongside Disaster ReBuilders volunteers amid the cacophony of sawing and hammering. Her mother spends much of her time chatting with the volunteers. Then, when she’s alone, she often cries — tears of joy.
“She’s been crying tears of happiness,” Franklin said. “She knows she has a good outlook, that the house is finally getting done. Before, it was at a standstill. She loves it, but I think she loves the people and the volunteers even better.”
Volunteers make it happen
Before the coronavirus pandemic put a temporary hold on the hosting of volunteer teams in Panama City, the destination was popular because of the importance of the work and the outstanding hosting facilities. Volunteers were fed by Mercy Chefs and stayed at an elementary school that has been converted into a volunteer hub — Oscar Patterson Elementary School. The school gives volunteers plenty of space, and Mercy Chefs has access to a huge kitchen and cafeteria area to feed not just volunteers but also the local Head Start and a summer lunch program run by the local faith community. Not only do Fuller Center volunteers enjoy great food and get to know the locals, but they also have access to an 11-shower trailer and outstanding bunk facilities with Tempur-Pedic mattresses. (See slideshow at the end of this article for photos from the facilities.)
Toni Ratliff says that they are ready to reopen the site to volunteer teams in July — as will other Disaster ReBuilders bases — with an abundance of safety protocols both on the work sites and in the lodging facilities. Teams may not be quite as large to begin with, but it will be a step toward resuming normal operations.
“We can’t do it without volunteers,” Aaron Ratliff said. “The volunteers cut the costs at least in half. They’re also able to love on the families as they are in the homes as they rebuild their lives and restore their hope.”
“We’ve become family,” Franklin said of relationships with the volunteers, including those individuals who have continued working on her mother’s home through the pandemic. “My mom, gets to know every last one of them. Once we get our house done, I want to volunteer and help other people get their houses together. But it’s going to take a lot of people like that to build it up because you can’t depend on the government to do everything for you.”
For many of the volunteers, trips to this area can be perspective-changers. Helping the families of Springfield reinforces both their gratitude for their blessings and their determination to share their blessings with others.
“It makes me realize how much I have and how much luckier I am than some people,” Wittenberg sophomore Elizabeth Canright said. “If this ever happened to me or my family, I hope someone like this group would help us and not give a second thought about it.”