When most people think of Panama City, Florida, they think of beaches, sunshine, high-rise condominiums and spring break craziness.
At least, that’s the way everyone thought of it before Hurricane Michael struck the area in October of last year as a powerful Category 5 storm — the first Category 5 to strike the contiguous United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The busy tourist areas along scenic Highway 98 that becomes “The Strip” as it runs through Panama City Beach benefited from a rapid clean-up and major restorations as the beach and nearby attractions power the local economy.
Unfortunately, many of those who work in that economy don’t live in high-rise condominiums or on “The Strip.” They live across the Intracoastal in Panama City and other communities of Bay County, which saw nearly 60 percent of its housing stock damaged or destroyed by the storm. Blue tarps remain a common sight, and the lack of available housing created a seller’s market that has driven up housing costs. The situation for renters has worsened, as well. Since October, the average rent in the United States is up just 2.5 percent. In Bay County, though, it’s up a whopping 14 percent. In a May report by Vice News, Panama City manager Mark McQueen cited the lack of affordable housing as the city’s No. 1 issue.
Now, help is on the way from a group that knows a thing or two about disaster recovery and affordable housing.
The Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders have now set up shop in Panama City, partnering with Mercy Chefs to bring volunteers from across the nation to partner with families who are still struggling more than 10 months after the storm.
“Disaster recovery is dirty work but there’s plenty of job security in it — no sooner do we start cleaning up after one, then another comes along,” said Fuller Center President David Snell. “Our Disaster ReBuilders continue to do remarkable work, helping families in need restore their homes and their faith. From Louisiana, through Texas, up to North Carolina and now on to Panama City, Florida, the Disaster ReBuilders continue to carry our ministry to some of God’s people most in need.”
“The 2018 Atlantic Hurricane season was a tough one with two major storms hitting the continental U.S.,” Disaster ReBuilders Director Bart Tucker said. “Having already committed to the Florence recovery, Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders didn’t have the resources to also respond to Category 5 Michael in the Florida panhandle. It doesn’t take an expert to see that is still much to be done. For those we serve, it looks like the recovery is just beginning.”
The Disaster ReBuilders are continuing to work in Texas with families impacted by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and in North Carolina with those who bore Hurricane Florence’s wrath in September 2018. The leaders of the Disaster ReBuilders’ recovery work in Panama City are Toni and Aaron Ratliff, who worked together in Houston and then in New Bern, N.C. Both Snell and Tucker noted that the Panama City-based operation will be in good hands.
“When we made our first trip to the Panhandle, we couldn’t believe the devastation that still existed six months after Hurricane Michael,” Aaron Ratliff said. “Three months later, we returned to Panama City and knew that they desperately needed the help of Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders volunteers.”
While Aaron originally hails from Virginia, wife Toni comes from Louisiana and dealing with tropical storms and hurricanes is a nearly annual issue.
“Growing up in south Louisiana, and spending summers at my grandparents home in Florida, preparing for hurricanes has always been a way of life,” she said. “For those living in the panhandle of Florida when Hurricane Michael struck, it was a totally different story. The damage that still exists today is heartbreaking, and we strongly feel God’s call for us to help.”
Volunteers will be housed at Panama City’s Patterson Elementary School, which was shuttered after the storm but has reopened for this purpose. Volunteers — up to 25 at a time — will be housed in former classrooms with the school’s kitchen and dining areas available. The $175 fee supports operations in the area and also covers a t-shirt, daily breakfasts and bag lunches, and dinners Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Wednesday and Friday are left open for volunteers to dine on their own — and there are plenty of options in this area that is legendary for its seafood restaurants.
If you would like to learn more about volunteering with the Disaster ReBuilders in Panama City, New Bern or Houston, visit their page at the link below: