As Hurricane Ian recovery begins, lessons from a Florida Catholic church that had to rebuild after Hurricane Michael

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When Hurricane Ian made landfall on September 29, images of leveled palm trees and flooded streets in East Florida dominated the news and social media.

Father Michael Nixon, pastor of St. Dominic’s in Panama City, Florida, watched with sadness and compassion the devastation inflicted by Ian. He knows from experience how difficult the road ahead will be for those rebuilding their lives, their communities and their churches.

On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael made history as the first recorded Category 5 hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle. It was one of the most destructive storms to ever hit the state, with more than 50 deaths attributed to the hurricane and its consequences.

Hurricane Michael was one of the most destructive storms to ever hit the state. Four years later, Father Nixon and the community of St. Dominic are still picking up the pieces.

Four years later, Father Nixon and the community of St. Dominic are still picking up the pieces. Americafirst spoke with him in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, when the church parking lot served as a base for Catholic charities’ efforts in the area. When America spoke with him this month, Father Nixon said the parish’s progress in rebuilding has been inspiring, but there is still a long way to go.

When Father Nixon emerged from the rectory stairwell on October 10, 2018, with an associate pastor, a seminarian, and his dog, he saw an almost unrecognizable Saint Dominic campus.

“We lost over a hundred trees. Our steeple was ripped out of the church… so the whole church got soaked,” he recalls.

The most important losses are the parish hall and the religious teaching buildings, which cannot be recovered.

“Basically, the roofs had been completely demolished. It was more or less just walls,” Father Nixon said.

But emphasis on these buildings should come later, offset by the enormity of the human needs of the parish community. St. Dominic’s is near the border between Panama City and the city of Springfield. Both communities have median household incomes of $48,185 and $40,103. Many low-income families had lost their homes and had no food. The parish community wanted to meet these needs first.

The local Catholic Charities office unloaded an entire tractor-trailer’s worth of bottled water the day after the storm. Within days, Fr. Nixon said, hundreds of volunteers showed up in the parking lot to serve hot meals, distribute emergency supplies and gather for mass. He performed two weddings in the parking lot during the relief effort.

“People keep arresting me now,” he said, “almost four years after Hurricane Michael, and they’ll be like, ‘Look, if you hadn’t done what you were doing, we wouldn’t wouldn’t have had any food.’”

The local Catholic Charities office unloaded an entire tractor-trailer’s worth of bottled water the day after the storm. Within days, hundreds of volunteers showed up in the parking lot to serve hot meals.

As survival needs were met over the next few months, Fr. Nixon said parishioners began to consider the task of rebuilding. They started with the church itself.

The community had to begin by recognizing that the restoration of the church was going to be a long project. “There really isn’t much to do with it. The [was] very little to save,” he recalls.

Masses were celebrated under a temporary white tent erected in the church parking lot, fitted with air conditioning units that struggled to handle the oppressive heat and humidity during the summer months. The priests moved to a presbytery in a nearby parish and went to the tent for mass. The work was extremely slow.

But in the midst of the struggle appeared a small glimmer of hope: only one stained glass window had survived the hurricane, a representation of the Resurrection. The tent rental company had the image recreated on vinyl and donated it to the parish, and the impromptu icon was hung inside. It would remind the community of St. Dominic to keep looking forward.

The new church was completed and dedicated on October 10, 2020, exactly two years after the devastating impact of Hurricane Michael.

“It’s kind of reclaiming this day, which I think is very biblical, and how the Lord is working,” Fr. Nixon said. “As painful and tragic as this day is, it is now a day of celebration for our parish.”

But the restoration of the church itself is only part of the reconstruction of the parish. On August 8, the feast of St. Dominic, Father Nixon launched another campaign to replace the parish center. The $3.2 million project will provide more space for the church’s pantry and kitchen. The importance of this ministry became particularly evident during the recovery and due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic that followed.

The new church was completed and dedicated on October 10, 2020, exactly two years after the devastating impact of Hurricane Michael.

The new structure will be more resistant to hurricane winds and this time will be equipped with generators so that the parish center can serve as a community refuge in the event of a new storm. A building “that’s going to weather a storm like that, obviously, but also be able to be useful in the days and weeks and months that follow, I think that’s really essential for us,” Fr. Nixon said. .

Climate change contributing to stronger storms and longer hurricane seasons, it is unfortunately likely that Saint Dominic will again face a hurricane threat. Father Nixon hopes the parish can be a survival resource when this happens. Some of his parishioners are still homeless four years after Hurricane Michael, he said.

He recalled in the weeks after the storm, as he continued to help survivors, how often people half-jokingly said to him, “Father, you were never trained to that in the seminary.

“No, I wasn’t,” he said, “but none of us were really [trained for recovering from a storm]— someone who is rebuilding their house from scratch and trying to figure out if their business can stay in business…. We have to find a way to do it.

Many across Florida will embark on a similar journey of rebuilding and recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. Father Nixon offered his prayers to all who are suffering across the state.

“There is so much grace in the middle of it all. And I don’t say that as a sweet thing for those going through it either,” he said. “It is a crucified reality. It is a painful reality”, but the grace it contains “is very, very real”.

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