April 11, 2022
Mennonite Disaster Service completes work in Florida panhandle
“They bring answers to the prayers of homeowners, they bring inspiration, their dedication day after day, they bring gifts of handmade cutting boards and wall hangings, and they bring a listening spirit,”
— Anita Halling, Case Manager with North Florida Inland Long Term Recovery Group
“I will never, ever forget this day.”
Those were the heartfelt words of Cynthia Williams, a resident of Marianna, Florida, whose home was the last one dedicated by Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) after three and a half years of work in the Florida Panhandle community.
Over that time, 1,619 MDS volunteers worked 15,350 days, building new homes and repairing damaged ones—and touching the lives of hundreds.
Williams told MDS volunteers that she’s grateful for them all.
“I prayed for so, so long for this,” she said. “I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
MDS first offered an early response, then a long-term one, in the wake of Hurricane Michael, which made landfall near Mexico Beach, Florida on October 10, 2018 as a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 160 mph.
By the time it reached Marianna, 50 miles from the coast, it was a Category 3 hurricane. It was the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous United States, causing at least $14.5 billion in damages.
After an early response phase, MDS set up three recovery sites: Panama City, (primarily operated by Storm Aid volunteers); Chipley, an MDS RV project; and Marianna, at which both RVers and weekly volunteers served.
MDS worked with the North Florida Inland Long Term Recovery Group, which was created to respond to needs in Jackson and Calhoun counties.
Kristi Terry, the group’s director, said, “When MDS comes in and stakes their flag, then other groups come in too, giving us a lot of credibility.”
Anita Halling, a case manager with the group, said that MDS volunteers bring something more than just their rebuilding skills.
“They bring answers to the prayers of homeowners, they bring inspiration, their dedication day after day, they bring gifts of handmade cutting boards and wall hangings, and they bring a listening spirit,” she said.
Many words of thanks
While the North Florida Inland Long Term Recovery Group seeks grants to keep its doors open, and continue responding to needs in the community, words of appreciation for MDS continue to echo around the community.
Kevin Yoder, adult ministry director at the Riverside Community Church, chaired the long-term recovery group for about three years. MDS volunteers stayed at the church while they served in the community.
Yoder reflected on the many gifts MDS brought to the Florida panhandle.
“Hurricane Michael turned our people inward to focus on ourselves and our personal needs,” he said. “MDS helped us focus and do the work outwards. Many of our congregants have a new-found faith in the Lord.”
Fred and Millie Hershey, MDS RV project directors for a portion of the Marianna effort, lived in their RV for three months.
“We have 11 RV couples at this time,” said Fred as he was helping to close the project. “We helped people who, for three and a half years, have washed their dishes in the bathtub. “
Millie said she likes to be able to give people a sense of hope. “A lot of the families that we take care of, they really have no hope,” she said. “They have a home they can’t repair.”
In addition to the North Florida Inland Long Term Recovery Group, MDS worked with the following partners in Marianna:
Center for Disaster Philanthropy
Chipola Area Baptist Association
Convoy of Hope
Disaster Leadership Team
Habitat for Humanity
Heritage Family Ministries
Jackson County Department of Health
Jackson County Lumber and Building Supply
Rivertown Community Church
United Methodist Committee on Relief