By Ana Maria De La Rosa on December 4, 2019
Panama City, Florida, is a town usually known for its white sand beaches and seasonal rowdy spring breakers. But early in October 2018, it experienced the worst natural disaster the panhandle has ever seen. Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 storm in recorded history to make landfall in the northeast Gulf Coast. The hurricane-savvy local residents boarded up their windows and evacuated flood plains, but no one could have prepared for the unprecedented damage and destruction brought by Hurricane Michael’s 162 mph wind gusts. The toll included 32 deaths in the United States and an estimated $25 billion in damages.
Soon after the storm, congregants of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bay County met up at their building and found that it had not been spared: like most of the city’s structures, pieces of its roof had been blown throughout the city and substantial damage was done to the structure. The members of this small, but mighty congregation knew that while they might be able to lean on the broader UU community for resources to rebuild, others in their city would not be so lucky. Twenty thousand residents were left homeless by the storm, so the UU’s of Bay County quickly joined Rebuild Bay County, an organization now composed of more than 70 nonproﬁt and faith-based organizations. They helped provide immediate emergency resources, and volunteered at the makeshift home for the Bay Area Resource Center in the local library.
But today, well over a year after the storm struck, over 7,800 residents of Bay County are still considered homeless. This is another clear demonstration of the deep inequalities embedded in our nation’s patterns of disaster relief. On any given day, you can find residents of Panama City still lined up to access the resource center for all kinds of support, from navigating FEMA paperwork to accessing local health programs. And the local UU’s are still there to help keep the recovery going.
Part of UUSC’s core mission is to find ways to push back against the injustices that compound disasters like Hurricane Michael. So in October this year, in partnership with UU Justice Florida and Rebuild Bay County, UUSC launched a youth storytelling project. Through a two-day workshop and the loan of 15 cameras, we trained youth from a local high school in how to tell their own compelling stories about living in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, using photography, video, and stories of their own experiences, including of homelessness.
There is great power in helping to amplify the voices and raise the visibility of those who too often are never heard or seen. In the case of Panama City, the youth we trained are leading a project that will target the Florida legislature at the end of January 2020, bringing the narratives, photos, and videos they’ve created to the capital. They will invite UUs throughout Florida and beyond to help them demand more funding and action from the state legislature for rebuilding efforts. UUSC and the UU Fellowship of Bay County will continue to support the important work of these youth storytellers in the fight to demand the resources they need to rebuild their lives.
Photo Credit: UUSC
About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!