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A toppled steeple, a remnant of Hurricane Michael in southwest Georgia
The massive bolts which secured the steeple to the roof of Rocky Ridge Baptist Church, Donalsonville, Ga., provided little support in winds reaching 120 mph in the eye of the storm. Photo by Keith Bowen/Special to The Christian Index

A toppled steeple, a remnant of Hurricane Michael in southwest Georgia

Oct 16, 2018

Joe Westbury
Christian Index

DONALSONVILLE, Ga. (BP) – At least two southwest Georgia Baptist churches emerged heavily damaged from the eye of Hurricane Michael as it ripped through the southwest part of the state last week.

Reports from the two congregations are just emerging as cell phone towers are slowly rebuilt and stories begin to come out from the rubble that litters the once peaceful farming communities. Rocky Ridge Baptist Church, Donalsonville, Ga., and Springfield Baptist Church, Jakin, Ga., both in Bowen Baptist Association, are uninhabitable and will be for some time.

An insurance adjuster will be on site Oct. 17 to survey the damage at Rocky Ridge, said deacon Keith Bowen.

"The building is severely damaged if not completely lost," Bowen said, four days after the most powerful hurricane to hit that part of the state since 1898 brought a night of terror and destruction to the area. Georgia reported one fatality – an 11-year-old girl outside of Bainbridge, Ga. – according to media reports.

"The wind on the east side of the eye, which is the most powerful, tore the steeple off the church and blew out six rafters on the back" of the half-century-old building. "There's just nothing there," he noted.

The wind, which approached 120 mph, collapsed the back brick wall, tossing bricks into the pastor's study and nursery and two adjoining classrooms.

And this particular steeple, commonly the first structure to fail in extremely high winds, was no ordinary steeple, Bowen noted. It was built to withstand just about anything, he said.

"We had secured the steeple to the rafters with very large bolts to be sure it remained stable through just about any storm. It was the first thing I saw that was missing when I woke up on Thursday morning and looked at the church across the field from our home," Bowen said.

When he got closer, he noticed that not only was the steeple lying on the ground but it tore a 6-to-8-foot hole in the sanctuary roof.

"If it had not been so securely anchored it would have just fallen into the parking lot. But it took a good chunk of the roof with it, allowing rain to pour into the building," he said.

It was "an awesome storm," tearing shingles off all over the roof, especially on the east side. "Our sheetrock ceiling has absorbed so much water it could fall at any time. It's already beginning to sag and has turned brown."

There is little hope for immediate repairs to the structure, which is totally exposed to whatever weather will pass through in the coming weeks. The local rural power company reported it could be five to six weeks before electricity will be restored as it rebuilds the entire grid from the power station to the last customer.

"No one is blaming them for such a slow recovery," Bowen said. "Even if we could locate a carpenter he would have to bring his own generator to do the work."

Bowen was raised in the church and accepted Christ as an 8-year-old at a revival in the building. He describes the congregation, which averages up to 50 on Sunday mornings, as "just a small country church." He is saddened by the destruction but knows it could have been worse.

"I have not gotten in touch with all of our members because cell towers are down and telephone service is so spotty ... it is virtually non-existent. I have heard that people whose homes are damaged are living with friends and neighbors.

Bowen, who is part of the farming community and is in the only occupation he has ever known, is among those families whose financial wellbeing has been thrown into question.

"I don't know anyone who is going to gather any cotton this year; we were just beginning to start the harvest. The fluffy cotton that had opened has been stripped from the plants and the few bolls that will open cannot be harvested because we can't see the rows to get the machinery in the field. I can't tell you if the rows run north or south or east or west."

Many might contend there is little positive news to be found in this corner of the state, save the fact that more lives could have been lost. Bowen added, "we really covet your prayers."

He is grateful and thanking God that he and his family emerged unscathed from the storm.

"I guarantee you that about 99 percent of all houses have damage of some kind," he said. "Either shingles torn from the roof resulting in water damage or trees or limbs down on homes or entire houses destroyed.

"We are all hurting down here."

Joe Westbury is managing editor of Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

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