Riding around the island, past the homes reduced to splinters, the uprooted trees, the yards littered with debris and the makeshift hospital where medical teams performed surgeries under tents, Mike Vest felt spurred to act.
“I’ve seen hurricane damage before. I’ve been in hurricane damage. I’ve never seen anything like this. It was massive. I knew I had to do something to help,” said Vest, pastor at Oak Ridge United Methodist Church in Hartselle.
What started out as a one-man effort transformed into a region-wide project as Vest learned about the extent of the devastation unleashed on the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian in September 2019.
With the widespread damage, money — which Vest initially offered to Dexter Edwards, a friend, home builder and resident of the Bahamas — would do no good.
“He couldn’t buy anything with the money because the island’s home improvement store was totally destroyed by the hurricane. Any product that comes to the island is on a first-come, first-serve basis. They can’t get the material in fast enough. They needed to find a way to get materials to work with,” Vest said.
That need led Vest to spearhead “Pay it Forward Bahamas,” an outreach effort to collect construction materials to rebuild 20 homes and raise enough money to ship the items to the Bahamas. Central to Vest’s campaign is the United Methodist Disaster Warehouse in Decatur.
A nonprofit relief wing of the United Methodist Church, the warehouse, which arose after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, provides supplies and assistance after natural disasters. Last year, the site responded to flooding in Tennessee and northwest Alabama; tornado damage in Oneonta, Guntersville, Smith Station, Town Creek and Colbert Heights; sent supplies to Pennsylvania and Louisiana after floods and the Florida panhandle after Hurricane Michael; and shipped Christmas shoe boxes to Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
“What drew us into this project and made us think we could do this is we have shipped shoe boxes annually overseas. We are familiar with what wood we can use and how to build the containers,” said Cindy Sandlin with the warehouse. “There is also a network in place in Bahamas that will be able to direct the items to the people in need. In the beginning, right after the storm, none of that was in place.”
When Hurricane Dorian reached the Bahamas on Sept. 1, the category 5 storm took two days to move across the group of islands. The storm lashed the islands with 185 mile per hour winds and covered more than 70% of the country with water that, in some areas, reached 30 feet deep. Seventy people died and hundreds are still missing.
“Initially, there was not even a place where you could pull a boat up to and then getting the supplies from the boat to where they needed to be was an entirely different obstacle,” Sandlin said.
On the ground in the Bahamas, Edwards, who Vest met doing prison ministry, provided mold remediation treatment for individuals, whether they could afford to pay or not. And his wife, who operates a food truck, delivered meals daily to relief workers and those unable to prepare their own meals. Also, one day each week, she feeds whoever comes to the food truck for free.
“They are trying to do some good, but there is so much that needs to be done,” Vest said. “That’s where we can help.”
Goods collected at the disaster warehouse will go to the Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of St. Paul’s and St. Andrew’s United Methodist churches in the Bahamas, who is overseeing a ministry to rebuild houses for the underinsured and the uninsured.
Items needed include sheet rock, plywood, nails, roof shingles, joint compound, kitchen cabinets, drywall tape, key locks, interior doors, generators, shovels, coveralls, garden spray containers and more. For a complete list of supplies, visit umcna.org. The warehouse, at 3220 U.S. 31 South, Building F, Decatur, is collecting donations through Feb. 5. Call ahead to arrange delivery, 256-341-9961.
Along with the tools and supplies, the “Pay it Forward Bahamas” campaign needs $4,000 to ship the container. Donations can be mailed to P.O. Box 1133 Decatur, AL, 35602. Vest also established an arrangement with a Home Depot in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which has an employee specialized in exporting items to the Bahamas. The store will properly palletize and deliver to the port any materials purchased from that Home Depot for hurricane relief.
“Our goal is to rebuild 20 homes this first run and if the project is well received, we hope to make it an ongoing ministry because there are hundreds of homes destroyed there,” Vest said.
According to reports, Hurricane Dorian left 70,000 people, or 17% of the Bahamas’ population, homeless.
“My prayer is that families know the love of God through those who help them in this great time of need,” Vest said.
In other outreach efforts, disaster relief teams with the Decatur Church of Christ, the Alabama Baptist Association and the United Methodist Church assisted with cleanup efforts after tornadoes hit the Southeast in December and last Saturday.