Little things mean a lot, especially when a crisis is imminent.
Late last week, with Hurricane Irma bearing down on southwest Florida, tension was running high for many residents in Ave Maria, Florida, where I live with my wife and five children. The latest prediction models painted a bullseye on the town, 30 miles east of Naples. Irma would make landfall 35 miles straight south of us at Everglades City.
All week we had watched the “spaghetti models” fluctuate between a direct hit on Miami to Naples and every place in between. We were in between. And that’s an uncomfortable place to be when the biggest recorded Atlantic storm in history is headed your way.
We spent Wednesday putting up our hurricane shutters — large sheets of corrugated metal that attach to pre-installed screws that come standard with most homes in South Florida. Many of my neighbors were doing the same, even though Irma was at least four days away.
Our next-door neighbor — a pleasant lady in her 50s — had never been through a big storm, and with her husband working out of state, she was at a loss for how to prepare. When she told us that she was going to put the shutters up herself, my wife and I quickly found her some help. Through our local community Facebook page, we put out the call for assistance. Within an hour, a young man from down the street came over and put the shutters up himself — without charging a dime.
At the same time, we learned via Facebook that roving bands of students from Ave Maria University (and town residents) were crisscrossing the town, helping elderly folks — this is Florida, after all — put up their hurricane shutters. The posts said that when people offered the students money for their services, they politely refused.
The previous evening — St. Teresa of Calcutta’s feast day — Ave Maria University President Jim Towey had gathered students in front of the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe on campus to pray the Rosary and ask Our Lady’s intercession for all in the Irma’s path.
The little things were going right in Ave Maria, and people were noticing.
We’ve been part of the community since its founding in 2007, so we were used to friendly neighbors and we reveled in the town’s Catholic ethos. But some newer residents from across the country were astonished at how quickly neighbors jumped to their assistance.
That was Wednesday. Irma would arrive Sunday.
The following day, we watched the news and saw the storm’s destruction as it churned through the Caribbean. We had been praying all week for the storm to turn back into the Atlantic, but that wasn’t happening. The storm was shifting west. During our night prayers with the children, we also prayed that we’d correctly discern whether to ride out the storm at home or move further north.
On Thursday morning, my wife, Michele, had already packed clothes and food. When we saw that Irma had been upgraded to a Category 5, the decision was easy.
We had moved to Florida from Michigan in 2005, a year after Hurricane Charley had pummeled southwest Florida. We had only been in Florida three months when Hurricane Rita came knocking. We fled inland. Twelve years later, it was time to go again.
We loaded up our van and pulled out right after lunch. It was a little surreal to be fleeing a hurricane when the sky was bright and sunny, knowing it was within the realm of possibility that we’d never see our home again. So we began our journey with prayer. Again, we knew that the little things matter. We prayed the Luminous Mysteries for our home, our friends and all in Irma’s path.
Friday was Our Lady’s birthday. Like all Marian feast days, Sept. 8 has always been special to Ave Marians. And with the town bracing for the first hurricane in its 10-year history, this one was important. We had driven four hours north to my in-laws’ rental property in central Florida. I began the day by telling my story to Brian Patrick and the crew on EWTN Radio’s Morning Glory program.
I told them that many of our friends and neighbors had opted to stay behind, rather than evacuate. The university still had hundreds of students on campus, with its generators prepped for a long stretch with no electricity. The campus buildings are built for major storms. While our home is a 30-foot-tall cinderblock tank, the university buildings are 45-foot aircraft carriers with solid concrete walls and impact glass windows. The builders had taken care of the little things. With Irma approaching, those things mattered.
Saturday morning came. The hurricane was 24 hours from making landfall, and she had shifted even farther west. Cuba was next, then Florida.
The wood-frame home we were staying in was now in the storm’s path, so it was time to move again. Friends in Florida’s panhandle invited us to stay with them, and we happily accepted.
Back in Ave Maria, those who remained were bracing for the battering they were about to receive. Several buildings on campus were designated shelters, and the university had opened its fieldhouse as a shelter for children and the elderly from Ave Maria and Immokalee, the nearby migrant farming community. Immokalee has one of the poorest people in the state. Some were elderly Haitians. One woman was blind. They were all frightened. Student volunteers ensured they were comforted and comfortable.
The university was ready. Daily Mass and coordinated communication kept everyone in the loop. Towey prepped students (and their anxious parents) for the coming storm by blogging on the university’s website.
“Incidents this week on our campus show the glory of God’s creation isn’t from Google, Amazon or Apple; it is from God, and man is God’s delight” he wrote Saturday. “It is neighbor helping neighbor, loving and caring, and, yes, at times, suffering together.”
Sunday, Irma made landfall just after 9am at Cudjoe Key. It barreled through the keys and crashed into Marco Island at 3:35pm. Ave Maria’s lashing began Saturday afternoon, when the storm’s outer bands began whipping the town with wind and rain. First the town’s cable was knocked out; then the power went down.
Irma howled for hours, uprooting trees, knocking over street signs, stripping roof tiles from roofs, and flooding streets. When it was finally over, the populace re-emerged to assess the damage and clean up, which will take a long time. As of this writing, electricity has still not been restored. The town’s utility provider said Tuesday afternoon that it may be weeks. Other reports said Friday.
Ave Maria survived the storm bruised, but not broken. It’s clear that faithful Catholic education is making a difference in my town and in our nation. Irma gave us a teachable moment to bond, to pray and to love our neighbor. It forced us to be unplugged and uncomfortable together. It brought us together in a beautiful way. It inspired prayer, and it built our spiritual muscles. Irma is gone, and we’re all stronger because we got the little things right.
Patrick Novecosky is a veteran journalist and a former National Catholic Register correspondent.
He is vice president of coalition relations for the Cardinal Newman Society.