ORLANDO — Catholic Floridians — just like the thousands of other Americans whose lives were uprooted when Hurricane Irma powered ashore in the U.S. this week — are now surveying the hurricane’s damage and counting their blessings that it wasn’t as devastating as initially forecast.
The effects of Irma — the most intense Atlantic hurricane to strike the United States since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — were felt across a vast swath of Caribbean islands, the entire state of Florida, and parts of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina.
As of Wednesday, there had been 61 deaths. By Tuesday night, about 5 million people in Florida had been affected by power outages.
When Dr. Pearl Ramirez prepared to hunker down in the wake of Hurricane Irma in Orlando, she and her husband, Jose, also a doctor, opened their arms to several relatives.
“My in-laws came over, my two brothers-in-law and the daughter of Jose’s cousin, who is going to college nearby. They closed her dorm, so we took her in,” said Ramirez.
Together with their four children, they had 11 people in the house altogether.
Her family had already experienced Hurricane Charley in 2004, which was a terrifying Category-4 storm at landfall.
“This hurricane was scary, but thank God we now have hurricane shutters. Our front door and back porch had metal shutters for protection. I felt safer. Though this storm was not as strong as Charley, it was longer,” she said.
When Pearl’s brother-in-law came over the day before the storm with a 20-pound turkey from the nearest Publix supermarket, she realized that there would be some heavy-duty cooking to do. They decided to cook a Thanksgiving dinner during the storm: roast turkey, mashed potatoes, cornbread and even blueberry pie.
“Even though it involved a lot of cooking, it was a blessing. It kept us busy,” she said. “My kids were on edge throughout the storm, but we watched a movie with them, prayed the Rosary and then they fell asleep.”
The next day, Pearl walked out to inspect the damage.
“We were lucky. We never lost power, but most of our friends did. We did not have flooding. Most of the destruction seemed to depend on where your house was, in terms of the wind,” she said. “My in-laws, who live a block away, had a broken screen door because it faced east. There are lots of trees down. We lost many shingles from our roof. My neighbor’s white picket fence was completely destroyed.”
Downtown Miami Perspective
For Visar Demi, from downtown Miami, there is the relief that the long storm is finally over.
“It felt like a long time,” he said. “There were times during the storm when I ventured out. The wind was so strange. There was no mercy. Every 10 seconds, these gusts of wind would come downwards, and trees would get pounded, over and over again, for hours. Eventually, the smaller trees would fall. In our area, all the big trees stayed firm, but there are branches down everywhere.”
Demi’s family lost power Sunday morning. Though the high heat does not bother him so much, he is worried about his elderly parents.
“There are only so many times they can take a cold shower. My sister and I have been warming up some water on the barbecue for them to take warmer showers,” he said. “We have a neighbor who just had a baby one week ago. It gets pretty hot during the day — up to 95 degrees — so I am worried about them.” At least eight elderly nursing-home residents have lost their lives.
As soon as the winds died down, Demi’s neighbors began to go outside Monday to clean up the streets.
“It’s still so dangerous because there are so many trees down. What is so frustrating is that we still do not see any government people outside. There are many police cars driving around. But there is no one working on the power lines. On TV, they had said there were 38,000 people ready to do cleanup after the storm, but I haven’t seen anybody yesterday or today. It’s just the neighbors,” he said.
One positive thing Demi notices is that neighbors are speaking to each other.
“Normally, we don’t really speak to each other. Now, everyone is sharing their stories. If it wasn’t for the heat, this wouldn’t be so bad. You wake up in the middle of the night sweating. My sister and I are trying to pretend that we are camping,” he said. “Another positive thing is that my eyes are getting a break from any kind of screen time.”
Jangled in Jacksonville
For Peggy Truss from Jacksonville, this was the biggest storm her family had ever gone through.
“It was quite the storm. We had Hurricane Matthew 11 months ago, so we weren’t sure what to do. For Matthew, we evacuated. But this was different. Everyone was evacuating. There was nowhere for us to go to. This hurricane was so big,” said Truss.
After watching TV and seeing the area where the hurricane would hit, the Truss family finally decided to stay put. No matter where they could have evacuated, it seemed the hurricane would be there.
“We have six children. Two are older and living outside of the house. Four of our children were home with us for the storm,” said Truss.
They cleaned out a closet in case of tornadoes because they have no basement.
“During the storm, it rained so hard. We kept praying for no flooding. Streets flooded near us, but did not come here. We lost power, but somehow, our cellphones still got tornado alerts,” said Truss.
They never went to the tornado closet because they could never hear a tornado right outside their walls. Still, waiting for the storm to end was nerve-wracking.
“It was so weird to be unplugged, and hard for my older two kids, who had no news from us in two days. But we had great family time. We played cards. I learned to play cribbage again, something I had not played since I was a little girl,” said Truss. “I feel like we dodged a bullet with this storm. It could have been so much worse.”
Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice in southern Florida waited out the hurricane with several other priests.
“My experience wasn’t so bad,” he said. “But now, we have to address the needs of our local population.”
A number of Catholic churches in his diocese housed migrant workers during the hurricane.
“Even though these churches were not hurricane-certified, they were safer than the houses where these workers lived,” he said.
Some of the church buildings sustained damage. One parish had the central part of its roof torn off by the wind.
“Buildings we can fix. But people are the main concern,” the local shepherd said. “Our main concern now is: How do we feed people? The solution will be a mix of government sources and Catholic Charities.”
The situation of migrant workers is a big worry. This group has no electricity, water or gasoline. Since their economic condition tends to be hand-to-mouth, the loss of a daily job is more dramatic.
“The areas they live in will be the last to get electricity and running water. They tend to live in the outskirts of cities in low lands, which have been flooded badly. These areas are now knee-deep to waist-deep in water,” he said.
Another issue that has emerged is that of generators, which are hard to find.
“In Naples, we have a group of nuns who run a high school. They were collecting branches that had fallen on the grounds when they discovered that their generator had been stolen. One of the sisters laughed when she told me, adding, ‘Well, I hope they needed it more than we do!’” Another nun, a principal of a Catholic high school, has become a social-media sensation post-hurricane. Videos and photos show Carmelite Sister Margaret Ann chain-sawing trees to clean up the grounds of Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School in West Kendall, Florida.
Bishop Dewane is thankful that his diocese did not see even more death and damage.
“Did everything come out perfectly in this storm? No. But it could have been so much worse. I attribute this to prayer.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from New York.