Florida Catholics in the Eye of Hurricane Ian: Faith and Fellowship Mark the Relief Process
Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice told the Register he feels lucky to be alive, after two branches crashed through his roof into the ceiling of his living room, as he laments the much greater losses many others suffered.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated.
VENICE, Fla. — As Hurricane Ian made its way across the state of Florida on Sept. 28, Floridians did what they could to prepare. The storm killed at least 102 people in Florida, causing widespread damage, flooding and power disruptions. The storm was so wide that one of the last major hurricanes in the state — Charley in 2004 — could fit into Ian’s eye.
In many cases, the storm was much worse than expected. In other cases, areas expecting catastrophe were miraculously spared.
“We knew it was going to be bad,” said Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice. “It hit my area very hard. I stayed in my house, and two big branches came through my roof and into the ceiling of my living room.”
Bishop Dewane lost electricity, though he never lost water. He feels lucky to be alive, noting that many other people fared much worse.
The JMJ Pregnancy Center in Orlando, Florida — the largest Catholic pregnancy center in Central Florida — experienced damage to two of its three locations.
“We had 12 inches of water at our Kissimmee location and roof leaks at our Lifting Lives Center, which is between Kissimmee and Orlando,” said Bob Perron, executive director of JMJ Pregnancy Center.
The Kissimmee location for JMJ was described as the group’s “pride and joy.”
Hurricane Ian hit Orlando hard, but nearby Kissimmee had worse damage from flooding.
“It has been a long time since we got this kind of hurricane,” said Perron.
He had to work on his damaged clinics wearing galoshes up to his knees.
“There have been widespread power outages, and there is still water on the roads,” he said.
Protected by Prayers
John Czarnetzky, CEO and dean of Ave Maria School of Law — located near Naples, Florida, close to where Hurricane Ian made initial landfall at maximum force — believes his school and immediate area were divinely protected.
“I live on campus among the students, and I was here during the storm. We did what many Catholics do in New Orleans: We prayed to Our Lady of Prompt Succor,” said Czarnetzky. “I believe that those prayers were effective.”
Ave Maria Law School experienced little damage, seeing a few broken limbs and bent gutters. The administrative building and library lost power, though internet service was never lost. No trees came down either.
About half a mile away outside the school, on the other hand, there was massive storm damage and power outages.
“Eighty percent of the county lost power, and most of Collier County is under a boil-water notice. It is a miracle for our physical plant and those who live here that we did as well as we did,” said Czarnetzky.
Not everyone in the Ave Maria Law School community came out unscathed, however. Some student commuters living away from the school were affected. At least one staff member lost everything.
When Dean Czarnetzky drove around on Sunday a few miles away from the school, he saw water up to people’s waists in downtown Naples.
“Within a couple of miles from the school, there was flooding and wind damage. Downtown Naples had a storm surge, especially the area known as Old Naples. It suffered serious damage — though not as severe as Fort Myers,” he said.
Bishop Dewane was not able to travel for several days because of flooded highways, but he was finally able to begin inspecting his diocese this past weekend.
“Some teachers in our Catholic schools had their homes totally destroyed during the hurricane,” said Bishop Dewane.
Two Catholic churches were completely ruined: St. Isabel parish on Sanibel Island and Ascension parish on Fort Myers Beach.
“We had Poor Clare sisters who were living on Fort Myers Beach, at the San Damiano Monastery. Their home was destroyed. They make a vow of permanency and never leave their homes. We had tried to encourage them to leave before the storm, but they decided to stay. The storm flooded their first floor, and they had to stay on the second floor during the storm,” said Bishop Dewane.
“The real devastation is Fort Myers Beach. There are trees down everywhere. I went down with the chancellor of the diocese to visit parishes. We were on McGregor Street, when the police suddenly appeared. They told us that they wanted people to move away from the area because bodies were starting to float ashore from Sanibel Island, and they didn’t want people to see this,” said Bishop Dewane.
“I am sure that there are still people who are trapped. The National Guard has gone through the Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach area with boats. It has been very tough,” said Bishop Dewane.
Working Toward Recovery
As soon as the storm subsided, local Floridians began to save and rescue their own neighbors — even before the National Guard came in.
“People in the community took their own boats and canoes and began to save others,” said Bishop Dewane. “I think human beings are basically good at heart. I saw a lot of this.”
The parking lot of San Pedro parish in Fort Myers — an area which was not flooded — is being used by the National Guard as a distribution center. As soon as people are rescued, they are brought by county buses to shelters.
“One priest told me that a man who seemed to have some mental issues was rescued. He was very disoriented and kept asking, ‘Where is my wife?’ The rescuer standing behind him shook his head. Apparently, she had drowned,” said Bishop Dewane.
Meanwhile, aid is beginning to pour into Florida from other states.
“People from all over the country have been contacting me to send aid. I have truckloads of aid coming in from Duluth, Minnesota. Volunteers are also driving into the state,” said Bishop Dewane.
JMJ Pregnancy Center began clean-up work this past weekend in Kissimmee.
“We had so many people show up to volunteer. It was amazing,” said Perron.
The volunteers emptied the building of water-logged material. They were able to save their three ultrasound machines in Kissimmee and move them to their Orlando location.
“There is still a lot of flooding and many roads that are closed down,” said Perron.
Catholic Charities Helps Floridians
Florida’s seven Catholic dioceses each have a chapter of Catholic Charities.
“We have a great relationship with each other and coordinate efforts when a large disaster hits,” said Matthew Knee, president of the board for Catholic Charities in Florida. “We act as one agency.”
The Diocese of Venice, where Fort Myers is located, has been the worst-impacted area. Other areas that have been damaged include the Diocese of Orlando and the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
So far, there have been multiple diocesan properties that have sustained damage, if not total losses.
“Some areas have no access right now. There are bridges that have gone down and roads closed because of water,” reported Knee.
“The Diocese of Venice is in crisis mode right now. They are checking in on all priests and workers for the diocese. Several staff members have total losses on their homes or significant damage. Some staff cannot leave their homes because of debris blocking the roads. They are still doing assessment,” said Knee.
Catholic Charities of Venice has set up nine distribution centers for food, water, ready-to-eat meals, nonperishables, tarps and trash bags. Depending on what supplies come in from the state, they may give out generators and ice, as well. These sites are for immediate needs, not long-term needs — which is normally what Catholic Charities is involved in.
In the meantime, the work of the Catholic Church in Florida goes on.
The JMJ Pregnancy Center has never stopped its work. Calls have been rerouted to its Orlando center. An Uber lift service is available for women who don’t have money for transportation to the clinics, and counselling continues.
“I counselled one man for one hour today,” said Perron. “A woman was able to see her 11-week-old unborn baby with the ultrasound machine.”
A group of nuns in the eastern part of the Diocese of Venice had a food pantry that lost power, and their quick thinking benefited their hungry community.
“They decided to have a barbecue for the community for the past two nights so that none of the food would go to waste,” said Bishop Dewane. “Other people from the community also had food, which was at risk of going to waste, so they came with their food to be barbecued, as well,” said Bishop Dewane.
During Mass on Sunday, Bishop Dewane told those in attendance that everyone had a problem related to the hurricane.
“But I can’t be mad at God because all of us are going through similar problems. The Lord tried to plant two new trees inside my house! But there is a lot worse,” he said. “Many people are asking, ‘Why would God do this?’ We have to address this. We have to give people hope. Now is the time to dig deep down.”
“These events show the frailty of humanity as well as the strength of human beings. In last Sunday’s readings from the Book of Habakkuk, we are told that the just one, because of his faith, shall live. Who are the just? They are the people who got into their boats to help the stranded. These are the people who are helping others. They do this because they are just and faithful.”