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Churches open doors as Florida is battered by Hurricane Ian

07 October 2022


The Florida Army National Guard help residents of Sanibel Island, Florida, last week, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian

The Florida Army National Guard help residents of Sanibel Island, Florida, last week, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian

AS FLOODWATERS rose during Hurricane Ian — one of the deadliest storms to strike the United States in recent years — people took refuge in church buildings.

In one of the most devastated regions of south-west Florida, where the hurricane made landfall on Wednesday of last week, parishioners were forced into the pulpit of Southwest Baptist Church, in Fort Myers, as the church itself was flooded. Some are still sleeping inside the church on chairs, as their homes have been swept away. The steeple and part of the church’s roof were blown off by the hurricane.

At a service held outside the church on Sunday, residents thanked God for their survival.

Many others have died, however. Up to 100 people are believed to have lost their lives so far, thousands have been left homeless, and millions more have been left without electricity. Searches for survivors are still continuing.

The Bishop of Southwest Florida, the Rt Revd Dabney Smith, described the past few days had been “harrowing”. In a letter to the diocese, he wrote: “Many of our churches and huge numbers of our parishioners are now faced with the daunting task of recovering from the effects of Hurricane Ian. Such recovery efforts will take much time and energy.”

He announced the postponement of the diocesan convention scheduled for this weekend. The diocese has launched an appeal fund to provide immediate financial help for church communities. Residents have been told, because of the devastation, may not be able to return to the worst-hit coastal areas for months.

In the town of Wauchula, a group of nuns emptied their freezers and invited the whole area to a barbecue. People lined up to donate food from their own thawing freezers.

Drone footage of Gasparilla Island, off the coast of Florida, was posted on the island church’s Facebook page, showing the devastation. Although it has sustained some damage, St Andrew’s Episcopal Church is still standing.

On the island of Sanibel, St Michael and All Angels is using its Facebook page to post messages from people who are safe, for their families, and was helping to organise the evacuation of people from the island. The island lost part of the causeway which links it to the mainland.

The Revd Bill Van Oss evacuated the island with his wife, Sue. He said that, as far as he knew, all of his parishioners were safe. In a video message posted online, he said: “We will rebuild not only our church, but we will rebuild our community.

“We’re going to take care of each other. The church is the people. The church is you and I. The church is a building, and that will be rebuilt, but we are a people and we will be sustained.”

He said that “people were loving their neighbour” all over the affected region. “This can remind us of what is important in life, which is taking care of each other. The stuff can be replaced.”

All Angels by the Sea Episcopal Church, Longboat Key, has become a centre offering electricity, air-conditioning, internet access, and food and water to people in need.

Hurricane Ian hit Cuba as a Category 3 storm, before it arrived in Florida. It killed two people and knocked out power to the whole country. It came ten days after Hurricane Fiona hit the south-western coast of Puerto Rico, killing at least 13 people and leaving thousands without power.

The Episcopal Church’s partner charity Episcopal Relief and Development is working with dioceses in the southern United States and Cuba to support those who have been affected.

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