The raging wind roared all around the house. It was a loud and eerie sound. I sat inside by myself in an inner room with my cats and birds nearby and quietly prayed as the house shook but did not give. Was I scared? you betcha!!? But, at the same time, I also felt a calm and a peace with the presence of God near. “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in trouble...”(Psalm 46:1). I felt Jesus hunkering down in there with us. ( As he said-“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28: 20b) I was not alone although Pastor Marina who was with me during Hurricane Irma was working at the hospital for the duration. I was glad she would help others and be safe. My love was away and also unable to leave work but thankfully we communicated on the still working cell phone. My storm shutters were up all around and they rattled loudly but we were safe and thankful. Electric power failed at some point, the world inside and out was deep black except for my flashlight and lanterns. After the wind finally died down I waited hours before gaining the courage to look outside.
My solid concrete home is fortunately seventeen feet above sea level and I was not in the two groups in this area asked to evacuate. My small lake crept up toward my house swallowing my downed banana trees but stopped short about half way to the lanai boundary. A whole wall of the lanai was gone, some of it in the pool. A gigantic clump of trees were up-earthed with roots clutching the air and a small rock formation was upturned with it and was revealed to be huge as well. There would be some costly damage to the roof and lanai and to the trees, but I was perfectly safe inside. With my neighbors, I was so thankful.
When we could finally venture out, Doris, who lives across the street and sustained bad roof and tree damage, and I reflected that we could not go through this again. Doris’s family quickly came and helped her to dig out. They were wonderful, as were Pastor Marina and her friends and Myron my carpenter friend who helped me, and my faithful God-daughter Maya with her devoted husband Lamar and daughter Kimora who came to bring supplies and check on me.(Their cheerful picture is at the end of this reflection). Yet, both Doris and I said Hurricane Irma was enough and this finalized it. No more Hurricanes for us! Somehow other plans would be made. I am making a plan to become a snowbird. Yet, it is so difficult to think of leaving what has been home and ministry for over 24 years-even for the hurricane season.
So much was literally turned upside down, including the tens of thousands of human lives touched by Ian, the second deadliest Hurricane hitting Florida in recorded history. The first was Katrina in 2005. The numbers change daily as Ian-related deaths are confirmed and missing people are found but the most recent number is 120 confirmed deaths. The stories of people clinging to trees and debris, and to the tips of their rooves before they were rescued are harrowing. One man floated inside of his open refrigerator on his top floor. He was barely breathing as the water was still over his head as he poked it up to breathe. Fortunately he was rescued by a search and rescue team. There were endless stories of rescue and its converse- the revelation of bad news. One young man who volunteered to help people to leave Fort Myers Beach shared that at one point there were 40 dead bodies in his boat. I cannot imagine this or how this affected him though the stories of his daring rescues may sustain him, and all who undertook this necessary task. As it was originally thought that Ian would hit Tampa and not Fort Myers, the evacuation notice was relatively short and some people simply could not leave.
The numbers of people who have lost everything in the storm are not countable at this time- loved ones, pets, homes, cars, and whole neighborhoods and communities are devastated or gone. For those communities that were not flooded and still stand in tact wind damage is significant. Everyone we talk to faces costly damage or has lost something irreplaceable or knows someone who lost everything. Our friend Doreen, also a former Good Shepherd Board member with her sister Stella, is an elderly woman who is blind and chronically ill yet always upbeat. She waited out the storm with Stella on the second floor of her sister’s Senior condo building in Seminole Gardens in East Fort Myers, an area grazed but not devastated. They were terrified but safe as the storm passed by. But, Doreen, whose home was in downtown Fort Myers, soon learned that she had 12 feet of water from the Caloosahatchee River, several blocks away, in her house. She was so thankful to be alive as is everyone who has gone through this. Everything is gone and she is now living temporarily with her daughter Sonya in Bonita Springs as her son Romel from New York takes charge of their devastated home.
I also note that I have canvassed our Good Shepherd Faith Community here in Fort Myers and each and every one has survived and is in a process of renewing their lives. Fortunately most lived east of the storm’s hardest impact. And each one wants you to know how thank-full they are!
The day after Ian left us a truck pulled up to my neighbor and friend Bernadette’s house. She was already deeply grieving the recent loss of her husband dear Greg who would have helped all of us now, and she was now facing her own damage. But a fellow teacher friend of hers with her young adult son got out of the truck dripping wet with nothing but their night clothes still on their backs. They had been rescued from the Island Park area of Fort Myers. Bernadette offered them shelter and food and we both supplied them with clothes and comfort. The next day I lent them my car so they could go and check on their beloved cats. The hearty cats had survived but their home was demolished. In a few days they were able to find a place to stay until they could rebuild with the help of another friend.
Yet there are many who have no one to help them, or to double up with. Some still reside in Shelters, like the one in the former Publix in North Fort Myers, or are camping outside or in unsafe portions of their devastated homes. FEMA is sending RV’s and Manufactured Homes to place on their properties but they are not here yet, over one month later. And FEMA gives housing money but there are still few hotel rooms. The feeling of devastation is hard to fight as all of this is witnessed daily. There is a wall constructed in downtown Fort Myers where names and pictures of the deceased are placed with flowers and art work. It is beautiful but so difficult to see. When the names of the newly confirmed dead are published on the local TV station with beautiful music and flickering candles, I cry.
And, I pray for all who are going through the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, in Cuba and the lower Caribbean where it first hit, and here in Florida and in South Carolina and beyond. I pray for all going through disasters of any kind as disasters can stop us in our tracks. But I also know that the Presence of our loving God is right here with us even as we go through the random path of a hurricane, or the rugged paths in our own lives. I think of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “”..those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. ” ( Isaiah 40:31) And the words of the prophet Ezekiel(36:26) “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.. ” God knows that there are times that we may feel more dead than alive in our spirits and promises us renewal. And so we get strength to carry on in the face of devastation.
We may sometimes ask why was I spared when so many good people were drowned or killed or devastated in this Hurricane? We feel that all should have been spared. But random acts of nature do random horrible things and we can only join God in standing with those who are hit by it. Indeed, the many stories of kindness and caring after the hurricane are heartwarming and affirming. Disaster can release bonds of caring in us that may have been neglected before. (You might see, for example, http://www.ClickOrlando.hurricane, or https://www.wptv.com.hurricane, or Triblive.com, or https://www.news-press.com>story, or https://www.redcross.org>news>hurricane.) And for those who may question why God lets this happen and may tend to blame victims, I am reminded of what Jesus said in Luke 13 where Jesus notes that some people blame the 18 victims of the huge tower in Siloam that fell on them. “–Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem: I tell you no!” Jesus then points out that all of us need to look at ourselves and repent of our own sins and shortcomings. And as Paul counsels the church in Corinth: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day”(2 Cor 4:16).
And, most importantly, Jesus promises us LIFE now and forever:
“The truth of the matter is, whoever listens to my words and believes in the One who sent me has eternal life and isn’t brought to judgement, having passed from death to life….the hour is here already-when the dead will hear the voice of God’s Only Begotten and all who hear it will live…”( John 5: 24 and 25b)
In this context to believe and to hear means to know Jesus in relationship and to follow what Jesus is asking us to do in the path of LOVE. This promise is for life NOW and FOREVER. It is a comfort to us, and to those who have lost loved ones even in this disaster, that death is a passage not a finality– we will live beyond death and rise again even as Jesus lives and has vanquished death. So as I sat there in the raging Cat 4 storm I had no dread or fear of dying though I did not feel ready to leave my loved ones here. Indeed, I am so thankful for the sparing of my life and pray that I can go on serving the ONE who makes life forever. I also feel that it is sometimes very hard to LIVE well now, in Christ, and am challenged to pray for myself and others that we live lives pleasing to God.
We can not minimize the impact of disasters on ourselves and our communities, we must “own” tragedy and loss to get beyond it. But, oh, we can pray that we are open to the LOVE, the RENEWAL and the LIFE God is giving us.
Below is my house with the Cross that shines at night still remaining on it, and the statue of St. Francis is now standing on a stump where my tall majestic palm tree once stood.
” Behold, I am making all things NEW! ” Revelation 21:5
So as we think of all that has happened since Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida our hearts turn to God who is with us through it all. We take hope in the words of John in the book of Revelation: “Look, I am making all things NEW!”
Above are mybanana trees that were trampled by Ian, the ripening fruit on the ground. And the young egret near it is still a testament to life. Miraculously, all of the ducks and little water creatures that come daily seem to have survived the storm. And, thankfully, the little outside cat that I feed survived the storm. She is more scared than ever, but still comes to eat at her site down the street. And, I think of all those people and living creatures who live outside when inside is needed. I think of the housing crisis in this area where minimum rents of $1000 and much more for even a studio apartment raises the numbers of homeless and doubled and tripled up exponentially.
Yet, both ironically and thankfully, during this time of disaster, those people who were homeless long before this disaster hit finally have Shelters they can turn to without judgement. And so I ask: if we can shelter and offer assistance so quickly after a major storm, why do we not regularly provide adequate shelters and help for those who are homeless from life’s disasters ? Neither the County or the City of Fort Myers provides any Shelter for the homeless among us. Private not for profits try hard and offer something but the beds are so few compared to the ongoing need. Do we only follow the Law of Love when it affects us directly? Are some more worthy than others to have a roof over their heads? It is my prayer that from this disaster we will look at ourselves and our local services for the poorest among us and do something NEW to shelter and help all of God’s people.
With just a little real assistance lives can and do turn around. (Thank you Patricia Byrne for reminding me of this). Within all living things there is a will to live and the means to grow and adapt.
The bananas could not be salvaged, but within just 3 weeks the picture below shows the banana trees growing back and flourishing again.
They are small but growing and will produce their fruit again. They will also continue to provide a sheltering feeding station where the ibis and ducks and moorhens come to feed. They are NEW again! And we can take hope that, like them, when we are mowed down by life’s disasters we too may rise again, may come to new life, may be RE-NEW-ED!
I urge you to believe it and be of good cheer and HOPE : God is making all things NEW again!
Thank you for your interest and your caring about us here in Fort Myers.
Love and Blessings and HOPE,
Pastor Judy Lee, RCWP
The Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community in Fort Myers, Florida