Naples | The late May formation of Tropical Storm Alberto in the Gulf of Mexico spared Southwest Florida, but should serve as a reminder that these storms can form anywhere and anytime between now and the conclusion of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane aeason which runs through Nov. 30.
Of course, few in the area need to be reminded of the destructive force of these monster storms since Hurricane Irma roared over Marco Island Sept. 10, 2017, and left a trail of destruction through the heart of the Diocese of Venice.
The hurricane did varying amounts of damage to 28 Parishes, five Missions, eight Diocesan schools, as well as damage to other assorted buildings. For example, at the parish level, damage ranged from a fence being knocked over at St. Martha Early Learning Center in Sarasota to near-total destruction of church buildings at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Naples.
Some buildings have been unusable since the storm struck, while work has not even started in other areas, explained Bo Nepip, Diocese Building Commission Director. Contractors were on site at parishes and schools within days of the storm to ensure safety and to do some mitigation work. This allowed some buildings to reopen before major repairs were done.
This reality was critically important at the schools, where lengthy delays in reopening affected the school academic calendars, most notably at St. Elizabeth Seton and St. Ann Catholic Schools in Naples, and St. Francis Xavier Catholic School and Bishop Verot Catholic High School in Fort Myers which each had to go through emergency repairs just to reopen weeks after the storm.
“Irma has taught us a huge lesson in being prepared,” Nepip said, noting that hurricane preparedness plans have been updated to reflect the types of hidden dangers such storms can bring, such as mold and other damage that may not be immediately apparent.
“While we continually are striving to address all issues, we are slowly making some headway,” he said. That includes completion of work on three-quarters of the major reconstruction projects. “Some parishes and schools have completed the repairs while others are still in the process.”
There have been several reasons for the delays, such as lack of resources like labor and material affecting the advancement of various projects, Nepip added. In addition, at parishes where damage was done to multiple buildings, work needed to be done in phases to allow parishes to remain functioning.
Bishop Frank J. Dewane, and Diocese Chancellor Dr. Volodymyr Smeryk have been closely monitoring the recovery from Hurricane Irma, offering support to parishes and schools as needed. Bishop Dewane and the chancellor have visited every damaged property multiple times since Hurricane Irma.
The pair toured the Diocese in the immediate aftermath of the storm to offer support to Parish priests and staff, as well as to the school principals and their faculty and staff.
“Going out and seeing the damage, not only to Diocesan property but to the lives of the people, really hit home to me that we were dealing with a widespread disaster,” Bishop Dewane said.
St. John the Evangelist Parish in Naples is an example of a Parish where work is being done in phases because every building on the property had extensive damage. It was decided to first focus on getting the Parish Activity Center/ballroom repaired and operational before major work began on the other buildings, including the Church.
In the coming weeks, the ballroom work will be done and the building will be transformed into a temporary setting for the Mass. This will allow the major work to begin on the main church and a second building that houses classrooms and meeting facilities. The impact on the Parish has been severe, as all summer activities, with the exception of the Mass, have been cancelled with no clear deadline in sight for an end to the situation.
Jean-Paul Boucher, Parish Business Manager, wrote an update to the parishioners in a recent bulletin, noting: “We will be spending every waking hour on making St. John not just whole again, but a beacon of love, community and joy for decades to come.” Boucher added it would be foolish to give specific dates for moving into the ballroom for Mass, or for the time frame of opening the Life Center or Church.
This is the same reality at St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Cape Coral, where on May 7 the main church closed for repairs, with the Mass now taking place in the Parish hall.
The faithful at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Naples lived through the same reality for more than six months while their church building was gutted after the roof was ripped apart by the hurricane. They returned to the repaired church for Easter to great jubilation.
Nepip is confident that all of the work will get done. “Rest assured, we will make our Diocese whole again,” he said.
Bishop Dewane agreed, noting that this has been his main prayer and focus for each parish, mission and school since the storm first threatened Southwest Florida. “It has been heartening to see the resilience of the parishes and schools. We have come a long way since Hurricane Irma, we have just a little further to go and we will get there. Just keep having patience and, most importantly, keep praying!”