As we all get back into the norms of life, we all have time and peace of mind to look back over the past few weeks. Before the storm there was a roller coaster of uncertainty. Early in the week, it looked like Southwest Florida was in the dead center of the dreaded “cone”. As the week progressed, the “cone” shifted east, and we breathed a sigh of relief, but continued to prepare, just in case. Then the realization that the storm was shifting west again, and had the potential to pass just off our coast, resulting in wind damage, but also catastrophic storm surge. We watched with incredulous horror as this huge storm of historic proportions decimated several Caribbean islands, including St. Martin. The images coming from those islands were heartbreaking, and we worried: would Irma do the same to OUR home?
Like many of you, our family scrambled to prepare our home and property. As the week progressed, we became more and more concerned, as there was NO plywood to be had anywhere, and we worried about several vulnerable windows. We prepared as well as we could: trimming bushes and trees and securing anything that could not be brought inside. All the while, there was an overlying worry: how were we going to protect our windows? However, God, in His power and goodness, was at work. On Friday evening before the storm we still had no plywood for our windows, but around 7pm, there was a knock on the door, and there was one of our neighbors, offering several sheets of his leftover plywood. Another neighbor had another extra sheet of plywood as well.
Thanks be to God! On Saturday, we boarded up what we could, and tried to get everything ready to ride out the storm. We kept a close eye on storm surge predictions, and when the worst-case scenario had our area under 6 FEET of water, we decided that it would be safer to evacuate. That left us with a dilemma, since it was such a last-minute decision. Should we just go to Immokalee? Or north toward Orlando? Or to the east side of the state? We worried about traffic jams and lack of gasoline if we tried to go too far. Once again, God provided. After some online searching and some phone calls, we were able to locate a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale. We arrived at the hotel just as the weather was starting to turn ugly, and then learned that they had been booked for weeks. A room opened up, literally as we were looking.
Later, someone commented that we picked a good hotel because it is a hurricane rated building. I told them I didn’t pick it; it was the only one available. It was a surreal experience, sitting in a hotel room with no power, and a tropical storm raging outside the window, while we streamed the live news on our phones and watched the eye of the storm pass right over our neighborhood. We prayed, (a lot!) and took comfort in God’s promises:
Psalm 46:1-3, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling."
As we left our house on Saturday afternoon, we honestly did not know what, if anything, we would be returning to. We tried to trust in God, and at the same time be mentally prepared for the possibility of losing our house and everything in it. When our neighbor texted us, during the eye of the storm, to let us know that our house was standing, with only minor damage, we wept with relief and thanked God for His protection. We returned on Monday after the storm to find a big tree down in our yard, some damage to the roof, but overall, our house was fine.
On Tuesday, I went out to Immokalee to check on members of the church, and the Amigo Center’s staff and volunteers. Thanks be to God: no one was hurt. Yes, they had damage their homes: to porches, siding and screen rooms but everyone was ok. The next day, Wednesday, Harry Chapin Food Bank sent a truck to Immokalee with water and MREs. After almost 200 families were served, Collier County workers arrived with a truck filled with water and more food. By the end of Saturday, one week after the storm, about 1,000 families were given food or a hot meal through the Red Cross in our parking lot. Time and time again, people told us that they had damage to their homes or yards, but invariably, they were thankful that they were safe; that their lives had been spared.
The next week, the volunteers worked every day, serving over 300 families per day. In addition, 1,000 hot meals were served through Friday. I received an almost constant stream of phone calls and text messages from all over the country, offering donations of food, clothing and supplies. Once again, God was at work through many people, making His love and grace known. On Sunday after worship, a family arrived with a van filled with clothing, food, and personal hygiene supplies. A short time later, a semi arrived from
Michigan, filled with donated water and diapers. With the help of a forklift, (and driver), graciously loaned to us by Grass Roots Kitchen, pallet after pallet was unloaded from the semi trailer and dropped in the parking lot. Then came the work of transferring everything into the Amigos Center lobby. In case you’re wondering, a pallet of bottled water is HEAVY, even with the help of a pallet jack! Thanks to the help of many volunteers who were willing to do a fair amount of heavy lifting, we were able to move all of the donated goods into the Center.
Our volunteers have worked hard, organizing the donated supplies and helping with distribution to hundreds of people. We are continuing twice weekly food distributions throughout the month of October. However, we are also focusing on church members and community members who have had severe damage to their homes; many have been deemed uninhabitable, and others have significant damage to the structure or contents. Some homes sustained flood damage, and others had water damage to the interior and contents because of roof leaks or broken windows. I have been working on identifying needs and locating assistance for these families.
As I look back over the past month, I am humbled and awed by the many demonstrations of God’s grace and power. Of course, there is the obvious; the storm itself, an awesome and terrible display of God’s power in nature. God’s providence has been shown in abundance, before, during and after the storm, in answered prayers, in neighbors helping neighbors, and in the generosity shown by so many people. God truly is good, and His power is made perfect in weakness as He says. We were all “weak” in the days after the storm; no electricity, limited or no cell service, no internet, wondering how we were going to ever get our lives back to normal. But time and time again, God provides. Thanks be to God!