By Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — It’s too early to tell the extent of Hurricane Ian’s damage in the Catholic dioceses of Venice and St. Petersburg or the rest of the Sunshine State for that matter, but President Joe Biden in a Sept. 29 news conference said it is likely to rank as “one of the deadliest hurricanes in Florida history.”
“The numbers … are still unclear, but we’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life,” the president said.
No fatalities were reported early Sept. 29, but authorities were just beginning a search and rescue efforts, which were hampered by debris strewn on roads and bridges damaged by Ian’s 155 mph winds when it lashed Florida Sept. 28 and 29.
“We know many families, many, many, are hurting today and our entire country hurts with them,” Biden said during the news conference at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington.
He promised to visit at a future date so as not to disturb initial rescue efforts but pledged financial help from the federal government to help Florida recover.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a Sept. 29 news conference in Tallahassee said the impact of Hurricane Ian in his state is historic. He reported that upward of 2 million people were without electricity in the state.
“The damage that was done has been historic and this is just off initial assessments. … We’ve never seen a flood event like this. We’ve never seen a storm surge of this magnitude,” he said.
Organizations such as Catholic Charities USA said they have their response teams in place to deal with the aftermath of the massive Category 4 storm that lashed western and central Florida.
Even in a state used to powerful storms, Ian’s destruction managed to shock, leaving mementos of its might in the form of cars battered by winds and water, left floating in flooded city streets next to uprooted trees and parts of roofs torn from buildings in the cities of Fort Myers, Tampa and Punta Gorda.
Part of a bridge that connected Sanibel Island to the mainland of Florida collapsed.
In a series of updates for the Tampa Bay Times, reporter Zachary T. Sampson wrote Sept. 29: “In Fort Myers Beach, emergency officials expect to find bodies in the rubble. They know people did not all heed the evacuation orders.”
Dioceses in the affected areas closed their churches, schools and other gathering centers. The Diocese of Venice posted a video of the Servant Sisters of the Virgin of Matara Sept. 28 as volunteers helped board up windows at St. Michael Church in Wauchula in the northern part of the diocese.
There were no updates on social media or on the websites of those dioceses early Sept. 29.
Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of St. Petersburg, which includes Tampa, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice had asked for prayers, knowing their diocesan territories were in the crosshairs of the storm.
Some other U.S. bishops kept an eye on the hurricane and offered solidarity with the people of Florida.
“We pray for all people in Florida, especially for people’s lives affected,” wrote Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio on Twitter just before the hurricane made landfall. “May you, Lord, be their strength! We do not control everything.”
More than 2 million were still without electricity as the hurricane, downgraded to a tropical storm early Sept. 29, headed north toward Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Family members desperately posted on Twitter asking for updates on conditions in places such as Venice, close to where the storm made landfall and where many remain without communication.
Authorities began to survey the damage early Sept. 29, looking for those who had not managed to leave before the hurricane hit. They asked those who stayed in their homes to remain indoors as officials were conducting water rescues but still struggling to make their way amid debris and remaining flooding and wind.
Catholic Charities USA said in a statement that its disaster response teams “have a long history of mobilizing quickly to meet the needs of those affected by catastrophic events in the U.S. and its territories.”
The organization encouraged donations at https://ccusa.online/Ian for efforts to help those dealing with the storm’s destruction.
DeSantis said Sept. 28 that recovery efforts need financial assistance, and asked people to refrain from sending items, such as clothes, to Florida and send economic help or volunteer instead.
He also said he asked Biden for a major disaster declaration for the federal government to pay for recovery efforts in the state, which the president responded to by stating in his news conference that the government would help Florida.
In Cuba, where Ian wreaked havoc Sept. 27 before heading to Florida, the diocese most affected posted Sept. 28 on Facebook photos of widespread damage, destroyed crops, torn roofs and collapsed buildings in Pinar del Rio, where children were helping with cleanup efforts at Catholic churches.
News agency EFE said three fatalities were reported on the island as of Sept. 29 and Cuba remains largely without electricity. Its tobacco crop, famous for the island’s cigars, has been damaged.
“The images are devastating. A people mired in misery and despair now face the onslaught of a natural phenomenon of great magnitude,” said a post on the Facebook page of the Diocese of Pinar del Rio, where the hurricane made landfall. “Hurricane Ian has destroyed homes, crops, (government centers, etc.) but it has also sown sadness and desolation.”
The post said cisterns were damaged, along with windows and roofs, and personal property in many homes. What precious little people had has been taken, the post said, adding that “in the midst of it all, there is sadness and worry about a very uncertain future.”
“This is how the Diocese of Pinar del Río is today,” the post said, but added that “in the midst of this reality, the church wants to be present to tell us that we are not alone, that God has not abandoned us.”