It all seems so calm now. The wind gently blows through the few palm trees left on our church campus. People make their way into our church for Mass every day, greeting each other and asking how they are feeling, or if they have dinner plans. The sound of children’s laughter echoes through the halls of our Parish Activity Center and Claussen Center as hundreds of youth come for after school STEAM programs and Faith Formation. For a moment, you may not even see the massive and life-altering impact of Hurricane Irma that occurred only four months ago. Last week, I described the feelings and situation of the immense disaster that have befallen Saint John the Evangelist. This week, I wanted to provide an insight to those who may not have personally witnessed the immediate reaction of this Parish Family. The level of response was unprecedented.
Immediately after Hurricane Irma hit us, the Parish Staff, partners, and volunteers worked night and day in order to make the campus safe to access. The Memorial Garden and the front lot were cleared and cleaned up. The massive trees and debris were taken care of by one of the first tree removal services available in the area thanks to our site contractor, Bonness. They were able to find a massive crew with cranes and trucks to remove the trees. This effort was completely at the Parish’s expense of over $30,000. At the same time, with all our exterior lighting destroyed in the middle lot, Gates Construction and Southwest Electric prioritized placing our new light poles to ensure safe parking between the church and Parish Activity Center. Crowther Roofing and Mechanical came through in a huge way. They arrived the very next day after the storm to assess the church roof, which is completely compromised. They determined the safety of the church could be assured if we removed the shattered skylight above the altar. They also identified two new Air Conditioning Units that would need to be put in place so the church could be cooled (or heated, as we have needed recently) properly. They got right to work sealing up the roof and installing the new AC units. The Diocesan Building Director even remarked he had never seen so many Crowther trucks on a single site at one time. Lykins Signs came to our rescue when the cross on top of the Bell Tower was swaying constantly after the storm. When they inspected it with their crane, they found that it was completely disconnected, and as the tower itself began to tilt, the cross was falling over. They removed it immediately. The Bell Tower itself was deemed a total loss and was demolished. Once power was restored, ServPro, our restoration contractor, went right to work, removing internal damage, cleaning, and repairing our buildings with 20 people working 7 days a week. It only took them two weeks to get us back into our facilities safely. We owe our partners a debt of gratitude. Without their efforts, we could still be having Mass in the Seminar Room.
A few challenges were immediately evident, however. It took about 12 days to restore power to our campus. That significant delay compounded the damage in our Ballroom and other parts of the campus. There was no air conditioning and no lighting, a hazardous condition for any building in Florida. This environment caused a total loss of our massive Ballroom, with the carpet, dance floor, walls, and ceilings completely destroyed. All 600 reception hall chairs were lost due to a flood in the storage room from a roof leak. Even the wood studs that held the walls were soaked beyond saving. Once ServPro finalized and certified the safety of our Parish Activity Center, Gates Construction went right to work to repair our Ballroom, but they have been stopped by Collier County. Unfortunately, even though the County stated we could perform our repairs without a permit, once they witnessed the efforts, they shut down all work until a permit request was submitted and approved. We are still waiting on that approval. That is the cause of all the cancellations of our wonderful events and activities. It is extremely frustrating. I share your concerns and I appreciate all the support that our Parish Family has provided in this challenging time. We are doing everything in our power to return our campus to its new normal.
In the midst of all these challenges, our Parish Family came together as never before. We turned our own church tragedy into live-saving action for thousands of locals who were without power, water, food, clothing and so much more. St. John started supporting our community only 4 days after Hurricane Irma decimated the campus. The Knights of Columbus lead our efforts to gather and then distribute all the essentials we could to Naples Park, Immokalee, and East Naples. From donations and FEMA supplies of water pallets and food rations to diapers and wipes for both babies and adults, our Parish Family responded every single day for over 2 weeks with new donations. Our County Commissioner, Andy Solis, asked to have St. John’s campus become a water and ice distribution point for the local neighborhood. When Saint Leo’s FEMA site was not able to distribute the large amount of food and water they had, we sent our box truck up to them daily to get full loads and drove those supplies out to those locations most in need. When a neighborhood near St. Peter the Apostle was found to be eating out of the trash and re-using adult diapers because they had no one helping them, we worked with Father G to get boxes of supplies sent with him to save those desperate individuals and families. All told, Saint John the Evangelist gathered and then donated over 45 truckloads of essentials over two weeks: feeding, clothing, and saving countless people that had nowhere else to turn. Every member of our Parish Family that should feel proud and blessed for the massive service and support undertaking that came from our church and our hearts and souls. I have already thanked individuals and groups that spent their entire lives at our church those weeks, so I will not take the space to do so again, even though I am grateful every single day for their commitment and dedication. They truly lived out our Mission of service, and they showed it with their blood, their sweat, and their tears, forsaking even their own personal needs to help others.
The cost for this response has been significant to our Parish Family. We are blessed that we have been supported in prioritizing essential efforts like the church roof repair via the Diocesan Insurance Program, but there are still many projects’ costs that we will be dealing with over the upcoming months. Next week, we will discuss what our plan for those repairs and renewals, bringing us to our “new normal”. If you have not yet given to our efforts, but you would like to contribute, please ensure your gift states “Hurricane Repairs” in the memo line or on your envelope.
God Bless Saint John!