By Tom Tracy
Catholic News Service
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Father Patrick O’Connor, pastor of Jesús Obrero (Jesus the Worker) Parish, northwest of downtown Fort Myers, orchestrated a familiar operation Oct. 4 as he shuffled about his parish hall stacked high with clothing.
An efficient food and water distribution line was in full swing to serve an estimated several thousand members of the mostly farmworker and Hispanic community who arrived on what was the busiest day of emergency supply distribution since Ian landed, according to Father O’Connor.
Volunteers from a Spanish-language radio station in West Palm Beach had just finished unloading a delivery of donated supplies when Father O’Connor came over to offer hugs and a blessing, along with the obligatory group photo with the radio station staff.
“They put out the word for us and brought in five trucks for us full of water, food and clothes and baby items, diapers and feminine products and all sorts of things that people need right now — especially in East Fort Meyers that got hit so hard,” Father O’Connor said of the radio station delivery.
This was a function the same priest and same parish food pantry played out following 2017’s Hurricane Irma and now they were at it again following the even more devastating Category 4 Hurricane Ian that swept through southwest Florida after making landfall a week earlier on the state’s west coast.
“This is a very poor community in this part of Fort Meyers, and they can’t really get out of here like other people can — so they are kind of stuck,” said the priest, who is an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales.
The death total in the Lee County area alone, which includes the city of Fort Myers, was estimated at 45. The toll for Florida is much higher, but numbers were expected to rise as the cause of death was still pending on many others.
Father O’Connor said his immigrant community, composed mostly of Mexican and Central American laborers, is most in need simply of food and water donations right now, as the supply chain situation hasn’t been great.
The city of Fort Myers reportedly does have water but has cautioned that it remains contaminated and unsafe to consume without boiling at this time. He noted that people in this community don’t have the luxury of driving off to other communities to buy supplies or wait for a modicum of normalcy to return here.
“Part of the county does not even have water to the homes yet; days have passed without water in some of the homes,” the priest said.
Sister Maria Isabela Jaimes, a Franciscan Sister of the Immaculate Mary from Bucaramanga, Colombia, who was helping at Jesus the Worker Church, said she had never experienced a hurricane crisis until Irma.
“Thanks be to God I’m alive, but it’s because I was able to evacuate before the storm,” the nun said in Spanish. “But I do feel very close to how my brothers and sisters have suffered because of this hurricane, and I have realized the greatness of God but also the respect for the power of nature.”
Sister Jaimes said the community was in relatively good spirits one week later, as they moved into recovery mode.
“I see the people accepting God’s will; they are at peace are calm now,” she said. “They are coming for (donated) goods but what they really need is solidarity and interior peace, and community.”
At the nearby Elizabeth Kay Galeana Catholic Charities Center in Fort Myers, Alex Olivares, regional director for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Venice, helped with drive-up distribution of water and emergency supplies. Nearby tree removal crews and power companies were busy with cleanup projects.
“This storm hit us really hard; some people were expecting it, but most people were not so everybody is struggling. A lot of folks still have no water and no power,” Olivares said.
Compared to Hurricane Irma, Olivares said he thought Hurricane Ian was going to be less severe, but it seems to have been so much worse for this Latino and African American community known locally as Dunbar.
One locally based Catholic Charities employee lost his entire home due to flooding, Olivares said.
“The damage has been catastrophic for some areas; parts of Fort Myers have been really smashed,” he said.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reportedly said repairs to the Pine Island bridge should be completed by the end of the week in order for debris removal and utility crews can move toward restoring power.
Pine Island is one of the barrier islands hardest hit by Hurricane Ian, along with Sanibel, which is expected to remain largely inaccessible after Ian destroyed the causeway.
Fort Myers Beach also was severely damaged by Ian; DeSantis described it as a complete disaster zone. Many communities from Naples north to Sarasota and beyond are still waiting for power to be restored.
One newspaper reported that about a quarter of the 2.2 million power outages have been restored in the days since Ian made landfall.
Florida’s Department of Emergency Management also deployed some 11 fueling depot stations statewide, and a mobile fuel truck has been deployed to the hard hit interior city of Arcadia to support residents without access to fuel.
The governor also announced the opening of the first Disaster Recovery Center for Floridians impacted by Hurricane Ian at the Lakes Regional Library in Fort Myers.
Father O’Connor urged water and food supplies be directed to the rural and farmworker communities such as his.
“These are very hard-working people,” Father O’Connor said. “They work in restaurants, construction, landscaping, they are cooks, they are chefs, road crews, they do all the heavy labor; farm workers — they are the backbone of the community and they are ones who will be cleaning up everything after this and will be a fundamental and important part of rebuilding all the community.”
“Right now they are in crisis and need so much help,” he added.