FORT MYERS, Fla. – On Sunday morning, several dozen seniors filed into a battered church in Fort Myers, not far from where Hurricane Ian made landfall a few days earlier.
Outside was an overturned Jeep and dumpsters blown into a tree line. A nearby discount mall and mobile home park were chipped. Power lines hung over a road leading to Sanibel Island, cut off by a destroyed bridge.
Beneath Southwest Baptist’s demolished steeple were sodden floors and holes in the roof. The pages of the Bible were spread out to dry. In the chapel, displaced members slept on makeshift beds made from chairs and water boiled with propane burners.
The church insisted on holding a service, even if it had to be held outside, for a vulnerable community affected by loss and trauma.
When they arrived, the mostly white-haired retirees exchanged hugs and tears, glad to find solace and make sense of the disaster around them.
“It’s terrible. We lost everything,” said Emery Lewis, 78, whose home was destroyed. “We are lucky that this pastor let us stay here.”
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Everyone came with their own stories and they poured out.
Greg Wathan, 62, left his one-story home to flee in his truck, but was cut short by the storm surge. When he got up, he climbed into the bed of his pickup truck.
At one point, he saw a struggling old woman besieged by the current. He was able to reach out and pull her inside. “I don’t know how it held up,” he said.
But he wasn’t sure they would live.
“I might not get out of this,” he remembered thinking, rolling his eyes.
Adelgarde Frazee, 82, said she was among those who took refuge in the church before the storm. He went out to take a picture of the raging waters and saw that the wave almost killed a man who was trying to escape in his jeep.
“He threw his windshield, threw him out. And he came floating down. He was fighting the current. He was trying to get to the steps of the church,” he said.
Sally Cole, 79, said she and her family were frantically packing in their neighborhood before a family member pulled her through strong currents, her grandson clinging to her, to her truck.
“We just got out. Barely,” he said.
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Assistant pastor Stephen Kasten said he urged his flock to evacuate, but some believed they would be safe in the church, which sits slightly higher than the surrounding land.
“I said, ‘Please run away.’ Please go away.’ But they would rather be there,” he said.
The church, whose population of snowbirds means attendance drops from about 350 to 120 during the summer months, is a critical community center for the retirees and seniors who define the ‘ Fort Myers area, said Kasten and his members.
The storm hit as the church works to recover from financial struggles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hurt attendance. They had just installed new lighting and sound. When Ian struck, the steeple was ripped off and a hole was blown through the roof. Walls and carpets should be torn up.
“Every office, everything, is ruined,” he said.
The church is insured but with a $50,000 deductible. This has already received a boost after a random donor from Louisiana came and gave the church $10,000.
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As the Sunday service began, a hot Florida sun beating down, Kasten told the small flock that it was no accident that his guitar and Bible were kept dry.
They took communion and sang songs, including “Count Your Blessings.”
Kasten’s father, Bob, the senior pastor, offered words of comfort and encouraged people to lean on their faith. He said God had protected those who took refuge in the church: “It was almost like the ark,” he said.
The steeple had been damaged in a previous hurricane and was later rebuilt to withstand this storm. “I don’t think we’re going to rebuild it,” he added.
Afterward, those sheltering in the church, like many of the city’s residents displaced by the hurricane, wondered what would happen next.
“We’re going to be here for a while. But my son is coming down,” Geary Flener, 86, said. He and his wife of 65 years, Charlene, saw their nearby trailer damaged amid Ian’s wrath.
Most were just grateful to be alive.
“It’s a thanksgiving that we’re here,” Jane Compton, 77, said. “We are very fortunate.”
Chris Kenning is a national news writer. Reach him at email@example.com and on Twitter @chris_kenning.