FORT MYERS, Florida — On Sunday morning, several dozen seniors trickled into a shattered Fort Myers church not far from where Hurricane Ian made landfall a few days earlier.
Outside lay an overturned Jeep and dumpsters blown into a tree line. A nearby discount mall and a mobile home park lay in tatters. Power lines dangled over a road leading to Sanibel Island, cut off by a destroyed bridge.
Under Southwest Baptist’s toppled steeple were soaked floors and holes in the roof. Bible pages fanned out to dry. In the chapel, displaced members slept on makeshift beds made of chairs and boiled water with propane burners.
The church insisted on holding a service – even if it had to be held outside – for a vulnerable community thunderstruck by loss and trauma.
As they arrived, the mostly white-haired retirees exchanged hugs and tears, happy to find solace and make sense of the disaster around them.
“It’s terrible. We lost everything,” said Emery Lewis, 78, whose house was destroyed. “We’re just fortunate this pastor has let us stay here.”
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Each 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 off by the storm surge. As it rose, he climbed into the bed of his pickup truck.
At one point, he spotted a struggling elderly woman beset by the current. He was able to reach out and pull her in. “I don’t know how she held on,” he said.
But he wasn’t sure they’d live.
“I might not make it through this,” he recalled thinking, his eyes welling up.
Adelgarde Frazee, 82, said she was among those who had taken refuge at the church ahead of the storm. She went out to take a photo of the torrential waters and saw the surge nearly kill a man trying to drive away in his Jeep.
“It knocked his windshield out, threw him out of it. And he came floating down. He was fighting the current. He was trying to make it to the church stairs,” she said.
Sally Cole, 79, said she and her family were frantically packing bags in their neighborhood before a relative pulled her through strong currents, while her grandchild clung to her, toward their truck.
“We just got out. Just barely,” she said.
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Assistant Pastor Stephen Kasten said he urged his flock to evacuate, but some felt they would be safe in the church, which sits slightly higher than the surrounding land.
“I said, ‘Please flee. Please leave.’ But they’d rather be there,” he said.
The church, whose population of snowbirds means attendance falls from about 350 to 120 in the summer months, is a critical hub of community for the retirees and seniors that define the area of Fort Myers, Kasten and members said.
The storm hit while the church works to rebound from financial struggles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hurt attendance. They’d just put in new lighting and sound. When Ian struck, the steeple was ripped off and a hole punched through the roof. Walls and carpets would need to be ripped out.
“All the offices, everything, is trashed,” he said.
The church is insured but with a $50,000 deductible. That’s already gotten a boost after a random donor from Louisiana came by and gave the church $10,000.
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As Sunday’s service began, a hot Florida sun heating up, Kasten told the small flock that it was no coincidence his guitar and Bible stayed dry.
They took communion and sang songs – including “Count Your Blessings.”
Kasten’s father, Bob, the senior pastor, offered words of solace and encouraged people to lean on their faith. He said God had protected those who sheltered in the church: “It was almost like the ark,” he said.
The steeple had been damaged in a previous hurricane – then rebuilt to withstand such a storm. “I don’t think we’ll rebuild it,” he added.
Afterward, those sheltering at the church – like much of the city’s residents displaced by the hurricane – wondered what was next.
“We’ll be staying here for a while. But my son’s on his way down,” said Geary Flener, 86. 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,” said Jane Compton, 77. “We’re so fortunate.”
Chris Kenning is a national news writer. Reach him at email@example.com and on Twitter @chris_kenning.