As parishioners in the Keys Deanery, under mandatory evacuation order, have fled from the threat of Hurricane Ivan, churches in the northern part of the Diocese of Southeast Florida are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Frances, which lingered over the state Labor Day weekend.
Although Frances did not bring the catastrophic structural damage that Hurricane Charley inflicted in southwest and central Florida last month, several Southeast Florida churches, rectories and schools, as well as parishioners' homes, have had sufficient roof damage to cause serious leaks, with resulting water damage to the interior and furnishings. Fallen trees litter church property. Electricity has not been restored in many areas, and telephone service, including cellular, is intermittent, if available.
In a September 9 letter appealing to all diocesan bishops for assistance, Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida explained, "Our major problem seems to be the predicament that some of our churches are facing in order to repair the damage to their buildings ... Some of our congregations simply do not have the funds to pay the high deductible amounts required by the insurance companies."
The Duncan Conference Center, still without power a week after Frances began her long passage through the state, had to empty its freezers and refrigerators, donating more than a week's worth of upscale menu items like salmon and prime rib to a local food pantry. Cancelled bookings -- including the Fall Clergy Conference that had been scheduled for September 7-9 -- will result in heavy financial losses, says the Center's director, Fr. Steve Fregeau.
Although hot, tired and anxious about the looming possibility of another and more potentially damaging storm, most clergy and parishioners who have been contacted echoed the words of Fr. Robert Taylor, rector of Good Shepherd, Tequesta, which had substantial roof damage: "We've been lucky. Everybody's been lucky."
The storm's diminished strength when it came ashore was "lucky" for even the hardest hit areas of the diocese, but hope for recovery is based on the strength of the sense of community in parishes, the diocese and throughout the Episcopal Church in Florida.
Volunteers from youth to retirees have picked up debris, wielded chainsaws against fallen trees, spread tarps on leaking roofs and hauled out wet furniture and vestments to be dried. Diocesan staff, including Bishop Frade, have delivered generators, chainsaws and tarps to churches.
The Diocese of Southwest Florida has returned some of the generators and other equipment provided by Southeast Florida three weeks ago for cleanup after Hurricane Charley, and is donating $10,000 for recovery efforts here -- nearly half the amount Southeast Florida parishioners contributed for Hurricane Charley relief.
At St. Joseph's, Boynton Beach, where a huge ficus tree fell against the roof of a parish school classroom and a break-in during the storm resulted in the loss of about $10,000 worth of electronic equipment from the school, there have been daily services since the storm. The Rev. Mary Zlatic, rector of St. Joseph's, says the group that gathers for prayer provides an opportunity to match those who have needs with those in the parish who can provide help -- water, ice, food, or just a chance for a warm shower and a night's sleep in air-conditioning.
On September 7 the electricity was still off, but the church sign summed up the parish's conviction: "No power but Jesus."