Southwest Florida Church staffs head for high ground

August 13, 2004

As Hurricane Charley continued to churn north toward Southwest Florida, churches along the coast were busy preparing to bug out.

The projected track of the hurricane is expected to affect the entire length of the diocese, which stretches from Brooksville, in Hernando County, south to Marco Island in Collier County.

Evacuation warnings have been issued to as many as 2 million people potentially at risk and residents in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, the three largest cities in the area, have been urged to move from beach communities, flood-prone lowlands and mobile home parks, reports Reuters.

With most barrier islands along the Gulf coast under mandatory evacuation orders, it was anything but business as usual.

The staff at St. Boniface Episcopal Church on Siesta Key began closing down their office Thursday morning. The Rev. Ted Copland said computer back-ups were being done and select paper records would be moved to the mainland. The church, he said, has had a hurricane plan for some time. "We've been thinking about this for quite a few years," he said.

The storm is expected to have moved through the area by Saturday, but police may not let nonresidents back on the island for several days if flooding and sewer problems persist. If the evacuation order is not lifted by Sunday, parishioners from St. Boniface will gather to worship at St. Wilfred's, on Wilkinson Road in Sarasota. "We'll share services at 7:45 a.m., at 10 a.m. and add a service at noon," Copland said.

A few miles north on Longboat Key, a lone office worker at All Angels by the Sea Episcopal Church was preparing to leave the church -- and the island -- for the weekend. "We're just going to let the church ride it [the storm] out," she said.

Further south, Nanette Moll, the office coordinator at St. Mark's Church on Marco Island, said they were taking things "hour by hour." With the storm taking a more northern track, wind damage was not an overriding concern. "Our whole issue here is water," she said, noting they had canceled a vestry retreat scheduled for Thursday evening.

The storm could dump between 4 to 8 inches of rain on Florida's west coast, which is already saturated from above-average rainfall totals this summer.