Faith and Community Amid Hurricane Irma

But Barbara Garcia, 74, refused to leave because of her faith in God.

“I trusted Him to keep me safe,” Barbara said.

Cypress Run is one of six affordable housing communities owned or managed by United Church Homes in Florida.

Barbara was among a handful of Cypress Run residents who opted to stay at the building during the hurricane. Other residents were evacuated to the Immokalee High School gymnasium, which served as a shelter for 820 area residents.
Hurricane Irma hit Southwest Florida Sept. 10 and its devastation stretched nearly 300 miles in diameter. About 60 homes and trailers were destroyed and trees were uprooted during the hurricane that hit Immokalee, a rural agricultural city with a population of 24,000 residents. Nearly half of the residents live in poverty.

About 12 million customers in southwest Florida lost power during the storm. Cypress Run, which is home to mostly Haitian immigrants, was without power for nearly two weeks.

Other UCH communities in Florida include Burlington Tower in St. Petersburg, Sterling Place in Lakeland, Citrus Gardens in Orlando and J.H. Floyd Sunshine Village and Meadow Park, both in Sarasota.

At least two residents were hospitalized after the storm because of stress, said Gina Laine, manager of Sterling Place and Cypress Run.

“It took a toll,” Gina said.

However, none of UCH’s communities sustained any major damage.

“We were lucky that nobody had any issues. Staff was kind of in a panic mode. We were texting back and forth. They were frightened and on high alert,” said Marsha Crewe, a UCH regional housing manager who oversees communities in Florida. “It was bad, but our properties dodged a bullet.”

Barbara watched the devastation unfold in the lobby at Cypress Run.

“The wind was whipping. It sounded like a mountain lion with that horrible eerie growl. The water was tremendous. There was flooding.
A friend of mine had his roof blown off; some people lost homes. It was devastating. But material things can be rebuilt or replaced. You can’t replace a life,” Barbara said.

Marsha said some staff who did not live onsite were invited to stay at a UCH community, but chose to evacuate or stay with family members.

Hurricane Irma hit Immokalee the hardest and residents and fire officials say it is the worst hurricane to hit the area in Florida’s history.

“The only other hurricane I can compare it to is Wilma. Irma caused more devastation, more flooding. I went through Wilma in Immokalee. I think Wilma was bad out here. This one definitely tops all of the ones I’ve experienced,” said Immokalee Fire Control District Deputy Chief Thomas Cunningham.

Fire officials worried about residents like Barbara who refused to evacuate Cypress Run and a nearby retirement community because the buildings have wooden frames.

“It was a day and a half of hurricane force winds. That just puts a beating on those buildings,” Deputy Chief Cunningham said. “We had concerns for the whole community, but with those two buildings we’re talking 200 lives and some with severe medical conditions.”

Marsha and Gina said firefighters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Salvation Army, Redlands Christian Migrant Agency and volunteers from Naples and Fort Myers made sure residents at Cypress Run had plenty of food, water and ice.

“They did not have to go without. It was really great that everybody worked together,” Marsha said.

Barbara said she was thankful that so many in the community, especially younger residents, helped people at Cypress Run.

“When people reach out to care for elders that means the world to me, especially the youth. Younger people don’t always realize they will get (older) someday,” Barbara said. “It was an experience that we had to go through and one that I will never forget.”