No Unitarian Universalist congregations in the path of Hurricane Irma have reported any substantial damage so far to their members or their buildings.
“The good news is that I do know there have been no personal losses, nobody hurt severely,” said the Rev. Kenn Hurto, regional lead for the UUA’s Southern Region. “The churches that I’ve heard from are reporting only minor damage: tree limbs down, a leaky roof here and there, but that’s all.”
However, Hurto went on to say, “The hard part is what we don’t know.”
As of September 14, neither he nor UU World had made contact with the One Island Family UU Congregation in Key West, or the UU Fellowships of St. John and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
While satellite photos show the school in which the Key West congregation holds its services appears undamaged, there has been no word of the fate of any congregation members who were still in the area.
Update 9/20/17: Pete Petersen, the administrator of One Island Family, the UU fellowship in Key West, visited the fellowship’s property on September 19 and reports that “except for a plexiglass window that got knocked in, everything seems to be in order.”
Most UU congregations around South and Southwest Florida that could be contacted reported they had canceled their September 10 worship services, which for many would have been the traditional Ingathering Sunday, and that they didn’t expect electrical power to be restored for as long as two weeks.
Still, they felt relieved that, at least as far as their congregations were concerned, the situation could have been far worse.
“We just had a cleanup party here at the church for a second day in a row, clearing trees and debris,” said Rev. Tony Fisher of the UU Congregation of Greater Naples. “The building is intact, except for one gutter where a tree fell on it.”
The Naples area and surrounding Collier County experienced the brunt of Irma when it came ashore on the mainland.
Fisher pointed out that his church buildings are less than twenty years old, built after Hurricane Andrew motivated local Florida governments to strengthen building codes.
“So we were in pretty good shape,” he said. “In fact, even though it wasn’t an official shelter, a number of people stayed in the church through the storm.”
Michael Malone, board president of the UU Congregation of Miami, also counted his congregation among the lucky ones.
“We have a big facility here, and we did everything we could to make the place safe,” Malone said, “but then the storm took that mysterious little turn to the west and we were spared the worst of it.”
Like Fisher and others, he said he was skeptical that electrical power would be returned in time for the September 17 worship service.
Hurto, who lives in Fort Myers, pointed out that it is likely that, as time goes on and more congregations report to him, there will be more damage revealed and more unfortunate stories on the part of congregation members, particularly if electrical power remains a problem.
“The danger, property-wise,” he said, “is, if your building is enclosed and you don't have air conditioning, the mold will probably begin to assert itself.”
The UUA established a Hurricane Irma Recovery Fund to help congregations repair damage and to respond to the needs of their members and their communities in the storm’s aftermath.
“Donating to the fund is what people can do right now to help,” Hurto said.
He and others noted that the communities beyond their congregations were likely going to be in great distress in the weeks and months to come.
Fisher said of the Naples area, “The flooding in the low-lying areas and in some of the minority areas was just awful. There is a lot of substandard housing out there that got tremendous damage.”
Hurto recommended people also donate to the fund created by the UUA and the UU Service Committee after Hurricane Harvey: half of those donations will be directed to groups that may not receive assistance from traditional relief and recovery agencies.
“We have a lot of immigrants in South Florida who don’t have green cards,” he said. “They will not show up at the Red Cross for fear they will get arrested.”
Despite challenges, many UU congregations in Florida expected to conduct their Sunday services on September 17 as normally as possible, whether they have electrical power or not.
“We’re planning on it,” Malone said of his Miami congregation. “I’ll bring up a little generator and we’ll hook up the P.A. It will be good for us to come together.”
Fisher said, “Whether we have power or not, we will have a service. At least we will have a chance for people to gather and share their stories and sing some songs.”
Hurto noted that the impulse to go on with the work of congregational life represents “a deep appreciation for people reaching out to support each other, to sustain each other. We’re reminded in this existential way what is always true: we need each other.”