WAUCHULA, Fla. (CNS) — The 7-year-old boy who sat with his family in the cafeteria at Hardee Junior High School was too shy to say his name.

He smiled as he sipped the straw in his can of Coke Zero, but he didn’t eat much of the hot meal in front of him – a small piece of chicken, rice and beans.

In front of his food tray were two plastic figures – one of a Despicable Me Minion and the other of Luigi, one half of the plumber duo from Super Mario Bros.

The boy who wouldn’t share his name was more than happy to talk about everything he knows about Luigi, Mario, Princess Peach, and seamlessly chain himself into a different video game fandom involving Sonic, Knuckles , Shadows, Miles and Dr. Eggman.

As he was talking about this, his mother, a 38-year-old Mexican immigrant, spoke of something much more disturbing. On September 27, the family – mother, father and three sons, aged 15, 7 and 6 – were ordered to evacuate their seven-year-old Zolfo Springs home – the only home the two youngest boys have known.

The Peace River in Wauchula, Florida is seen October 2, 2022. After Hurricane Ian made landfall September 28 and moved through the area September 29, it dumped rain on the already saturated ground in Hardee County leaving parts of the area with 3 feet of standing water. (CNS Photo/David Gonzalez, Florida Catholic)

Although located in an inland county in south-central Florida, Hurricane Ian was expected to pass through the area and the Peace River was getting high, so they sought refuge at Hardee Junior High School.

When they returned the day after the storm, the property where they lived was overtaken by the Peace River. The mother shows a video where thigh-deep waters were flowing rapidly over the property where several houses were destroyed.

“Of course, I’m sad, I’m nervous, I’m scared. Our house is gone,” she said in Spanish. “We are here (at the shelter) and I am grateful, but it is difficult.”

And she said that while her three sons did their best, they felt the sadness and the weight of the loss. “At night they say they want to go home, but we can’t go home.”

Seated at the table with her was Sister Gema Ruiz, director of religious education at St. Michael’s Parish in Wauchula. She delivered hot food to the shelter and to monitor the displaced residents she knows.

The family are parishioners of St. Michael, and seated at an adjacent table was a Wauchula resident familiar to Sister Ruiz.

David is in his 60s and he arrived at the shelter with his wife after weathering the storm in the early morning hours of September 29. He tried to save as much as he could overnight, collecting gallon after gallon of water. which would infiltrate the trailer.

When the sun rose, he thought the worst was over. After a sleepless night, he took a nap thinking that some of the water might calm down in the afternoon.

Instead, it got much worse.

Officers came and told the couple they had to leave for their own safety. They had 10 minutes to say goodbye to the place they’ve called home for 25 years.

“I woke up and when I got up I was knee deep in water,” he recalls. “Then we got out and there was 4 feet of water in the yard.”

A collapsed road under this truck is a familiar scene on a street in the neighborhood of Wauchula, Florida, Oct. 2, 2022. (CNS Photo/David Gonzalez, Florida Catholic)

David had survived Hurricane Charley in 2004 in this trailer, but what made Ian different was the amount of water. A few days before Ian, the area had been saturated with rain. As David said, “the Peace River was so high before the storm,” and Ian made sure the river “flooded quickly.”

“My 1969 trailer was built out of nickel alloy and steel, a really strong material. Charley weathered OK. I lost two vehicles and a lawn mower,” David continued, his voice trailing off, before to look at Sister Ruiz and add with a laugh, “And I just had this water system installed. Guess it doesn’t matter now.”

“It’s important, and we’ll get through this together,” said Sister Ruiz, a Sister Servant of the Virgin of Matará. “Now tell me, was your wife able to get her prescription at Wal-Mart?” »

The young boy and his family and David and his wife represent the faces of those affected by Hurricane Ian.

The late September storm hit the southwest coast of Florida, specifically Lee and Collier counties as a Category 4 hurricane. It destroyed Sanibel Island Parish and tore through parts of Fort Myers, Cape Coral, among others. Then it headed inland, where it wreaked havoc in small working-class, working-class towns such as Wauchula, Zolfo Springs, and Arcadia.

But Sister Ruiz and Sheryl Mosley, principal of Hardee Junior High, are among those making sure victims understand they have support.

Mosley said when the county superintendent closed the school to prepare for the storm, his staff — from custodians to cafeteria workers, administrators to educators — volunteered to prepare the campus as shelter, feed and house those in need.

Some 1,200 people sought refuge there, including 16 families who lost their homes during the storm due to a fire at a local apartment complex.

Many left to return home, but some of the families whose homes were destroyed remained at the shelter. Mosley and a team of volunteers stayed with them.

“I’m so proud of my staff,” said Mosley, who had only spent a few hours at home since the shelter was prepared. “We do this because we love these families.”

In particular, she spoke of the large Central American immigrant population now established in the Hardee County community.

She said they are important to the community and was visibly sad because she knew many of those who had lost their homes would have to leave Wauchula to find a place to live.

“They are hard working parents and their children are so grateful. They value education,” Mosley told Florida Catholic. “We are getting closer to these families. They trust us. Parents trust us and we make sure to help them in any way we can.

But with the reopening of the school the week of October 3, more than a dozen families had to be relocated to another shelter.

While visiting displaced families at the college, Sister Ruiz also spoke with a Red Cross representative and offered to prepare hot meals for the families as they moved to the next shelter. But she needed to know where the shelter was.

With this information in hand, Sister Ruiz returned to St. Michael in time for the distribution of a hot meal in the field.

Although they had no electricity, parish volunteers used a propane stove and oven, outdoor grills and battery-operated lanterns to cook a hot meal each day after the hurricane.

Outside, large pots of pasta boiled while lasagna cooked in the parish hall kitchen.

“This is the first day we have running water,” Sister Ruiz said happily. Before that, they used water donated by local agencies. The parish has served hot meals to 420 to 250 residents every day since the hurricane. He also opened a pantry for residents.

A familiar site formed along the sidewalk in front of the St. Michael’s Church building as residents lined up to gather meals for themselves and family members.

They waited patiently as volunteers lined up trays of food on three long tables. Wearing gloves, they provided the finishing touches as Father Juan Lorenzo said in Spanish: “Are we ready to serve? OKAY. In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The priest asked for God’s blessing on the food, those who came to eat and the volunteers who, although many of them also had no electricity at home, took the time to feed their neighbors . Then the line of people approached.

While the waters of the Peace River will eventually subside, the aftermath of Hurricane Ian will be long lasting.

But as Sister Ruiz said, the Catholic Church will accompany those in need and offer help.


Gonzalez is on the staff of Florida Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Orlando and three other Florida dioceses.

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Copyright © 2022 Catholic News Service/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

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