Hurricane Ian, one of the strongest ever to make landfall in the United States, struck western Florida as a Category 4 storm on Wednesday night, causing widespread damage and flooding.
More than 2 million remain without power in the state and law enforcement in one hard-hit county estimated that fatalities could be “in the hundreds,” though confirmed deaths as of Friday morning stand at 21 across Florida and Cuba.
President Joe Biden, who said Thursday that Ian could be “one of the deadliest hurricanes in Florida history,” has declared both a state of emergency as well as a public health emergency—even as the government continues to respond to damage caused by Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico last week. Florida governor Ron DeSantis has also declared a state of emergency for the entire state.
Amid the ongoing flooding threats this week, various churches and schools have shut down operations through at least Friday, most notably in the regions surrounding Tampa and Orlando—the latter being the seat of one of the Blackest dioceses in the country.
“Many in the most impacted areas have lost everything,” reads a post from the Diocese of St. Petersburg, located in the area where Ian first struck.
St Joseph Catholic Church, a Black parish in St. Petersburg that celebrated its centennial last weekend, was one property that did not lose power during the storm. It has since served as a shelter for some who were unable to evacuate, according to Fr Stephan Brown, SVD, the church’s pastor.
St Peter Claver Church in Tampa, another Divine Word parish in the local Black community, reshared the diocese's call for prayer earlier this week. No damages have been reported from either church.
Fr Leo Hodges of St Andrew Catholic Church in Orlando—the diocese’s only Black parish—noted online that the property will remain closed through Friday as a precaution, including the cancelation of Masses.
“Please be safe as we weather this storm,” he told the community on Tuesday.
The remnants of Ian are expected to bring heavy rain along the Eastern Seaboard for the next several days, and the restrengthened storm is expected to make landfall in South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane on Friday afternoon.
The dioceses of Charleston and Charlotte are in the path of the storm as of Friday morning.
Relief efforts have already begun in earnest for Florida, many areas of which are still assessing damage and waiting for power to be restored. Food and water shortages have also become a major concern, including for local relief organizations.
Catholic Charities St. Petersburg, which operates multiple homeless shelters in the region, has said that two of its facilities lost power, requiring them to send out a call for donations.
“We have no food, no power and no running water at Pinellas Hope,” they said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, dioceses across the country have sent messages of solidarity with those affected by Ian, including from the New York State Catholic Conference on Wednesday afternoon, which includes among its constituents Auxiliary Bishop Joseph A. Espaillat of New York.
The organization shared a video message from Bishop Gregory Parkes of St. Petersburg, consisting of a prayer for protection from the storm.
The Archdiocese of Washington, headed by the nation’s Black cardinal in Wilton Gregory, has announced it will take up a special collection in all of its churches this weekend in view of Hurricanes Ian and Fiona.
“[It] will be used to assist the recovery efforts from these and other natural disasters, especially for the affected areas in Florida and southeast U.S. in addition to Puerto Rico,” wrote ADW chancellor Terence J. Farrell on Thursday.
Those interested in financially supporting relief efforts in the aftermath of the storm can donate to Catholic Charities St. Petersburg, the Diocese of St. Petersburg Disaster Relief Fund, and the Catholic Foundation of Central Florida’s Florida Relief Fund for Hurricane Ian.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).