Hurricane Ian, which caused fatalities and damage in Cuba and the southeast United States in late September, was the deadliest hurricane to strike the state of Florida since 1935. In total, the storm caused at least 137 fatalities, including 126 in Florida. Ian followed close on the heels of Hurricane Fiona, which caused enormous damage when it hit Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic Sept. 18-19 and eastern Canada on Sept. 24.
In the aftermath of these natural disasters, Knights of Columbus from the Caribbean to Newfoundland organized efforts to help with cleanup and distribution of essential supplies. Financial support also came from the Knights of Columbus Disaster Relief Fund, which contributed almost $60,000 in funds and gift cards to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and more than CA$70,000 to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. In addition, $50,000, plus $50,000 in gift cards, went to Florida for Hurricane Ian relief work.
In Florida, “Fort Myers was probably the hardest-hit area,” said Greg Sutter, state council disaster response chairman and grand knight of Sacred Heart Council 8012 in Belleview. “There are still people that they’re trying to dig out and find. The devastation is unbelievable.”
Fort Myers was the destination for a group of Knights from St. Katharine Drexel Council 14212 in Weston just a few days after the storm. On Oct. 2, the Knights packed up a van with food, water and more, and drove two hours across the state to help where they could. With permission from the owners, they set up a tent at a closed gas station on a busy road and began handing out everything they had.
Many of the people who stopped for a meal were in the process of retrieving what they could find from the remains of their homes.
“There were people crying,” said Manuel Zhindon, a member of Council 14212. “People were asking, ‘How come you are coming from so far to help us?’”
Within three hours, the council had given away 300 meals, 300 gallon jugs of water, 700 loaves of bread and pastries, and 250 rosaries.
A few days later, another group of Knights worked with Catholic Charities to distribute food and other essential supplies at St. Leo Catholic Church in Bonita Springs, about 20 miles south of Fort Myers.
“They’ve got trucks [of food] coming in three days a week, so we help unload the trucks and store it,” Sutter said. “Every day they have people stopping by to pick up food.”
“People yesterday were lined up a quarter of a mile down the road,” said John Shelton, disaster relief coordinator for the Diocese of Venice and a member of St. Agnes Council 14202 in Naples. “Half of this community doesn’t have a lot anyway. So now they have none.”
“Whatever we can get, we’re giving out,” he continued. “We’ll do whatever we have to do.”
On Oct. 8, more Knights gathered at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Port Charlotte, north of Fort Myers, to assist at the parish distribution center and lend a hand — or a chainsaw — to cleanup efforts. Brian Lawandus, a member of Barney Gonyea Council 7109 in Safety Harbor, was one of the volunteers.
“There’s a lot of power still out,” he said. “A lot of flooding still going on. We’re currently here trying to supply food and water and clothing and baby supplies to the community. People are coming down the street from the community, from the parish and from the school to get anything that they could possibly need.”
In distribution stations setup across Florida in some of the hardest-hit communities, Knights distributed bottled water, hot meals, canned goods, clothing, blankets and other essentials. Many Knights also volunteered time and labor to clear branches and fallen trees from private properties and public spaces.
For Brian Regan, member of St. John the Evangelist Council 15007 in Pensacola, providing supplies and service to the community in a time of need is an important part of his identity. “For me as a Knight, I’m called to serve in the most humble and caring way that I can,” he said. “Serving the poor, serving people who have been devastated by such a storm, that’s how we are called by Christ. The work that we do here is what the Knights of Columbus is all about.”