“She is still standing.” These were the words of the president of Ave Maria University, James Towey, the afternoon of September 11 following the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Despite many trials, this statement has always been true for Our Lady and for the small university in Southwest Florida that bears her name. Six days earlier, on September 5, President Towey announced that AMU would be housing the Collier County Sherriff’s Office, as well as Fire and Rescue personnel and the Red Cross, in preparation for Hurricane Irma. The university became one of Florida’s central command centers for first responders and an official storm shelter for those in need.
Before the storm, about two-thirds of the student body left to be with family or to travel to safer places away from the storm, leaving about 350 students still on campus. These students made the short trip to the nearby town of Immokalee to help distribute food and water to the many impoverished families who live there and who would also be riding out Irma. Many students helped put up storm shutters in the town of Ave Maria for those who did not have them or who weren’t physical able to do so.
In the days leading up to the arrival of Hurricane Irma, AMU’s Golisano Fieldhouse was made into a temporary hurricane shelter for the poor residents of Immokalee—approximately 450 people took refuge there. Students gathered to sing for these families, play with the children, and care for the elderly. Dr. Roger Nutt, Vice President for Academic Affairs, told Catholic World Report that he saw students cleaning toilets in the fieldhouse and collecting trash. Students also voluntarily helped set up sand bags and clean up the other buildings on campus to help make way for those who would shelter there.
A small group of students cared for eight elderly Haitian women who were brought the university by the sherriff’s department. They were taken from an assisted living facility and were in need of special care. These women were not housed in Golisano Fieldhouse, but were taken in by individual students to live in the dorms with them so that they could receive the attention they needed.
The storm raged around Ave Maria Saturday September 9 and continued through Sunday, bringing strong winds and a tornado that twisted the metal football bleachers into an unrecognizable knot. Approximately 1,200 total people were sheltered by Ave Maria University’s buildings, including 450 Immokalee residents, 350 students, staff and their families, first responders, and others from the town of Ave Maria. Whenever there was a leak or doors needed to be barred, several people would jump to action grabbing buckets, mops, or other supplies to help. According to Nutt, even during the storm, everyone was willing to help and to make sure the damage to the buildings was minimized.
“Even when we were locked down during the storm, most people were working frantically to make sure, to the extent that they could, any damage that the university sustained was mitigated,” he said. “Even though the force of the storm was monstrous, it was very uplifting to me to see people willing to lend a hand.”
Once the storm passed, the AMU campus was left mostly intact, and every person was kept safe. Power, water pressure, Internet, and cell-phone coverage were out for several days, but students continued to have a positive attitude. The AMU kitchen staff continued to show up for work every day and to supply what food they had to students and staff, despite the difficulties presented by the lack of utilities. In fact, a kitchen-staff member was essential to getting the diesel fuel needed to run the school’s generator. Unbeknownst to anyone, this particular person was able to contact a family member working for a fuel company and obtain a thousand gallons fuel.
Now that the storm is over, power and water utilities are working again at Ave Maria, and there is limited cell-phone coverage. Efforts are being made to bring the university back up and running. Immokalee, on the other hand, is left devastated. It has no power or gas. Many of the homes, the majority of them being trailers or flimsily-constructed houses, have been destroyed or are in need of major repairs. Through the efforts of AMU’s Mother Teresa Project, students have continued to bring food and supplies to those in need following the storm. These students will continue to help rebuild Immokalee in the months ahead. This past Wednesday, Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio visited the AMU campus to meet with the students and to thank them for their efforts during the storm and in the aftermath.
Classes are set to resume on Monday, September 18. However, Dr. Nutt explained, everyone involved has been through a major ordeal.
“It’s psychologically draining,” he said. “I have encouraged the faculty to go slow this next week…we all need to be patient with each other these next few days.” Many students have not been able to contact their families until very recently due to limited access to the Internet and cell coverage, and some traveled home following the storm to recover mentally and physically.
What these students have been through and how they have reacted is a testament to Ave Maria University and its community, and to the fact that Lord is truly present even in the midst of disaster, Dr. Nutt reflected.
“I thought about how helpless we can be in the face of something like a natural disaster, but it’s usually when we realize our helplessness that we are able to be most open to God,” he said. “I actually thought of the servants of the Wedding at Cana—they needed to serve more wine, but all they had to work with was water. It was precisely to the helpless, emptyhanded servants that Our Lady spoke to and cared for…being helpless is often the means that God uses to touch us and use us in a deeper way.”
Those interested in donating to help AMU with needed repairs as the school returns to normal operations, can do so here.