NAPLES, Fla. — In the seven days since Hurricane Irma blasted southern Florida with historic force, the LDS Church’s meetinghouse in northeast Naples has served as a spiritual sanctuary, a supply storehouse and a staging area for volunteers helping with disaster recovery.
And for some 45 Latter-day Saints, the meetinghouse — known as the Golden Gate building and named for the sprawling, overambitious community development created out of swampland a half-century ago — served as a safe haven, a shelter in which to ride out the record-setting storm. Most of them stayed from the Sept. 9 eve of Irma’s arrival through Monday, the morning after.
And in the past week, the Golden Gate meetinghouse has gone from a house of survival to a house of service, doubling as one of a number of staging areas operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the distribution of relief supplies and the gathering of volunteer workers donning the yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” T-shirts and vests.
Other meetinghouses-turned-staging-centers in post-hurricane efforts this week stretch from Jacksonville in northeast Florida south to Miami, the latter helping to focus efforts on the Florida Keys, where a reported 65 percent of structures were not just damaged but destroyed.
Saturday afternoon, the Golden Gate building also hosted President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor of the LDS Church’s First Presidency, who is visiting areas left in Irma’s devastating wake. Friday he was in Puerto Rico and St. Thomas; he began a weekend of Florida visits by stopping at the Naples meetinghouse, visiting a neighborhood work project and then returning for a 45-minute devotional with 350 volunteer workers before continuing on to Jacksonville for a late work-site visit in an area suffering through historic flooding.
He was joined by Elder Jörg Klebingat of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Seventy and Bishop Dean M. Davies, first counselor in the church's Presiding Bishopric.
“I’m impressed both with the good spirit here as well as with the optimism,” President Eyring said in front of a Naples home where several dozen volunteers sported Helping Hands T-shirts — as did President Eyring — while hauling downed limbs and cutting away toppled and uprooted trees along rain-soaked grounds.
“I’m proud to be wearing the yellow shirt — to be part of this wonderful group of people,” he said as he walked among volunteers to greet them and express appreciation.
President Eyring started his Naples visit at the meetinghouse staging center, seeing where several thousand work orders were being gathered, processed and distributed to available volunteers. Saturday morning alone saw some 55 crews departing the Golden Gate meetinghouse, with an average of 10 volunteers per crew resulting in a morning workforce of nearly 600 going to help Naples church members and their neighbors in caring for homes and clearing yards of debris.
He also spent time visiting with volunteers at the meetinghouse who were overseeing the distribution of food and water, the filling out of food orders and the helping of neighbors and others in the community who heard word of the available assistance.
While the staging center is powered by such volunteer efforts, the meetinghouse is powered by a handful of generators for the few lights, fans and communications systems — as it has been for a muggy, humid week of temperatures in the high 80s since Irma hit.
Those who weathered the storm at the Golden Gate building are part of the Bahia Ward, Naples’ 400-member Spanish-speaking congregation of the LDS Church.
With about a week’s notice of the advancing hurricane, Bishop Ronald Amat worked with Bahia Ward leaders to create an emergency plan — to be in contact with and to care for the members.
“The members of our ward are very poor with limited means – they don’t have great capacity,” Amat said in his native Spanish of his congregation’s minimal financial and physical resources, including weather-safe homes.
And since most are undocumented, they were hesitant to leave their neighborhoods and city, he said, unlike the estimated 6.5 million Floridians who evacuated ahead of Irma’s arrival.
The bishop received permission from Fort Myers Florida Stake President Joseph Lindsay to accommodate members at the three-ward Golden Gate meetinghouse during the hurricane if no other community shelters were available.
So, after a brief, pre-hurricane sacrament service last Sunday morning, the shelter-seeking members remained at the meetinghouse, which eventually lost power during the intense winds. As of late Friday night, an estimated 1.5 million people were still without power — including the Golden Gate meetinghouse — with some parts of Naples not expected to have electricity restored until as late as next Friday.
Lindsay and his family and more than 30 Mormon missionaries serving in the area were hunkered down last Sunday in another LDS Church meetinghouse in Bonita Springs, 15 miles north of Naples.
“We were in contact always with the members, whether they came to the meetinghouse or not. It was a blessing that we were in touch with each other,” said Amat. “It was organized and we were well cared for — all was in order and everything was excellent.”
No one in the congregation suffered any major injury, and only one family has a home completely uninhabitable, with others committing to making the necessary restorations.
“They think they can make the repairs — we’re going to do it. We can fix it,” Amat said, adding “I’m always worried for the members but, thanks to God, I’m happy because the members are safe and happy."
In the Naples building, Bishop Amat’s meetinghouse office became a command center for local leaders staying on location night and day. The cultural hall doubled as a makeshift storehouse for water and food — much of it brought in on a semitrailer shipment from the church’s regional storehouse in Atlanta, but some dropped off by random people.
A Primary room housed the dozens of chainsaws, extra chains and oil — some donated by manufacturer Husqvarna that were also distributed to other Mormon Helping Hands staging centers across the state. The chainsaws were, as volunteers explained Saturday, an answer to prayers.
As post-hurricane relief efforts started, LDS leaders at the staging center recognized a desperate need for chainsaws, dropping to their knees in prayerful supplication. Within 15 minutes, unexpected arrangements were made by a member with a local home-improvement store that had just received a large shipment of chainsaws, with the major Husqvarna donation coming later as an added blessing to aid workers.
While Lindsay focused on the care of his Fort Myers Florida Stake members and the coordination of organizations under his stewardship, President Robert W. Howell of the Brandon Florida Stake, just south of Tampa, came to oversee the storehouse-type operations from Golden Gate meetinghouse.
Irma spent nearly a week amassing in the Atlantic Ocean, one of the most powerful Category 5 hurricanes on record with its 185-mph winds. It plowed through the Caribbean and then reached landfall in Florida on Sept. 10, having dropped to a Category 4 level.
The storm was wide enough to cover the entire Florida peninsula, with the eye passing just north of Naples. It slowly tapered off to be a tropical depression, but still inundated Jacksonville and surrounding region with historic rains.
Irma is blamed for nearly 40 deaths, including eight elderly individuals who suffered in deadly heat in a care center without power and several recent deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning from gas generators being in residential areas with poor ventilation.
Missionaries from the Florida Tampa and Florida Fort Lauderdale missions joined volunteers in helping with storehouse supplies at the meetinghouse, assisting individuals seeking food and going out in work groups to the residential areas.
"There are a lot of softened hearts," President Kendall J. Cooper said of the interactions missionaries are having in the hurricane-hit areas of Florida. "It's humbling what something like this does to people."
Many of the volunteers on work projects in the Naples area Saturday morning returned to the Golden Gate meetinghouse early afternoon, squeezing into the chapel with others who took refuge from relief efforts to listen to a brief devotional message from President Eyring.
Latter-day Saints will be gathering again Sunday morning at the Golden Gate meetinghouse – the locals joining work groups coming in from out of the area to spend the Sabbath assisting their fellow man. The day is to start with an early morning sacrament service at the church.
“Our goal is to meet at 6 a.m.,” said Howell, “and be out in the field by 7 a.m.”