As of Saturday morning, forecasts suggest that Hurricane Irma will devastate Florida’s west coast, with wind and storm surge from the Florida Keys through Naples and Fort Myers and up the coast to Tampa.
“In the Florida Keys, it is a full-scale hurricane emergency,” Bryan Norcross, The Weather Channel’s hurricane specialist, posted to Facebook. “Key West is probably going to get its worst storm in modern history, and perhaps ever.”
The National Weather Service office in Key West issued a warning Saturday using very strong language: “This is as real as it gets. Nowhere in the Keys is safe….. Catastrophic, life-threatening wind and storm surge impacts are expected in the Florida Keys Saturday night and Sunday.”
Father John Baker, pastor of the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, is one of several people in the Keys disobeying mandatory evacuation orders. He and another priest at the parish were staying “to be present” with those who are remaining on the island, he told Catholic News Service. Father Baker displayed a sense of calm and trust. It helps to know that Key West has never experienced the full force of a storm since a grotto dedicated to hurricane protection was built at the parish.
The grotto, named Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine, was dedicated in 1922. It was the brainchild of Sister Louise Gabriel, who predicted that the area would be protected from the full fury of any hurricane passing through, as long as the shrine remained.
As the basilica’s website explains, the grotto was dedicated on Ascension Thursday in 1922, the 25th anniversary of Sister Louis Gabriel’s entrance into the religious profession of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Sister Gabriel had survived three major storms since her arrival in Key West on August 25, 1897, just three weeks after taking her vows. Because of the devastation and heartache she had witnessed as a result of these storms, she had a deep desire to keep Key West and its residents safe from future storms.
The basilica itself, built in 1904, has never been damaged by a hurricane. It’s a few blocks away from the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum.
Father Baker said the grotto, with statues of the Mother of God and St. Bernadette, attracts both Catholics and non-Catholics and symbolizes people’s faith “that they can get through” a storm such as Irma.
“You have to get through it with a kind of sanity and peace, knowing God is with you,” he said.
Irma made landfall in Cuba Friday evening as a Category 5 hurricane. The storm was downgraded to Category 3 Saturday morning, with winds of 125 miles per hour, but was expected to strengthen again over Florida. At least 25 people were confirmed dead by Saturday morning in areas affected by the storm.