Hurricane Wilma leaves Miami archdiocesan schools, offices closed

By Ana Rodriguez-Soto
Catholic News Service

MIAMI (CNS) -- Despite widespread wind damage to parishes and schools in all three counties it covers, the Archdiocese of Miami came through Hurricane Wilma in relatively good shape.

The Category 3 storm left no corner of the archdiocese untouched as it blew through the Florida Keys and Miami-Dade and Broward counties Oct. 24, toppling thousands of trees, causing widespread damage to roofs and knocking out power to nearly all the residents of southern Florida.

Nevertheless, "we held up pretty well," said Bob Brown, director of the archdiocese's Building Commission.

One saving grace: The storm did not bring a lot of rainfall with it, and was followed by a cold front that brought clear skies, unseasonably cool temperatures and low humidity to the area.

"This is God's favorite time of the year in terms of weather," said Brown, noting that the lack of rain and humidity gives parishes a window of time in which to dry out the damaged areas. "We're extremely lucky that there's no water coming in."

The Pastoral Center, where the archdiocese's main offices are located, was to remain closed until electrical power was restored to the Miami Shores neighborhood where the building is located.

Classes were canceled until at least Oct. 31 in all of the archdiocese's elementary and secondary schools, as well as public schools in all three counties. Schools in Key West had closed Oct. 19 in anticipation of Wilma's arrival and the evacuation orders issued by county officials.

"Most of the (archdiocesan) schools will be able to open once we get power back," Brown told The Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Miami Archdiocese.

The biggest obstacle to reopening was not damage from the hurricane but the widespread power outages and piles of debris left by the winds. The vast majority of traffic lights were not operational in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Uprooted trees blocked roads in nearly all communities.

The immediate priority was drying out and patching up the areas where roof tiles, shingles and tar paper had blown away, leaving the plywood exposed. More permanent repairs would have to wait.

"There's a lot of roof damage, from minor to extensive. But it requires a lot of roofers to do all this work, so it's going to take some time," Brown said.

Although communication with the parishes was difficult because of electrical outages and cell phones that could not be recharged, Brown said most of the damage seemed to be limited to downed trees and damaged roofs.

By Oct. 26, the most serious structural damage that he had seen was a "gaping hole," about 20 feet by 40 feet, in the roof of the gymnasium of St. Patrick School in Miami Beach.

"You can see straight into the sky," said Brown. A portion of the gym floor also was damaged.

The church and rectory of St. Peter Parish in Big Pine Key were temporarily underwater as a result of storm-surge flooding that shut down the famed Overseas Highway between mile markers 50 and 60. A day after the storm, the floodwaters had receded and the church's buildings were drying out.

La Salle High School, located next to Biscayne Bay, sustained roof damage for the second time this year. In August, Hurricane Katrina blew the roof off three of the school's buildings. Hurricane Wilma blew off the roofs of the two remaining buildings.

Also reporting roof damage were St. Jerome in Fort Lauderdale, St. Stephen in Hollywood, Little Flower in Hollywood, St. Timothy in Miami and St. John Vianney Seminary in Miami, which lost the copper on the mansard roof of its library.

Some said the damage caused by Wilma was worse than that caused by Andrew, which hit Miami-Dade County exactly 13 years and two months before Wilma. While Andrew, a Category 5 storm, caused massive damage to a small geographical area, Wilma caused serious damage to a wide swath of the state, from Naples, where it entered, to Jupiter, where it exited six hours later.

Brown said it was too early to estimate the financial impact this unprecedented 21st storm of the 2005 hurricane season would have on the archdiocese, which is self-insured up to a point. Beyond that coverage, private carriers pick up the costs.

Brown noted that Katrina, which was a relatively "benign" Category 1 storm when it hit the archdiocese, caused $2 million in roof damage to a single parish.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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