Not long after satellite photos showed a mushrooming area of tropical turbulence pushing west from Africa, Florida TV weather reporters began fretting this might be the long-feared “big one.”
They were right. This hurricane was almighty, the weatherman warned, naming the shrieking winds “Irma.” Reaching the zenith on the hurricane scale: Category 5, Irma’s fury smashed the Bahamas, disintegrated Barbuda and then eyed Cuba.
First responders began preparing. And among them, the Scientology Volunteer Ministers (VMs) unpacking their yellow shirts for another disaster relief mission, with an eye on television, Irma, whose sustaining winds of 185 mph made it one of the strongest hurricanes ever tracked in the Atlantic. Then, when Irma made a sudden turn toward Florida the VMs fanned out across Clearwater, with plywood, hammers, saws, supplies and everything they needed for what was to be done.
Volunteer Ministers working in downtown Clearwater, were already nailing up plywood to protect business storefronts along Cleveland Street. Some 1,500 hours were spent hammering 750 sheets of plywood over 56 storefronts overnight.
Other VMs scoured downtown for objects that blustery winds might convert into boomerangs, spears or bludgeons of destruction. All potentially windblown objects found were secured, including Clearwater’s signature dolphin art statues.
As the storm hit Naples, the VMs consulted with Florida Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), and sent 70 VMs to shelters in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas delivering water, hygiene kits and food.
During an eerie calm before the storm, the banging and moving and yelling and running suddenly stopped. As darkness fell and the streetlights flickered on and off, the VMs rested. But not for long.
Officials, who had ordered “evacuation” and “shelter” when they saw what was happening in the Caribbean, got serious. Suddenly there came the National Guard to support local law enforcement to make sure. The Pinellas Sheriff announced nobody would be arrested for violating the legal orders, but when the storm hit, there would be no first responders on the street to rescue them either. Florida’s entire coast line was evacuated before the storm ever left Cuba.
Within 24 hours four buildings of the Church of Scientology’s downtown campus were turned into shelters to house 2,500 local parishioners, their families and friends who resided in evacuation zones and another 2,500 staff. Thousands of sleeping bags and cots were shipped in overnight.
Out on the now-windy streets, every D battery for miles was sold out and gas disappeared, along with ice and water and propane and lighters and solar chargers. Meanwhile, Walmart and Winn Dixie parking lots were empty. Plastic bags covered gas pumps as if to say, “Don’t even try.”
Still, out-of-town suppliers were found to add additional generators to the 15 existing to support the Church shelters in the event of power outage. Then 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel appeared as if out of nowhere to top off existing tanks as well as extra supply tanks.
Add to this boats, life jackets, and rain suits that were stocked up to prepare for the worst.
Another team of staff and volunteers filled 2,000 sandbags and built 1,000 linear feet of a hurricane barrier sea wall system with a million pounds of sand to protect all the low-lying Church buildings which faced Clearwater Bay.
On the Saturday before Hurricane Irma roared into town, a safety net had been fully prepared and drawn up around the Church’s campus, with the Volunteer Ministers command post hunkered down, devising their plan of attack for as soon as the storm passed.