For more than a quarter century Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center in Venice and the meandering waters of the Myakka River existed in harmony. That symbiotic relationship was upturned when Hurricane Ian brought high winds, epic rains, and the Myakka River to the door.
The result is that the waters rose far above record levels and water entered every building on the property. All is not lost, as all buildings are intact, and the property had full power by Oct. 10. While a great deal of work is required to get the retreat center fully functioning, efforts have already begun to make that happen.
OLPH Director, Father Mark Yavarone, Oblate of the Virgin Mary, first inspected the property by kayak on Sept. 29, 2022, the day after the hurricane. At that time, the waters had risen to cover the entire property. The waters were as high as they had ever been in comparison to all previous flooding events since OLPH was founded in 1988. Father noted he was shocked to see the water so high, unaware that the menacing river was not done rising.
Sadly, the river crested on Oct. 2, 2 ½ feet above the record, and the result was at least 18-24 inches of water getting into all the buildings on the property. It wasn’t until Oct. 10, 12 days after the hurricane, that the waters had receded enough to examine the damage in person.
“We are still evaluating the damage,” Father Yavarone said on Oct. 11. “We had just completely replaced the flooring in every building and were doing other upgrades. That is all lost. But we will be back. Repairs will take place and OLPH will reopen as soon as possible.”
Denise Riley, OLPH Business Manager, said it was hard to see the mold and the muck from the river covering everything that was green on the property. Trees fell and were being cleared as soon as the property was accessible, but the water damage will take time to fix.
“The Diocese is helping us get crews in here to dry out everything and start that process of coming back,” Riley said. “There are files that were lost and things that are sad to see damaged, but you have to go on.”
Diocesan Director of Building and Construction Joe Rego said it was difficult to stay away from the retreat center until the waters receded.
“We knew damage was taking place but the site was inaccessible for more than a week. We got out there as soon as the road opened,” Rego said. “There is extensive damage to the infrastructure that needs to be repaired or replaced. The length of time from when the water first came into the buildings and the inability to access the property made things worse. We have teams of people who are working to get everything cleaned up and then we can start the repairs.”
The cleanup is going to take time as the waters rose so high that there are watermarks on every building, every wall, every piece of furniture, and even on the trees and bushes. A black sludge, the stirred-up remnants of the swollen Myakka River, covered everything from the ground level up. The standing water, mold and rotting vegetation left behind by the storm and river created a terrible smell that brought a gloom to the property.
In a message posted on the OLPH website on Oct. 2, Father Yavarone shared the story of St. Margaret D’Youville, who worked tirelessly to build a hospital to care for the sick only to have it burn to the ground shortly after it was completed.
Just as St. Margaret, the people who have a connection to OLPH may wonder “Why would God want us to spend so much time and effort beautifying the grounds and the interior of the buildings if the mother of all hurricanes was on its way? Or were such efforts merely our ideas and not God’s will?” Father wrote. “How easily we forget that we are at the hands of a provident God who kept us safe in the midst of one of the many tragedies that must befall the world.”
Father wrote those words before the water receded and while he was staying at San Pedro Parish in North Port, where hundreds of homes were flooded and many stranded by the same flood waters that brought devastation to the retreat center. He noted that as he wrote his message, he looked out the window, witnessing hundreds of families coming to be helped by Catholic Charities, FEMA, and others. “It will be a busy Sunday for our priests and lay people as we try to be the hands and hearts of our provident God. His Grace will not be lacking.”
God’s grace is not lacking, as crews cleared away debris, the first important step in the recovery process. While the property is still covered in muck, bald eagles, osprey, herons, ibis, and alligators were seen in abundance.
Just as nature has rebounded quickly, so too will the retreat center. OLPH will return to its previously glory, in harmony with the Myakka River once again.