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ORLANDO | James and Phyllis Masteller weathered many hurricanes in their more than 80 years of life, but none like Hurricane Ian.

Living in Naples Land Yacht Harbor, close to a canal and just one mile from the coast, the couple planned to evacuate because of heavy winds set to slice right through the city.

The Marstellers made reservations at a hotel further inland, but when they arrived, the room was no longer available. So, they returned to their senior living, mobile home community, and prepared to ride out the storm.

On the eve of her birthday, Phyllis watched as winds tore apart carports and sent debris flying through the air. They lost power and grabbed their flashlights. By mid-morning, water began rushing down the street.

“It was like rapids coming right down Pier A,” James said. “And it kept getting higher and higher because of the storm surge.”

Rising quickly, the water reached their porch. They stood in the dining room with water up to their knees. “Every room had four feet of water,” James added.

When Phyllis looked out the window, she saw all of the new fencing come down. “Everything from underneath the house came out,” she said. “I was terrified. We’ve gone through hurricanes, but this was the worst.”

Remembering the catastrophic event, she and James still marvel at how they made it through. The next day, the two ventured outside. The neighborhood was in shambles. Boats in yards, cars underwater, ravaged homes knocked out of place.

Phyllis struggled with her cane and the smell that rose from the soaked carpet. To their surprise, some friends came and removed the moldy mess while wearing masks. The couple threw away most of their belongings and put the rest outside to dry.

Night approached. They made a plan to stay on the porch. A neighbor stopped and convinced them to take refuge. It wasn’t safe to stay. Their neighbor took them to a family who put them up for three days.

“The gates weren’t closed, and we had a lot of vandalism in the park,” Phyllis recalled.

The Marstellers then called their daughter, Peggy, who came with her husband. They took James and Phyllis back to their house to retrieve what they could.

“It was bad,” Phyllis recalled. “The hardest thing was just to look at it.”

James said the hardest part about leaving was having to say farewell to his home. He inherited it from his parents who lived there for almost 25 years. He and Phyllis then lived there for another 23.

“There were a lot of good memories there,” he said with an air of nostalgia.

The couple traveled to Orlando in January 2023 and struggled to find FEMA authorized hotels and proper payment.

Desperate they would not meet their rent due that week, they walked nearby to St. Joseph Parish to ask for help.

Upon arriving, they accidentally walked into the temporary Catholic Charities of Central Florida office instead of the parish office.

“It was a complete miracle,” said Paulina Palacio, administrative assistant for the Culture of Life Office. She called it “una diosidencia” — a God wink. Formerly in client services, she immediately recognized their distress. She called fellow employee Jennifer Molinares from the Community Housing Development Organization ministry at Catholic Charities. They provided water and snacks while Phyllis anxiously told them all they’d been through without barely taking a breath.

“James would look at me and explain how she’d been taking care of the house for years. Even in this sad situation, they were so reliant on each other,” Palacio said.

Once they calmed down, Molinares was able to reach the director of Family Stability Program while Palacio gathered documents, photos and other things that would help caseworkers Shanice Dewsbury and Anita Capetillo on their case.

“The takeaway was the blessing of us undergoing renovation, kickstarted that vision of different satellite offices across the diocese – being in the right place at the right time,” Palacio said.

“Without Catholic Charities we would probably be on the street,” James said.

Phyllis recalled Dewsbury and Capetillo took them everywhere as they had no transportation. Catholic Charities helped them work out their issues with FEMA using photos Phyllis provided of their destroyed home.

“I knew that the Marstellers could not thrive in their current environment,” Dewsbury said. “I was determined to go the extra mile to ensure their needs were met. I personally reached out to senior communities in Orlando.”

Thanks to her persistence, the couple moved into The Plymouth Apartments, a senior living community, six months after the nightmare began.

Sitting on the front porch of The Plymouth, where the Marstellers now spend most of their time, James flashed his broad smile. “We love it here,” he exclaimed. “We love the sun, the fresh air. It’s wonderful.”

Fewer than one tenth of the 350 homes in Naples Land Yacht Harbor survived and still had to be demolished. Some are rebuilding, but most have moved away. The Marstellers sold their home. The new owners found several family photos and sent them to them.

“When you try to pick up and start all over again and try to find a place to live, call your own, it’s hard,” Phyllis said. But now with everything they need within walking distance, the couple finally feels settled. They’ve already made many friends, including several at Catholic Charities.

“Catholic Charities was wonderful,” James kept repeating. “We love it here.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, April 21, 2023