In the fall of 1976, Wayne Neller entered my advanced biology class at St. Helena High School. During the year he rejoiced in studying the works of legendary naturalist John Muir. Wayne has Choctaw genes in his lineage and his Native American heritage resonated powerfully with Muir’s message.

Like Muir, he was also a bit of a daredevil and intrigued by the several near-death events that Muir experienced while trying to “get close to the heart of Mother Nature.”

After graduation, he followed a strange, circuitous path and answered the call to become an ordained Christian pastor. His latest calling is at an interdenominational church in Naples, Florida.

He has kept me abreast of his work, however, over the recent Labor Day weekend, neither of us could have known that he was headed for an event that would be a perfect physical, mental and spiritual storm that would test all that he had learned over the last 40 years.

It began when Tropical Storm Irma was spawned over the Atlantic Ocean and quickly morphed into a category 5 hurricane. As she approached the southern tip of Florida, meteorologists posted a bull’s-eye on the town of Naples.

When I saw the forecast, I immediately texted Wayne and said that I hoped he was “getting out of Dodge.” I didn’t expect an answer, however, about an hour later, he called to say:

“I have to talk fast because my phone might quit! We have decided to ride out Irma!”

I interrupted and blurted, “They’re predicting a “cat 4” storm to hit Naples with winds over 150 mph and possible storm surge of 15-20 feet.”

He laughed nervously and said, “I have carefully considered all of that and we are praying for guidance. However, we have about 30 members of our church whose homes may not survive the storm and they have nowhere to go. Our church is a retrofitted gym with concrete walls that are over 20 feet high. We think the building will withstand the wind and we hope to keep the water out. If not, we are prepared to move up to the second floor. If the water gets that high, we will climb up onto the roof.”

I thought “Oh—My—God” but didn’t say it. Instead I said, “We love you and will be praying for your safety.”

After the phone clicked off, I felt my heart-rate increase and tension rising. I quickly Googled Naples and found that its elevation was a shocking 3 feet. I had visions of a 20-foot storm-surge, backwashing the whole town of Naples out into the Gulf of Mexico. It caused me to wonder if that were the last conversation I would have with Wayne.

And then suddenly, I was surprised by joy. A huge smile crossed my face. “Of course,” I thought; “It’s David and Goliath and Wayne is in the perfect place at the perfect time.”

Even so, after we saw the radar images and heard the prediction that the storm would hit Naples about 3 a.m. on Sept. 10, I retired to a troubled night’s sleep, wondering what it would be like in a dark “gym/church” with wind howling at 150 mph.

On Monday, Sept. 11, Wayne’s Mom called and relayed the message that all had survived the ordeal and the only damage to the church was that the AC unit had been blown off of the roof. Some rain entered, but they were able to cope. I suspected that Wayne was minimizing the ordeal to avoid alarming his mama.

All that day, we anxiously watched the Weather Channel for news about the dreaded storm surge. Miraculously, it became nearly a non-event.

I waited until I learned that the electricity in Naples had been restored before I contacted Wayne. I asked him to give me a quick recap, and this was his response.

“Gathering 30 people at the last minute from mobile homes and other suspect housing and providing refuge from an angry Irma seemed like a good idea. Official shelters were full and we had, in effect, a fortress inside of a fortress to hide within. The gym went dark long before Irma’s eye came close. We imagined that the crashing sounds we heard were Spanish tiles being blown from the roof finding new homes within cars or the like. 30 men, women, children, 12 dogs and a guinea pig began to huddle more closely as the crashing sounds intensified. Suddenly our fortress within a fortress seemed somehow vulnerable, with the steel girded ceiling sounding much more like a flimsy tin roof. Thunder from the skies seemed as close as 40 feet overhead and lasted much longer than we expected.

“It became painfully obvious to those of us gathered that things were ripping, rolling, and slamming against other things just above our heads. Folks scattered to the sidewalls as it began to rain inside the gym. We scurried into another room when insulation began to fall in on us. It was the kindness of God that we did not know multiple 2,000-lb air conditioning units had been impacted above us and were trying to find refuge from Irma’s winds inside the gym. (140+ winds had snapped multiple steel cables and ripped one air conditioner in half).“In the end, the facility suffered considerable damage with the gym (worship center) and the Sanctuary unusable for a time. But the people of God survived and as Irma faded from sight the cross atop the building still stood tall.”

Irma’s damage was horrific, but I shudder to think of the potential destruction of a 20-foot storm surge, perhaps leveling much of Naples, Bonita Springs and other towns along Florida’s west coast.

Wayne’s wide-awake-nightmare event conjured up a déjà vu moment. In spite of paying meticulous attention to Yosemite weather charts (clear skies) I spent a night hunkered down with 30 high school students, during a lightning/hailstorm, on top of Yosemite’s famous Half Dome. Our lives were in peril and it was absolutely horrifying. Ergo: in an extraordinarily eerie coincidence, Wayne and I traveled farther into the Country of Terror than we would have ever chosen, and thankfully, by the Grace of God, survived to tell our stories.

Lowell H. Young lives in St. Helena and is author of “Biodesign Out for a Walk.”

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