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As many flee south Florida ahead of Irma, some hope a grotto will save their town

KEY WEST, Fla. -- As Hurricane Irma bears down on south Florida, an island community hopes that the goodwill from an almost 100-year-old grotto will protect their city from possible destruction and death.

Outside of the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea located in Key West stands a grotto that many believe has protected the island from being devastated by hurricanes since its construction in 1922.

The basilica proudly tells the story of how a Catholic nun, Sister Gabriel, built the grotto from natural rocks picked from across the island. She had survived three major hurricanes when she lived in Key West, the southernmost point of the United States.

After the grotto was completed, "tradition tells us that Sister Gabriel is said to have remarked on that dedication day that as long as the grotto stood, 'Key West would never experience the full brunt of a hurricane,'" the basilica's website says.

Bo Erickson/CBS News

Reverend Deacon Peter Batty told CBS News that the community gathers to pray at the grotto as a tradition before storms. On Thursday morning, Batty said more than 80 gathered outside the boarded church.  

"The grotto is an object of faith," he said. "It reminds us that God is always with us."

While most of the congregation is evacuating, Batty said that he and other church leaders are staying to assist in any way they can throughout the storm.

Gregory Eagle, 37, said he stopped by the grotto on Wednesday to "send a prayer up for safety."

catholic grotto key west florida hurricane irma
Gregory Eagle

Eagle, a bartender in Key West, told CBS News that there has been a "mass exodus" of residents. The town, known for its partying and dancing, is "eerily quiet." Eagle said he is still deciding if he will evacuate.

Key West residents Dean Carlson and Paul Hayes said they believe in the grotto's good will.

Last week, they married in New York after 30 years together.

This week, Carlson stayed in New York away from the storm while Hayes came back to Florida to prepare their rental properties for the storm.

Florida Keys issues mandatory evacuation as Irma approaches

Carlson told CBS News that he stayed across the street from the grotto during Hurricane Georges in 1998. In the middle of the storm, he said he ran over to the grotto and found almost all of the candles still burning despite the downpour.

Kimball Ingram, 47, owner of AQUA, a popular Key West drag bar, told CBS News in a phone interview that this is the first time he has evacuated ahead of a storm. He said most of his employees left too.

Regarding the grotto, Ingram said that he is "more cynical than most." Yet, given Irma's intensity, Ingram said that he welcomes "any help."

While Irma's ultimate impact remains to be seen, the faith in the grotto's protection is strong.

The latest forecast Thursday afternoon from the National Hurricane Center in Miami reports that a hurricane watch is in effect for Jupiter Inlet southward around the Florida peninsula to Bonita Beach, Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.

Batty, the deacon, said that while the latest projections are a "consolation" for Key West, faith and prayers are still needed. But even if the center of the hurricane continues to shift east into the Atlantic Ocean, coastal towns like Key West could still experience high winds and deadly storm surge.

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