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Through sickness, health and Hurricane Ian

When Hurricane Ian made landfall on September 28, 2022, it changed life in Southwest Florida. For Natalie Jeanne Rochette and Dillon Michael Etherson, the storm meant scrambling to ensure loved ones were safe — and figuring out what to do about their Oct. 20 wedding date, which they were determined to keep.

The couple met in early 2021 at a CrossFit gym in Fort Myers, Florida. Mrs. Rochette, 29, an occupational therapist at Lee Health in Fort Myers, and Mr. Etherson, 27, an owner of a Southwest Florida landscaping company, has a shared passion for fitness and the outdoors.

“We started dating on May 15, 2021,” said Mr. Etherson said. “I knew I loved her the very first time I saw her, but I worked my way up to saying that for about six months.”

“Dillon came at the best time in my life – when I wasn’t ready,” Ms. Rochette recalled with a laugh. “I immediately had feelings for him, but I didn’t let him in.”

Despite the slow start, their relationship progressed quickly. And on October 15, 2021, just five months after their first date at a sushi restaurant in Bonita Springs, Mr. Etherson suggested.

“I couldn’t wait any longer,” he said. “I started looking for a ring about six weeks after we started dating, and shortly after that I asked her parents for permission.”

An October birthday trip to Siesta Key on Florida’s Gulf Coast was the perfect timing for a proposal. Mr. Etherson originally planned to have Ms. asking Rochette to marry him during a family Christmas retreat to Islamorada, Fla. (The couple made it an annual tradition to do an eight-mile open water swim there.) Ms. Rochette was a collegiate swimmer at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Mr. Etherson attended Florida SouthWestern State College.

[Click here to binge read this week’s featured couples.]

The couple planned an outdoor ceremony on October 20 at the White Orchid at Oasis, a historic banquet hall right on the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers.

But Hurricane Ian, which started out as a Category 4 hurricane, had other plans. Winds up to 155 miles per hour and a storm surge of eight to 12 feet devastated much of Southwest Florida, including Fort Myers.

“The entire venue took on about eight feet of water, which caused foundation damage, the first floor fell out, and there was significant tree and landscaping damage,” Mr. Etherson said.

Ms. Rochette was devastated.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I had this dream wedding in mind and I spent a year planning it with Dillon,” Ms. Rochette said. “To see that dream washed away in the storm surge was heartbreaking. We were very lucky in the sense that our homes and families went through it.”

Now all they had to do, a week away from their wedding date, was book rooms, reserve space at a restaurant, notify their wedding party and family, find a photographer, flowers and a hotel that they a small ceremony would be held.

“It was a bit hopeless that we could do it on October 20,” said Mr. Etherson said. “How do we find, pay and organize a new wedding venue in about 10 days?”

Their search veered toward Islamorada.

“The Florida Keys were almost untouched by the storm – all the hotels and restaurants were open, to our surprise,” Mr. Etherson said.

The couple got ready together at La Siesta Resort and Marina in Islamorada on the morning of their wedding and invited their guests to join them in their cottage for a shot of tequila before everyone took their seats.

“I like how casual and carefree it ended,” Ms. Rochette said. “It was nice to spend most of our day with our loved ones, having fun and celebrating.”

Mr. Etherson and Ms. Rochette, who mr. Etherson, had an intimate beach ceremony in front of about 30 guests behind the resort on a bright, sunny morning on October 20, their intended wedding date. Mrs. Rochette’s godfather, Joe Kemper, who was ordained by the American Marriage Ministries, officiated.

The group had dinner at Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar, enjoyed the sunset, and then the newlyweds drove home to catch an 8 a.m. flight to the Indonesian island of Bali for their honeymoon, just as they had planned.

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