When Hurricane Ian made landfall on Sept. 28, 2022, it upended 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 adamant about keeping.
The couple met in early 2021 at a CrossFit gym in Fort Myers, Fla. Ms. Rochette, 29, an occupational therapist at Lee Health in Fort Myers, and Mr. Etherson, 27, an owner of a Southwest Florida landscaping company, have a shared passion for fitness and the outdoors.
“We started dating May 15, 2021,” Mr. Etherson said. “I knew I loved her the very first time I saw her, but I worked my way up to saying it for about six months.”
“Dillon came in to my life at the best time — when I wasn’t ready,” Ms. Rochette recalled with a laugh. “I had feelings for him immediately, but I didn’t let him in on that.”
Despite the slow start, their relationship progressed quickly. And on Oct. 15, 2021, just five months after their first date at a sushi restaurant in Bonita Springs, Mr. Etherson proposed.
“I couldn’t wait any longer,” he said. “I started looking for a ring about six weeks after we started dating, and I asked her parents for permission soon after that.”
An October birthday trip to Siesta Key on Florida’s Gulf Coast, proved to be perfect timing to for a proposal. Mr. Etherson had originally planned to ask Ms. Rochette to marry him during a family Christmas retreat to Islamorada, Fla. (The couple have 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.
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The couple had planned an outdoor ceremony on Oct. 20 at the White Orchid at Oasis, a historic banquet hall right on the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers.
But Hurricane Ian, which began 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, causing foundational damage, the first floor fell out, and there was significant tree and landscaping damage,” Mr. Etherson said.
Ms. Rochette was devastated.
“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 wash away in the storm surge was heartbreaking. We were very lucky in the sense that our homes and families made it through.”
Now all they had to do, a week away from their wedding date, was book rooms, reserve space at a restaurant, give their wedding party and family notice, find a photographer, flowers, and a hotel that would let them have a small ceremony.
“It was a bit hopeless that we could do it on Oct. 20,” said Mr. Etherson. “How do we find, pay for, and organize a new wedding venue in about 10 days?”
Their search meandered to 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 the morning of their wedding at La Siesta Resort and Marina in Islamorada and invited their guests to join them in their cottage for a shot of tequila before everyone took their seats.
“I love how casual and carefree it ended up,” Ms. Rochette said. “It was nice being able to spend the majority of our day together, with our loved ones, having fun and celebrating.”
Mr. Etherson and Ms. Rochette, who took Mr. Etherson’s last name, had an intimate beach ceremony in front of about 30 guests behind the resort, during a clear, sunny morning on Oct. 20, their intended wedding date. Ms. 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.