Let's Make Home Happen

May 2018, Volume 6 Issue 11

Catholic Charities USA: Disaster Relief and Recovery

Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) is the official domestic relief agency of the Catholic Church, serving the poor and vulnerable in America. CCUSA also exerts thought leadership across the domestic humanitarian sector as a founding and active member of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. The CCUSA network is comprised of over 160 independent Catholic Charities agencies across the US and its territories. CCUSA is active in all phases of disaster relief, most notably meeting the urgent disaster relief and long-term recovery needs of disaster survivors. Services range from direct financial assistance, feeding, home repair/rebuilding, health care services, crisis counseling, housing counseling, and disaster case management.

With the spate of hurricanes that hit the U.S. mainland and its territories in the fall of 2017, the need for disaster relief was urgent and widespread. Millions of dollars poured in from donors across the nation and people are still giving to support recovery efforts. CCUSA disburses 100 percent of donations to the areas affected by the storms. Sister Donna Markham, OP, PhD, President and CEO of CCUSA, personally hand-delivered the relief money in the form of checks to Catholic Charities agencies in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The CCUSA Disaster Operations team was on the scene in each of the areas affected as well. Kim Burgo, Senior Director for CCUSA Disaster Operations, went to Texas and Puerto Rico to organize and manage the distribution of supplies. Catholic Charities staff from around the country, who are deployed as part of the disaster operations team, were also sent to agencies that had been impacted by the hurricanes.

Local Agency Responses

USVI: Virgin Islanders are well accustomed to tropical cyclones, but in recorded history, they’ve never experienced the likes of the 2017 storm season. In less than two weeks last September, they were pummeled by not one but two Category Five hurricanes. St John’s and St. Croix’s hospitals, both of its airports, most of its electric grid, and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. No one was spared, including Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands (CCVI), which suffered damage to most of its structures and the complete loss of one facility. Electricity and safe, drinkable water are slow to return. CCUSA worked with Andrea Shillingford, CCVI Executive Director, to coordinate doctors, nurses, and other members of the St. Thomas medical community to get free screenings and health care services to the homeless. The numbers of people relying on CCVI for a hot meal spiked from the usual 75 to 100 a day to as high as 400 on St. Thomas. Similar increases are seen on the other islands.

Florida: Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc. serves 10 counties in Southwest Florida and is no stranger to hurricanes. During his tenure, CEO Peter Routsis-Arroyo has experienced the ravages of Hurricanes Charlie and Wilma and other tropical storms as direct hits and has fine-tuned Catholic Charities’ disaster preparedness, response, and long-term recovery efforts. “This is the most prepared we have been for a hurricane, and we needed to be because Hurricane Irma was such a large storm that affected most of our diocese,” said Routsis-Arroyo. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice served more than 82,000 people in three weeks. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Palm Beach currently has over 650 long-term disaster recovery clients.

Houston: Thousands of people visit the relief centers of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston for assistance. Counseling, case management, and financial assistance help individuals and families get back on their feet. Attorneys from this member agency’s Immigration Legal Services Program helped people with FEMA applications. Many residents lost everything and are in the rebuilding process. In other cases, people are still waiting for a FEMA inspector to examine their damaged home or apartment. Many remain in unsafe living conditions. Undocumented residents, not eligible for public assistance, are fearful of applying for assistance from any government agency.

To address the need for short-term housing, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston established a program called “Safe Harbor.” Through financial assistance and in-kind donations of furniture and household items, CCUSA is providing 50 furnished apartments to individuals and families at no charge while their homes are being repaired. Area residents also offered spare rooms in their homes to families.

Puerto Rico: Immediately following the storm, Caritas Puerto Rico provided meals to 25,000 families. Some of these lived in very remote areas and had never received assistance before. After two months, Caritas had served more than 150,000 families across Puerto Rico with $1 million in food vouchers and $3 million in direct aid. This aid included more than 200 pallets and over 120,000 individual essential items such as portable stoves, power generations, batteries, water, non-perishable food, cleaning/hygiene products, clothing, and tarps for roofs.

To accomplish this level of response, Caritas Puerto Rico worked across all six dioceses, impacting 78 municipalities, 500 parishes, and countless volunteers. The agency received great support from the Catholic Charities network, Food for the Poor, colleges and universities, the Puerto Rican diaspora, and other national and international organizations, such as the Houston Astros, UNICEF, and MANO A MANO (Spain).

In the two years prior to the storms of 2017, CCUSA served over 100,000 clients annually with disaster relief and recovery services. Roughly two-thirds of the clients who received assistance had incomes below the poverty line. The immediate relief provided to clients helped them maintain their daily living needs such as food, water, and shelter. On average, $8 million worth of grant funding supported relief and recovery needs across their network, with much of that total being used to support long term disaster recovery needs throughout the United States.

woman conducting community outreach