St. Petersburg (by Janet Shelton) – Amber Horton breathed a sigh of relief when a Catholic Charities van showed up in her neighborhood and caseworkers started handing out food, water, clothing and other emergency support. She was especially pleased with the clothing – partly because she lost almost every piece when the family’s mobile home was flooded, and partly because what she still had was far too large.
Horton dropped four sizes in 10 days due to stress and suffering brought on by Hurricane Irma.
“I had one pair of pants left,” she said. “I’m wearing size zero now.”
Hurricane Irma’s September arrival to Florida’s central-west coast surprised many locals. Despite numerous threats and its coastal vulnerability, the Tampa Bay area hadn’t experienced a direct hit for 60 years.
Residents mildly interested attitude shifted to panic, however, as Irma’s strength grew to a Category 5. Many tried to flee the storm’s incomprehensible power.
Catholic Charities Executive Director Mark Dufva was nervous. He was there when Ivan and Dennis slammed into the Diocese of Pensacola. He spent a month helping New Orleans and Mississippi residents recover after Hurricane Katrina. He and the other six Florida Catholic Charities Directors knew what they were facing. They were in constant contact.
“All seven dioceses work together to respond to disasters,” Dufva said. “Everybody was thrown into a near panic – watching (storm projections) every minute of every hour, wondering who is going to get hit the worst.”
Protecting the most vulnerable
As the storm approached, preparation centered on the agency’s most vulnerable clients and facilities: the nearly 200 homeless residents of the Pinellas Hope “tent city”, and the over 1,000 seniors living in 13 HUD housing apartment buildings.
“We got the word (from Pinellas County) on Thursday that would have to evacuate on Friday,” said Homeless and Veteran Services Director Rhonda Abbott, who oversees Pinellas Hope. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’”
Tent residents packed everything they owned into plastic bags that were placed on a pavilion used for meals. Some left with family, but 150 others, many suffering from chronic illness, physical limitations or behavioral issues, collected their bedding, boarded buses and vans, and joined a caravan to a nearby shelter, where they were assisted by Pinellas Hope staff.
The next day, amid increasing gusts and gathering clouds, staff returned to the property to collapse and secure every tent. What had been a bustling area with hundreds of people a day before was now flattened squares of blue and white nylon.
“I remember standing on the deck … and it was just so eerie,” Abbott said. “We stood there looking out onto a sea of tents that weren’t there anymore. And the weather was dark.”
At the HUD apartments managed by Catholic Charities, managers spoke to seniors about evacuation. Few decided to leave. King’s Manor in Tampa was outside all evacuation zones, so the management opened its doors to others.
“They could invite family who lived in vulnerable areas/mobile homes,” said Betsy Rowen, Housing Manager. “Myself and the Service Coordinator, Petra Rivera, stayed at the building overnight during the hurricane.”
The community steps in
Hurricane Irma hit the Tampa Bay area in the early hours of Sept. 11. Most residents of the five coastal Florida counties making up the Diocese of St. Petersburg felt blessed as they made their way home. Over two million were without power, but the impact was not as significant or widespread as feared.
Four hundred sixty-three of the HUD senior apartments were without power. Oxygen tanks couldn’t be replenished, food was lost, there was no air conditioning in apartments as temperatures climbed to 95 degrees. It would be six days before power would be restored in some buildings.
Local organizations brought in cooked meals for the seniors. Residents took respite from the heat in common areas with generator power. There they also charged their phones, replenished oxygen and fixed crock-pot meals.
At Pinellas Hope, the power was out for days, but people just showed up to rebuild tents and clear debris. A large truck brought water, canned goods, and personal care items – a gift from people in Texas. The shelter received so many food donations, they ran out of room in the kitchen. Abbott will always remember the kindness of strangers. She also will remember the moment the power company truck lumbered down the road and stopped in front of the complex and power was restored.
“We were laughing. We were jumping up and down, giving high fives, whooping and hollering,” she said. “It really was a scene out of the movies.”
The staff was exhausted, but satisfied, Abbott said. “It was a feeling of, ‘Wow. We did this. We pulled this off.”
Stepping up to help
In the ensuing days, as Catholic Charities worked toward normalize operations, people started calling for help.
Assistance sites were set up in four areas of the Diocese, and Catholic Charities partnered with national and local governments and organizations. Most of the early calls were for food, furniture, clothing, and utility and rent/mortgage assistance for those who lost work or lost their homes due to damage. Many situations couldn’t be resolved with one type of assistance.
The biggest problem facing the agency was money. A huge boost came one week after Irma’s visit, when Sister Donna Markham, Catholic Charities USA President and CEO, arrived with $250,000 for immediate emergency assistance in the St. Petersburg Diocese alone. In the weeks that followed, CCUSA sent another $460,000 and parishes raised $420,000. Catholic Charities donors gave $40,000. The Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation also gave $250,000 to be distributed across Florida.
Catholic Charities quickly earned a reputation for stepping in when others couldn’t.
Senor residents of 463 HUD apartments that lost electricity were given $100 grocery store gift cards to replace spoiled food or purchase medicine.
The agency replaced a mattress ruined when a home’s windows leaked.
Catholic Charities paid an electrician to help an elderly couple left in the dark for more than a week when the electrical unit was destroyed. “They are both on Social Security,” said caseworker Melissa Brass. “Insurance wouldn’t cover it because it happened outside the house.”
Even with funds, disaster relief proved complicated. Catholic Charities caseworkers found ways to respond to suffering, bewildered people who had no idea where to turn.
“Disaster response is on-the-job training,” Dufva said. “People don’t have a lot of understanding on how to respond or receive help. Catholic Charities has to be the lead long-term recovery responder. The Church is expected to respond to victims of disaster. That’s our calling.”
A tree destroyed a roof section of a family home and mold was taking over the house. The insurance company felt it could be repaired, but the deed-restricted community wouldn’t accept that because the new roof wouldn’t match the old.
A senior couple’s manufactured home was destroyed by a tornado and large, uprooted trees blocked any access to remove and replace the home. The first estimate to put the trees aside and remove what was left of the home: $10,000.
By early November, Catholic Charities had received 544 requests for assistance. Just under 2,000 people received aid. Caseworkers were still sorting through and addressing a backlog of emergency cases. At the same time, all of Florida was bracing for the arrival of families fleeing the devastation in Puerto Rico. They would need significant assistance securing food, employment, clothing, housing and more.
“We have no idea what to expect. The number of arrivals is completely unknown,” Dufva said.
‘What did I get myself into?’
One thing is certain, the Puerto Rico evacuees will share the trauma caseworkers are already seeing in locals. Many people were stunned at how quickly they lost everything.
Horton thought she was okay before the storm. Neighbors in her rural Lithia helped each other prepare their homes and livestock for the anticipated flooding of the Alafia River. Horton sent her mother, husband and children to higher ground, but stayed home because she was afraid that someone would steal their belongings.
But the storm was bad. At 3 a.m. the water was waist-high. Horton navigated a street she could no longer see, carefully placing one foot in front of the other and feeling the asphalt under her feet. Terrified, she envisioned encounters with fleeing wildlife and damaged power lines.
“I was freaking out. I thought, ‘Oh God, what did I get myself into?’ ”
She slowly navigated her way to a store where many of her neighbors had taken refuge. The river reached almost 20 feet above normal levels and didn’t recede for days. Roughly half of the community’s 300 homes were damaged or destroyed.
Residents heading home made their way through rancid water, snakes and shiny floating mounds of thousands of live red ants seeking dry land. The water has subsided, but some with condemned homes are living in tents in their yards. Horton’s family lost clothes, food, household items, and a $3,000 John Deere mower she used to earn money. The cows, horses and pigs were traumatized. Catholic Charities has provided utility, mortgage and rent assistance and is involved in long-term recovery efforts there.
“It is what it is,” Horton said. “That’s the only thing I can say.”
There have been some funny moments, Horton said. After hours of cleaning up, she and her husband collapsed on the front porch of their mobile home. She looked over and saw a water moccasin inches from her face. She left her husband behind without so much as a warning.
“I bailed!”, she said with a guilty laugh. “Flew over the porch and ran like a kitten.”
The family also has a new fish – a beautiful golden koi.
“It’s about 14-inches long. It just showed up in a pond,” she said. “We don’t know where she came from, but we named her Irma.”