ORLANDO | Ten days after Hurricane Michael pummeled Florida’s Panhandle, Catholic Charities of Central Florida (CCCF) mobilized a crew of six to assist in recovery efforts. Loaded with a van full of supplies, the caravan headed to Port St. Joe, the coastal town located just 10 miles from where the monster storm hit land. “Supporting our sister diocese in their time of need, knowing they are trying to maintain their families and communities, allows us the opportunity to serve when they need us the most,” said Julie Yetter, senior director of operations.
Catholic Charities crews throughout Florida will rotate to best meet the needs in the region. The Central Florida team arrived just as volunteers from the Archdiocese of Miami departed. They will be dispersed during their five-day mission to maximize relief efforts. Sadly, the tragic scene is a familiar one for many. Yetter noted, “One of the things we found with the individuals and families coming from Puerto Rico last year was that they had suffered such a traumatic event, they needed more than just a meal. They needed someone to listen and that’s who we are. That’s who Catholic Charities is.”
Meantime, CCCF employees who stayed behind will continue to tirelessly serve storm victims in and around Orlando. “It’s been a year, but it seems like yesterday,” said Katherine de la Rosa tearfully as she recalled losing her home, her belongings and her life as she knew it when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico as a deadly category 4 storm in September 2017. Her mother was diagnosed with kidney failure and needed emergency surgery. She was released from the hospital only days before Hurricane Irma struck, followed closely by Hurricane Maria. Now, without power or water, they were left to care for a still-healing wound and manual dialysis treatments that had to be administered four times a day.
“I had to drive 30 minutes to get water. My mother came with me because I could not leave her alone,” remembered de la Rosa. “She still had her wound and chance of infection was high. To keep a dialysis patient free of infection without water is a feat. It’s only because God was there with us that it was possible.”
De la Rosa knew her only option was to leave the island to keep her mother healthy. They arrived in Central Florida in November 2017 and were living in a hotel with assistance from FEMA until she was referred to Catholic Charities of Central Florida in May. Disaster case manager Greta Roubert was able to help secure an apartment for de la Rosa and assist with three months of rent and utilities. She is also working with de la Rosa to connect her family with other social service agencies who can assist her with the care of her mother.
“The help of Catholic Charities and Greta has been tremendous to establish ourselves economically in Florida, as well as emotionally, and physically,” said de la Rosa. “It has allowed us to take a breath. Because I am a full-time caregiver, it’s been a difficult process. Without Catholic Charities, it would have been impossible. There is no adjective to describe how grateful I am and what it has meant for us.”
Unfortunately, de la Rosa’s situation is not unique. A year after Hurricane Maria, many people are still struggling to establish a new life for themselves. While also providing relief efforts in the midst of the current, turbulent hurricane season, Roubert said that victims of the 2017 hurricane season are in dire need of help.
“Families are still coming over,” said Roubert. “We help with rent and utilities and connect them with community resources. Many don’t speak English so we can provide translation assistance. We will help when additional family comes over, and provide food and in some cases help with medical expenses. We’re here for whatever they need.”
“Everyone wants to help immediately at the time or right after the disaster,” added Yetter. “Where are the services two weeks, one month, three months down the road? Catholic Charities took a step back and really evaluated the situation to say we’re here! We’re here to walk with you after the event. We’re here to walk with you when you feel alone and there’s no one there.”
From the earliest days following Hurricane Maria, Catholic Charities has been a welcoming and reassuring presence to families facing unbelievable hardship. Case managers and clergy were stationed at the airport, greeting families who arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They prayed with them, gave them food, help them to find shelter. Fifty-six families received compassionate care in the days and months following Maria and that number continues to grow.
“We offer an abundance of ministries aimed at meeting the most basic needs that individuals and families have,” said Gary Tester, executive director of CCCF. “With multilingual staff, many of whom have experience as immigrants and refugees, we understand the challenges facing newly arriving families. Our mission is to embrace all those in need with hope, transforming their lives through faith, compassion, and service.”
Catholic Charities was also among the first to respond when Central Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma last fall. Staff members and volunteers personally affected by the storm took time to coordinate mobile food pantries in hardest-hit areas to care for their brothers and sisters in Christ. They remain committed to assisting with roof repair, mold removal, relocation assistance, air-conditioning repair and more.
While the road to recovery may be long for all storm victims across Florida, de la Rosa has come to believe that all things are possible with faith and reliance on God. “It has been a very hard year, but I believe that no one has an idea how much God can do and how He can give you strength to continue,” said de la Rosa. “Sometimes you see everything as dark and very difficult and out of order, and then God comes and clears the mind and reassures you to persist in faith, that things will get better one day at a time.”
To support the disaster relief services provided by Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services visit cflcc.org/donate and designate the donation “Disasters 2018”. Your donation will help provide basic necessities to those impacted by disasters in 2018 including Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael.
Click here for three ways to help Hurricane Michael recovery efforts.
By Elizabeth Wilson, special to the Florida Catholic – October 18, 2018