IMAGE: CNS photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters
By Tom Tracy
MIAMI (CNS) — The physical impact of Hurricane Michael and the
anticipated recovery period for parts of the Florida Panhandle appear to be on
a scale of last year’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands,
according to the church’s top emergency management specialist in Florida.
“The devastation is so large that we looking at couple of years at
least in recovery,” said Gabe Tischler, who is working full time on the
Hurricane Michael response for the Tallahassee-based Florida Catholic
Conference following the storm’s Oct. 10 landfall.
The event brought near Category-5 strength winds when it came
ashore at Mexico Beach, Florida, near Panama City in the Florida Gulf Coast.
“Every parish and rectory in the hurricane zone has suffered
damage, and we are working to get RV units in place so the clergy can move out
of the damaged rectories,” said Tischler.
As a resident of Tallahassee, he had to evacuate his
residence and is now working remotely coordinating relief and volunteer efforts
from regional dioceses, private individuals and corporate donors and state and
federal authorities along with Catholic Charities agencies.
Scarcity of lodging and housing — both for residents and
emergency responders pouring into the region — are among the most daunting
needs of the recovery efforts, he said, noting that emergency supply
distribution centers have been set up or created at Catholic parishes in
Florida Panhandle coastal towns of Panama City, Mexico Beach, Marianna,
Apalachicola and Port St. Joe.
To date, Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida has distributed
an estimated million pounds of goods to 8,000 recipients at a distribution site
at St. Dominic Parish in Panama City, considered part of the storm’s ground
Portable toilets, satellite phones, portable laundry facilities
and a communications vehicle are among the larger items arriving through
private donors and church agencies. Cellphone communications has been
nonexistent around the hardest-hit areas but that situation is expected to
improve in the near future.
The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in collaboration with
Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida has put out an online call for
volunteers, noting that two-thirds of that diocese was substantial impacted by
The website notes that there is a need for at least 50 volunteers,
seven days a week for the next few months at a Catholic Charities staging
project at St. Dominic Church. Many of the volunteers are staying at their own
cost at area hotels and church facilities in the Tallahassee area, organizers
In addition, Catholic Charities USA has deployed a small team to
the region, with several staff operating a portable laundry facility in
Marianna, and another team that will deliver supplies and power generators to
Panama City. The Knights of Columbus and individual Charities agencies around
the region have also been mobilized to collection donations and send
volunteers, Tischler said.
“So many people have lost everything: homes, property and even
their livelihood. The scenes of destruction are heart-wrenching, knowing that
when we see a place where there once was a house, a family used to live there
and are now homeless,” Bishop William A. Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee said in
an Oct. 12 letter to the diocese.
A week after the storm came ashore, Hurricane Michael’s death toll
has risen to 29 across four Southern U.S. states. President Donald Trump and
first lady Melania Trump toured hurricane-ravaged areas of the Florida Gulf
Coast Oct. 15.
In the Miami Archdiocese, Catholic Charities was sending an
initial team of four logistics and fact-finding staff on Oct. 17 to spend
several days there helping to establish the distribution site in St. Joe,
according to Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities Miami.
The Miami team planned to be based at the St. John Neumann Retreat
Center in Tallahassee through Oct. 21, when another Catholic Charities team
from Central Florida was expected to relieve them the following week.
“Later on they may have some specific needs up there as far as
case workers or clinical social workers but this first go-round is mostly about
assessment,” Routsis-Arroyo said, who is formerly Catholic Charities director
for the Diocese of Venice in Southwest Florida, which experienced damages from
last year’s Hurricane Irma.
“You have a lot of shrimpers and rural poor in that area (of Port
St. Joe), and that is where they asked us to help out. They do have two sites
up and running: one in Mexico Beach, which is ground zero, and one in Panama
City, which was destroyed also. We were asked to take the easternmost area (of
impact),” Routsis-Arroyo added. A team from Catholic Charities Orlando is
expected to assist in this area next week.
The Florida Catholic Conference’s Tischler said needed items
include food, water, baby and adult diapers, cash donations and on-site
volunteers willing to fund their own house.
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Editor’s Note: More information about recovery and volunteer
efforts can be found online at https://bit.ly/2Cna8h2.
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Tracy writes for the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the
Archdiocese of Miami.
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