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‘Every parish and rectory in the hurricane zone has suffered’

Catholic Charities teams deploy to hard-hit Florida Panhandle as bishop asks for volunteers

Volunteers help distribute food, water, cleaning supplies and other necessities to victims of Hurricane Michael at an aid distribution point on October 15, 2018 in Panama City, Florida. Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10 as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 mph. (Getty Images)

Photographer: Scott Olson

Volunteers help distribute food, water, cleaning supplies and other necessities to victims of Hurricane Michael at an aid distribution point on October 15, 2018 in Panama City, Florida. Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10 as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 mph. (Getty Images)

MIAMI | 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’re looking at a 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. The storm brought near Category-5 strength winds when it came ashore Oct. 10 at Mexico Beach, near Panama City in the Florida Gulf Coast.

Dan and Jeri Clark look over damage from Hurricane Michael on October 16, 2018 in Mexico Beach, Florida. Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10, as a category 4 storm, claiming at least 19 lives and causing massive damage. (Getty Images)

Photographer: Scott Olson

Dan and Jeri Clark look over damage from Hurricane Michael on October 16, 2018 in Mexico Beach, Florida. Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10, as a category 4 storm, claiming at least 19 lives and causing massive damage. (Getty Images)

“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, himself a resident of Tallahassee who had to evacuate his home and is working remotely to coordinate relief and volunteer efforts from regional dioceses, private individuals and corporate donors, state and federal authorities and Catholic Charities agencies.

Scarcity of lodging and housing — both for residents and emergency responders pouring into the region — are among the most daunting needs, he said, noting that emergency supply distribution centers have been set up at Catholic parishes in the 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 site at St. Dominic Parish in Panama City, considered part of the storm’s ground zero.

Portable toilets, satellite phones, portable laundry facilities and a communications vehicle are among the larger items arriving through private donors and Church agencies. Cell phone communications has been non-existent 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 a call for volunteers, noting that two-thirds of that diocese was substantially impacted by Hurricane Michael. The website notes 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 said.

A man walks through a beachfront neighborhood that was decimated by Hurricane Michael on October 16, 2018 in Mexico Beach, Florida. The neighborhood, which had homes most of the way to the beach before the storm, is now mostly flattened. Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10, as a category 4 storm, claiming at least 19 lives and causing massive damage.  (Getty Images)

Photographer: Scott Olson

A man walks through a beachfront neighborhood that was decimated by Hurricane Michael on October 16, 2018 in Mexico Beach, Florida. The neighborhood, which had homes most of the way to the beach before the storm, is now mostly flattened. Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10, as a category 4 storm, claiming at least 19 lives and causing massive damage. (Getty Images)

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 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 will be based at the St. John Neumann Retreat Center in Tallahassee through Sunday, when another Catholic Charities team from Central Florida is expected to relieve them.

“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. He was 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 there 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 housing.

Persons interested in volunteering at St. Dominic Parish in Panama City can visit the website: https://www.signupgenius.com/go/60b0d4da5aa28a7fd0-hurricane.

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