“Human closeness at these times gives us strength, there is solidarity.”
– Pope Francis, Aug. 18, 2014
Human closeness gives us strength that leads us to solidarity. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on these words from Pope Francis since the Weather Channel monitors began to light up with the approach and landfall of Hurricane Harvey in late August, then the arrival of Hurricane Irma, trailed by the passing of Hurricane Jose, followed by the power and destructive force of Hurricane Maria. Wow! At one point I thought: “This is a disaster nightmare! How do we process it all? Where do we even begin to sort out what to tackle first?”
More than 20 million people were affected by one month of hurricanes. Thousands of families lost loved ones, hundreds of thousands lost their homes, and countless individuals lost their income, their jobs, and their livelihoods. Those who previously lived in poverty were now critically vulnerable, while many who never sought social services before had begun a poverty journey difficult to overcome.
The need was overwhelming, but in the days and weeks following the hurricanes, so too were the miracles I witnessed while supporting agencies in their disaster response, like the clients in Houston who offered and helped to unload the CCUSA Mobile Response Center, filled with much-needed resources, when no other volunteers were available. These clients set up the distribution site and cared enough to serve each other until everyone received the resources needed. Indeed, in every place that was impacted by the hurricanes, the miracles of charity and generosity were evident.
- The Diocese of Corpus Christi was “ground zero” for Hurricane Harvey, but the people there didn’t think twice about sharing their resources with the Diocese of Victoria, which had none. They packed up the CCUSA Mobile Response Center vehicle and sent it off to Victoria. When the truckload of resources arrived, the people were waiting. A mop, Clorox, food, water, diapers: these basic supplies brought tears to the eyes of those who were left vulnerable. When the supplies dwindled in less than two hours, neighbors came with more and more goods. Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes in the Bible, enough supplies arrived to serve hundreds of people during the following hours.
- Catholic Charities San Antonio organized a convoy of 72 trucks that hauled $4.1 million in relief supplies, which were loaded by 600 volunteers and driven to Catholic Charities of Galveston/Houston. Upon arrival, the contents of the trucks were off-loaded by 300 volunteers. Staff from Catholic Charities agencies in Albany, Camden, and Gary assisted with every aspect of the disaster services being provided. And in the days that followed, more than 450 CCUSA Annual Gathering attendees from across the country continued to support the disaster work in Houston and Beaumont by operating call centers, canvasing neighborhoods, participating in distribution sites, assisting in food fairs and mucking/gutting homes in the hopes of moving each family one step closer in their recovery process.
- While activities continued in Texas, Florida began to respond to its own catastrophe following Hurricane Irma. Each of the Florida agencies began to support one another, providing mutual aid assistance and sending disaster supplies to those areas hardest hit. Catholic Charities staff from Charleston South Carolina packed their bags to provide assistance to Catholic Charities Venice.
- Hurricane Irma also caused havoc in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (St. Thomas and St. Croix), and Catholic Charities/Caritas Puerto Rico reached across the sea to provide immediate help to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria brought devastation not seen on the islands since the 1920s. Yet, despite the challenges that occurred in the previous weeks, both Texas and Florida agencies took immediate actions in support of their suffering Catholic Charities family members in Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands.
This is only the beginning. Disaster recovery services will be required for years to come. We can wait no longer to embrace fully the call of the earth and the poor as one single cry for justice and solidarity. Pope Francis explicitly reminds us that the “deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet.” Catholic Charities USA affirms the veracity of this statement, an observable truth that is on display for all to see as both the intensity and the frequency of severe storms ravage our country and bruise and batter its poorest inhabitants. Meaningful investments in community mitigation, improved floodplain management, and increasing access to affordable housing are critical activities that represent tangible opportunities for all persons of goodwill to reduce the risk and exposure of natural disasters and, at the same time, demonstrate our unyielding commitment to justice and a preferential option for the poor.
May these stories inspire us all to heed the call of Pope Francis to offer human closeness that gives strength and leads to solidarity. Every embrace of comfort, every tear shed with each other, every story of survival shared, every compassionate touch, and every action that provides hope is part of that miracle by which we, as Catholic Charities, have a profound impact as we support one another and provide meaningful and life-changing assistance to the 20 million disaster survivors who are on their road to recovery.
Kim Burgo is Senior Director of Disaster Operations at Catholic Charities USA. Zach Cahalan, Strategic Director of Disaster Operations at Catholic Charities USA, contributed to this story.
Find inspiration in this story of solidarity between parish communities through aid for reconstruction.