With the recent spate of hurricanes hitting the US mainland and its territories, the need for disaster relief is urgent and widespread. That many people are focusing their efforts in their local communities is, of course, understandable and appropriate. Residents, charitable organizations like Catholic Charities, and government offices—already embedded in neighborhoods—are taking care of their brothers and sisters.
National organizations are helping too, of course. The level of destruction in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands is such that local efforts alone cannot respond to all the needs. Indeed, even as Hurricane Harvey approached the coast of Texas, Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) was already initiating a national donation campaign and mobilizing its disaster operations team, including deploying the CCUSA Mobile Response Center vehicle to Texas.
Millions of dollars have poured in from donors across the United States, and the giving has continued as Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. CCUSA disburses 100 percent of the donations to the areas affected by the storms. Sister Donna Markham OP, PhD, president and CEO of CCUSA, personally hand-delivered two $2 million checks: one to Catholic Charities agencies in Texas and one to those in Florida. Another $1 million has been sent to Caritas Puerto Rico, and Sister Donna plans to visit there as soon as possible.
Meanwhile the CCUSA Disaster Operations team is helping on the scene in Texas. Staff will also be sent to Florida and Puerto Rico as well. Like many of the other national recovery organizations, CCUSA helps with immediate relief, providing food, water, and cash cards. But they also remain with the local agencies, helping the staff in the process of long-term recovery and restoration too.
When communities face difficult times like these, one often hears of inspiring stories. So many good people coming to the aid of their neighbors, whether it is by rescuing an elderly woman from her flooded home or by sending a $100 donation to help people get back on their feet. One story that captures this benevolent charity well involves a helicopter ride from San Juan, Puerto Rico to St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.
Two days after Labor Day, Hurricane Irma tore through the US Virgin Islands and damaged much of St. Thomas and St. John. The hospital, the airport, two police stations, one fire station, and many private homes, including subsidized housing units, were unusable. Communication systems were also down. Without exaggeration, the need was immense. Even as Andrea Shillingford, executive director of Catholic Charities USVI, was assessing the damage, she knew it would be a long time back to normalcy.
In a few days, when Ms. Shillingford was able to get the word out about the situation in the USVI, the bishop of San Juan, Archbishop Roberto Nieves, and the executive director of Caritas Puerto Rico, Father Enrique Camacho, were already planning to help their island neighbor. Puerto Rico, depending on the point one measures from, is around 100 miles west from the USVI, which is only about a 30 minute ride by air.
On September 11, a day notable in US history for neighbor helping neighbor, and despite being in the path of Hurricane Maria which was heading toward Puerto Rico, Archbishop Nieves and Father Camacho, with the help of Puerto Rico’s National Guard, loaded a helicopter full of more than 3,000 pounds of food, water, and other items like solar lamps, batteries, and a power plant. They flew the supplies to St. Thomas, where Ms. Shillingford met them and received the donations. She told Father Camacho that despite the difficulties of the moment, she was happy to be part of the big family of Catholic Charities. “We are not alone,” she added.
Both Archbishop Nieves and Father Camacho were also very glad to be able to help the people in the USVI. Although they probably would say that it was simply part of their duty, their generosity in time of need, is an example of sacrificial love after the manner of Christ, even as they were facing Hurricane Maria, which has decimated Puerto Rico.
Sometimes people who are overwhelmed by a disaster ask where God is in all of the pain. Certainly part of the answer will always remain a mystery, but another part is the help he provides through people. The aid received from Puerto Rico certainly made Ms. Shillingford feel not only supported but also hopeful. “If God took us to this, he will take us out of it,” she said. And Puerto Rico, too.