Catholic agency responds to those hardest hit by Wilma -- the poor

By Heather Felton
Catholic News Service

IMMOKALEE, Fla. (CNS) -- Like many residents of Immokalee, Debara Milton didn't have a lot to call her own prior to Hurricane Wilma, other than a job at one of the local tomato-packing houses and a roof over her head.

After Wilma tore through the agricultural town in the early hours of Oct. 24, she and many other residents now have even less.

"All the panels were torn off my trailer on one side," she said while standing in line outside Guadalupe Social Services Oct. 26. Two of the windows also were blown in and the front door was damaged and, of course, there is no electricity or running water.

If that weren't enough, it looks like this season's tomato crop was wiped out, meaning that she may not have a job waiting for her when power returns to the area.

"I don't know what we're going to do," she told The Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Venice Diocese. "I got no work, I got no money. I may go to the labor pool in Naples, if they'll take me."

Milton, shuffling along the line for supplies, is not the only one who doesn't know what the future holds. Guadalupe Social Services, a Catholic Charities agency in Immokalee, began handing out paper bags of dry and canned goods to others in her situation the morning of Oct. 25.

Expecting a high demand for food, Julie Hamilton, regional director for rural services for Catholic Charities in five Florida counties, contacted the Harry Chapin Food Bank, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Collier Harvest Food Bank the week before the hurricane to order more food.

It turned out to be a good decision. That first day after the hurricane, volunteers and staff gave out more than 600 bags to families arriving at their door, mostly on foot. By noon on the second day, they gave out almost 500 bags and were forced to close their doors early when they ran out of supplies.

The agency's usually full food pantry was whittled down to a few cans and bottles of cooking oil by that second day, said Ninfa Diago, program coordinator for Guadalupe Social Services, as she pulled out the last of the canned peaches.

Antonia Lopez was among those to get the last of the available bags of food before the doors closed. "We don't have a drop of milk for the babies, we don't have any electricity," she said through an interpreter, "and the roof came off (our trailer)."

"We heard the tomatoes were all wiped out," added Lopez, who worked in the Pacific Tomato Growers fields in Immokalee. "But we're going to check out the fields and see if they have something for us to do."

Because there are so many who need assistance, volunteers came from all over to help. Among them was 14-year-old Esmeralda Franco, also of Immokalee. She and her brother and sister, members of the Youth for Christ group, came to Guadalupe Social Services because their school was closed.

"We just decided to come help the people over here," Franco said, in between her duties of filling bags of food and serving as an interpreter.

The agency, located on the campus of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, was without power but had a couple generators going so they could keep working. The agency and parish were a natural location to draw those in need.

"We have many people coming for food," said Scalabrinian Father Ettore Rubin, pastor. "Catholic Charities responded very well."

Other agencies also arrived at the parish campus to help those in need. Habitat for Humanity of Collier County brought in three vans full of supplies, including water and ice picked up from a Federal Emergency Management Agency location across town.

"We want to do more here because it was devastated," said Sam Durso, president of the Habitat chapter. "The rest of the county's a mess, but they have the wherewithal to find food."

At the FEMA site, staffed by more than 80 Army National Guardsmen, 1,670 cars passed through the gates Oct. 25, collecting 8,700 gallons of water and 6,600 bags of ice, said Capt. Richard Wolf.

More supplies, including 10,000 pounds of food and support items, arrived at Guadalupe Social Services Oct. 27 from the Orlando Diocese's Catholic Charities agency. Orlando stepped up to help those Florida dioceses affected by Hurricane Wilma as part of the statewide mutual aid agreement among Florida's seven dioceses.

"The folks down south were glad we came," said Arne Nelson, president and chief executive officer of the Orlando agency. "It made an immediate impact -- both to morale and stomachs."

Another 10,000 pounds of beans, rice, tortillas and other canned goods were being sent over the Oct. 29-30 weekend.

Thanks to Deacon Marcus Hepburn, who is the Florida Catholic Conference's consultant on emergency preparedness, response and recovery, a wholesaler was providing additional food at a special rate. Transportation costs also have been discounted.

Nelson was hoping to receive additional donations from parishes across the Orlando Diocese.

Catholic Charities was also reaching out to law enforcement and other first responders in Naples, providing tarps, food and water.

At the same time, Nelson said, the agency "will not lose sight of the Gulf Coast." Catholic Charities was "gearing up for the holidays -- and how to provide support to the areas we have been helping," he said, adding there was "still lots to do."

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Contributing to this story was Julie Greene in Orlando.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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