Charities gear up for hurricane recovery as damage assessment begins

by Mark Pattison
Catholic New Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic Charities was just one of several national organizations gearing up to provide assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans Aug. 29 and left dozens dead in its wake.

Insurance firms were expecting claims stemming from Katrina to be the largest single-event payout since the 2001 terror attacks.

Catholic Charities said through its Web site that it would work through its affiliates in the archdioceses of Miami, New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., and the dioceses of Baton Rouge and Houma-Thibodaux, La., and Biloxi and Jackson, Miss., where the hurricane did its greatest damage.

Relief work had already begun in Dade County, Fla., which includes Miami. Katrina, then just a tropical storm, skirted the area but left behind heavy rains and flooding.

"Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami has already distributed a large load of baby items, food and other supplies to victims. Other aid that they will be providing includes assistance with food, shelter, rent, medicine, utilities and mental health counseling," said a statement from Catholic Charities USA, based in Alexandria, Va.

For now, only monetary donations were being accepted. "Catholic Charities USA is unable to accept contributions of food, clothing, blankets and other relief supplies," it said.

"People are going to be without homes or places to put stuff," said Maj. Dalton Cunningham, who is coordinating relief efforts for the Salvation Army in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Catholic Charities was accepting contributions for Hurricane Katrina relief by phone at: (800) 919-9338; by mail at: Catholic Charities USA, Hurricane Katrina, P.O. Box 25168, Alexandria, VA 22313-9788; or online at:

"Based on past disasters, possible long-term services that Catholic Charities may provide include temporary and permanent housing, direct assistance beyond food and water to get people back into their homes, job-placement counseling, and medical and prescription drug assistance," Catholic Charities said.

The death toll from Katrina was placed early Aug. 30 at 55, most of them in Mississippi. But the toll was expected to rise as devastated areas became more accessible to police, rescue crews and National Guard units.

"In New Orleans, it's pretty grim," Deacon Gerald Collins, Catholic Charities USA's director of disaster response, told Catholic News Service in a midday telephone interview Aug. 30. "The water levels are still rising," due principally to a levee breaking. Deacon Collins said the city may need to be evacuated, and that electricity might not be restored to the Crescent City for two months.

While Catholic Charities relief teams hoped to arrive in some of the hurricane-stricken areas three or four days after the hurricane to make initial contact, "if they actually evacuate New Orleans, that's going to be a whole 'nother ball of wax," Deacon Collins said. "Where are they going to go?"

He added that Catholic Charities relief efforts for the New Orleans Archdiocese would likely be based in Baton Rouge, at least initially. "We did something similar during the four storms that hit Florida last year," Deacon Collins said.

CNN and The Sun Herald, a daily newspaper serving South Mississippi, reported that St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Long Beach, Miss., in the Biloxi Diocese, was destroyed in the hurricane. The parish was founded in 1903.

Spring Hill College, a Jesuit school in Mobile, sustained moderate damage in the hurricane -- as opposed to light damage suffered from last year's Hurricane Ivan. The electricity was still out, but they expected to have it back on before the end of the Labor Day weekend. In fact, students were told to forgo the Labor Day holiday as classes were to begin Labor Day morning.

Larry Wahl, editor of The Catholic Week, Mobile archdiocesan newspaper, spent the night of Aug. 29 at a motel seven miles north of Mobile.

He reported that Bayou La Batra, southwest of Mobile, which has been a staple of the fishing industry, was heavily damaged by Katrina. "The shipping industry has taken a huge, huge hit," Wahl said. "I guess it's eventually going to recover, but it's going to take a long, long time."

He added that some areas of the Mobile Archdiocese "have not been in touch with our property person to let them know what the extent of the damage is. It will probably be (Aug. 31) before we get some primary sense of what the damage is," he added.

Wahl also has relatives in Biloxi, and was told that one cousin in Biloxi got out of his house just before it collapsed.

While there is universal agreement that the hurricane's impact could have been much worse, damage was considerable.

The greatest fear was that Katrina would make a direct hit on New Orleans -- most of which is below sea level -- as a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest possible. However, by 5 a.m. Aug. 29, before it reached the Louisiana coast, it had been downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane. By 11 a.m. that day, as the eye of the storm was roughly midway between New Orleans and Biloxi, it had been downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane. By 5 p.m., as its hurricane-force winds were beginning to lash the southeast part of the Jackson metropolitan area, it had been downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane.

By Aug. 30, Katrina had been reclassified as a tropical storm, but was still expected to dump heavy rains as it moved swiftly northeastward.

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