Catholic Charities works to assess, relieve damage from Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy Bears Down On US Mid Atlantic Coastline Credit Spencer Platt Getty Images News Getty Images CNA US Catholic News 10 31 12 People look at properties destroyed during Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 30, 2012 in the Rockaway section of the Queens borough of New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Catholic Charities agencies along the East Coast are working to assess the damage left by Hurricane Sandy and respond to the needs of those left in its wake.

Kevin Hickey, executive director at Catholic Charities of Camden, N.J., told CNA on Oct. 31 that while there is significant flooding and damage throughout the six southern counties that make up the diocese, "the main focus is the coast."

"The devastation there is enormous," he said, especially on the barrier islands of Ocean City and Atlantic City, which took a direct hit from the storm. Because access to the two sites is restricted, emergency workers cannot get there and do not know when they will be able to do so.

Hickey added that Catholic Charities has an office in Atlantic City, but said that he is "fairly confident that is underwater."

New Jersey is one of several states that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy, a massive storm that made landfall in the U.S. on Oct. 29 and proceeded to sweep through the northeast, killing dozens and leaving some 6 million people without power.

Hickey predicted that there will be "a tremendous need" for food, as well as water and shelter, in the coming days.  More long-term needs include arrangements for those who were evacuated from the barrier islands, he said, adding, "I think that's going to become a challenge."

One estimate predicted that power would be restored to most of the mainland by the weekend, but there is less certainty about when it will be restored to the barrier islands.

Catholic Charities' staff members are experienced in responding to disasters, Hickey said. The Camden agency assembled an Incident Command Team before the storm to ensure that recovery efforts would run safely and smoothly.

That team is currently working to gather information, conducting driving tours of four New Jersey counties and reaching out to Catholic parishes to see if they can be used as distribution sites, he explained.

Once those distribution sites are set up – which will likely be by early next week – they will be able to handle significant material donations, he said, adding that money is often the most helpful donation because it allows for the local purchase of whatever supplies are needed.

Monsignor Roger McGrath, vicar general of Camden, said he was "very proud of our Catholic Charities and all the work they do," adding that the primary focus in the coming days is to "make sure the people are taken of."

Throughout the region, other Catholic Charities agencies are working to offer similar aid, despite obstacles including power outages, flooding and transportation difficulties.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., Catholic Charities is keeping its homeless shelters open from Oct. 29 until 7 a.m. on Nov. 1 so that all residents are able to remain inside during the storm.

The agency also posted a shelter hotline number on the internet and encouraged people to call if they saw someone out on the streets of the nation's capital in need of shelter.

According to the agency's Twitter account, approximately 1,100 people stayed in its shelters on the night of Oct. 29, and the staff was able to provide extra food to 800 homebound seniors in advance, to ensure that they would be fed during the hurricane.

In West Virginia, where the storm brought blizzard conditions when it collided with an arctic blast, Catholic Charities is dealing not only with power outages due to fallen trees, but also ice damage, treacherous roads and more than a foot of snow in many areas.

The agency said that it is working with parishes throughout the state to access capabilities for providing food and shelter to those who have been forced to leave their homes.

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Mary Ellen Ros, director of Hudson Valley Services for Catholic Charities of New York, said that the agency's downtown offices do not have phone connectivity but staff members are working to perform a damage assessment.

The group is reaching out parishes to offer support and see what is needed, she explained, adding that it is also working closely with both government and other disaster relief partners.

As in Camden, one of the biggest current difficulties is traveling to the places that were hit the hardest, such as Staten Island, Ros said. The agency is trying to determine the needs of the people in different areas and will also help staff a disaster assistance center that is being created.

Once an initial evaluation is completed, Catholic Charities will be able to provide both immediate relief and long-term aid in rebuilding, she said.

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