Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10 as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 mph.
The physical impact of Hurricane Michael and the anticipated recovery period for parts of the Florida Panhandle appear to be on a scale of last year’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to the Church’s top emergency management specialist in Florida.
“The devastation is so large that we’re looking at a couple of years at least in recovery,” said Gabe Tischler, who is working full time on the Hurricane Michael response for the Tallahassee-based Florida Catholic Conference. The storm brought near Category-5 strength winds when it came ashore Oct. 10 at Mexico Beach, near Panama City in the Florida Gulf Coast claiming at least 19 lives and causing massive damage .
“Every parish and rectory in the hurricane zone has suffered damage, and we are working to get RV units in place so the clergy can move out of the damaged rectories,” said Tischler, himself a resident of Tallahassee who had to evacuate his home and is working remotely to coordinate relief and volunteer efforts from regional dioceses, private individuals and corporate donors, state and federal authorities and Catholic Charities agencies.
Scarcity of lodging and housing — both for residents and emergency responders pouring into the region — are among the most daunting needs, he said, noting that emergency supply distribution centers have been set up at Catholic parishes in the coastal towns of Panama City, Mexico Beach, Marianna, Apalachicola and Port St. Joe.
To date, Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida has distributed an estimated million pounds of goods to 8,000 recipients at a site at St. Dominic Parish in Panama City, considered part of the storm’s ground zero.
Portable toilets, satellite phones, portable laundry facilities and a communications vehicle are among the larger items arriving through private donors and Church agencies. Cell phone communications has been non-existent around the hardest-hit areas but that situation is expected to improve in the near future.
The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, in collaboration with Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida, has put out a call for volunteers, noting that two-thirds of that diocese was substantially impacted by Hurricane Michael. The website notes a need for at least 50 volunteers seven days a week for the next few months at a Catholic Charities staging project at St. Dominic Church. Many of the volunteers are staying at their own cost at area hotels and Church facilities in the Tallahassee area, organizers said.
In addition, Catholic Charities USA has deployed a small team to the region, with several staff operating a portable laundry facility in Marianna, and another team that will deliver supplies and power generators to Panama City. The Knights of Columbus and individual Charities agencies around the region have also been mobilized to collection donations and send volunteers, Tischler said.
“So many people have lost everything: homes, property and even their livelihood. The scenes of destruction are heart-wrenching, knowing that when we see a place where there once was a house, a family used to live there and are now homeless,” Bishop William A. Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee said in an Oct. 12 letter to the diocese.
A week after the storm came ashore, Hurricane Michael’s death toll has risen to 29 across four southern U.S. states. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump toured hurricane-ravaged areas of the Florida Gulf Coast Oct. 15.
In the Miami Archdiocese, Catholic Charities was sending an initial team of four logistics and fact-finding staff Oct. 17 to spend several days there helping to establish the distribution site in St. Joe, according to Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities Miami.
The Miami team will be based at the St. John Neumann Retreat Center in Tallahassee through Sunday, when another Catholic Charities team from Central Florida is expected to relieve them.
“Later on they may have some specific needs up there as far as case workers or clinical social workers but this first go-round is mostly about assessment,” Routsis-Arroyo said. He was formerly Catholic Charities director for the Diocese of Venice in southwest Florida, which experienced damages from last year’s Hurricane Irma.
“You have a lot of shrimpers and rural poor in that area (of Port St. Joe), and that is where they asked us to help out. They do have two sites up and running: one in Mexico Beach, which is ground zero, and one in Panama City, which was destroyed also. We were asked to take the easternmost area (of impact),” Routsis-Arroyo added. A team from Catholic Charities Orlando is expected to assist there next week.
The Florida Catholic Conference’s Tischler said needed items include food, water, baby and adult diapers, cash donations and on-site volunteers willing to fund their own house.
Persons interested in volunteering at St. Dominic Parish in Panama City can visit the website: https://www.signupgenius.com/go/60b0d4da5aa28a7fd0-hurricane
Here are some more Hurricane Michael Relief efforts underway:
▪ Aventura and multiple local and state law enforcement agencies together with Mobile Mike, I-Heart Radio andAventura Mall are collecting new generators, new boxed chainsaws, new flashlights, new batteries, baby diapers, baby food, baby wipes (only unopened boxed items, no single items), large boxes of sealed canned foods (no single or bagged items), new blankets, cots, sleeping bags, large unopened bags of pet food or full boxes of canned pet food. Donations can be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. through Tuesday at Aventura Mall, 19501 Biscayne Blvd. in the parking lot across the Macy’sMen’s Home Store.
▪ The Greater Miami Jewish Federation has established an emergency relief fund to collect money for those impacted by the hurricane. To donate, visit, jewishmiami.org.
▪ Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami is collecting money to help hurricane victims with rent food and other necessities. To donate, visit www.ccadm.org.
▪ Feeding South Florida is working to help Feeding America sister food banks in the impacted areas by to coordinate food, water and supplies. Besides monetary donations, people are asked to donate pop-top canned meals, instant soup, meal mixes and cereal. The organization is also looking for volunteers to help sort items for victims in the Panhandle from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Feeding South Florida’s Main Warehouse2501 SW 32 Terr. in Pembroke Park. Items can be dropped at the warehouse from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. For more information and to register visit volunteer.feedingsouthflorida.org.
▪ Red Cross is collecting money to aid hurricane victims. To donate, visit www.redcross.org.