The generosity of people … brought help and hope to so many

By Linda Raff
Katrina began for me with the evacuation of my daughter and her family and their friends from New Orleans.  With 80 mile hour winds howling and trees swaying and finally one uprooting around our 100 year-old-house, we tried to settle in and ride out the storm.  I went from room to room peering out windows to make sure we could escape if a tree began to fall in on the house.  With two babies in the house it was a harrowing experience.
Having stayed up all night, I gathered my strength and began to focus on Catholic Charities and how we could mobilize our resources for what would surely be the most challenging event in our history.  I can still feel how strange it felt to drive down State Street, deserted and with winds still howling.  Sister Donna Gunn and I were the only arrivals.  We discussed her role as disaster coordinator and scratched our heads a bit to determine just what that entailed.
With few resources initially, we determined manning the phones was the immediate priority.  Calls began to come in from all over the country offering goods and services as well as calls from evacuees from the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coast. Because Jackson experienced high and sustained winds, power outages occurred all over the city.
Trees were down and many homes suffered significant damage.  The needs of Jackson citizens were great to say nothing of the evacuees.  Staff began to trickle in and answer the constantly ringing phones.  Mountains of supplies were announced to be on their way.  Hundreds of individuals and families needed these supplies so how to connect the goods with the people was the new priority.
Answering the call, long term saintly Governance Council member, Roger Vincent, located a warehouse in what is now New Horizons International Church.  He and Sr. Donna oversaw the stocking of the warehouse until we were able to hire a warehouse manager.  The supplies that were donated from all over the country were connected with thousands of individuals and families, many who had lost everything, many with significant damage to their homes, and many who did not know how their homes and property had faired.
Staff began to travel south to hard hit communities with basic supplies such as food, clothing, and cleaning supplies.  They accessed communities that no one else had reached. Sr. Donna actually spent the night in her office so that she was accessible 24 hours for a period during the initial phase.
Msgr. Elvin Sunds and I traveled to the coast to meet with the Diocese of Biloxi to determine if we had supplies that could help with their needs.  We toured the area and even though we had seen television coverage, nothing prepared us for the complete and utter destruction the coast had endured.
We drove from church to church and thru neighborhoods both rich and poor.  All had endured significant damage.  How could the poorest state in the country survive such a disaster, especially as it welcomed so many from New Orleans and surrounding area who had experienced equal if not greater damage?  How could immediate needs be met?
As it turned out, the generosity of people from all across the nation brought help and hope to so many answering the immediate needs of those with little or nothing.  Bishop Joseph Latino, bishop at that time, immediately established a second collection for victims and Catholic Charities began to distribute funds for rental assistance, food, utilities, etc.  New Orleans began to flood so there was a continual wave of people fleeing the rising waters.
My daughter and family and friends headed north to Senatobia, my son’s home, since we lost power and since they could not get back into their flooded city.  My daughter’s mother-in-law did not leave New Orleans before the storm so we had no word from her and remained concerned for two weeks as to her whereabouts.  Her house flooded and she was rescued from the roof of her house and deposited on an over pass with no food or water for several days.  She was ultimately evacuated to a small town in Texas and served by a small Baptist Church.  She was finally able to fly into Little Rock, Arkansas and join the family in Senatobia.
With mounting numbers of evacuees seeking relief from Catholic Charities, it was freeing to know that the family was all alive and well and temporarily located in a safe environment, with lights, water etc.  Catholic Charities, USA, our national membership organization, began to solicit donations nationwide and very soon had a large sum of money to grant to the gulf states.  Catholic Charities applied and received over one million dollars to help with short term as well as long term recovery efforts.
During this initial period Catholic Charities hosted a weekly meeting of all voluntary organizations that came to the area to offer assistance.  It was helpful to identify the groups; however, very few had tangible goods to offer.
There was much advice and some volunteer teams were available for repairing houses.  In addition, staff daily checked on all the evacuees that were housed at the Coliseum.  Finding pregnant women and seniors sleeping on the floor was alarming.  Upon hearing this need, St. Dominic Hospital supplied foam mattresses until cots could be secured.
The generosity of St. Dominic’s and other institutions greatly aided in the short and long term recovery efforts of Catholic Charities and other organizations.  With local help as well as the grant form Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Charities was able to hire long term recovery staff that distributed monetary aide and offered case management and clinical services over a five year period.
Thousands of families and individuals were given help and hope and were aided in their recovery.  The generosity of so many gave Catholic Charities the blessing of carrying out its  mission of being a visible sign of God’s love for all people at one of the most vulnerable times in the history of the Diocese.
(Linda Raff is the outgoing executive director of Catholic Charities, Jackson and a member of the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle.)