Hurricane Florence made landfall on the North Carolina coastline on Sept. 14, with winds hitting nearly 90 mph. It has been blamed for more than 30 deaths, and heavy rains and winds have caused much flooding and damage to the region.
The two Catholic dioceses most directly affected are the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, which includes the eastern half of the state, and the Diocese of Charleston, which encompasses all of South Carolina. Catholic Charities of both dioceses have leapt into action to offer aid to the suffering; individual parishes have undertaken initiatives to help those in need as well. Parishes in the hurricane’s path have closed, with both diocesan bishops granting a dispensation from Sunday Mass over Sept. 15-16.
Catholic Charities of Raleigh is working with other social service agencies to distribute items such as food gift cards, groceries, diapers and cleaning supplies. Daniel Altenau, director of communications and disaster services for Catholic Charities of Raleigh, noted that while the eye of the hurricane headed south through South Carolina, some of the heaviest rains dropped in coastal and central North Carolina over a period of three days. He expected the biggest damage to come after the rains when North Carolina’s rivers crest and flood the surrounding areas. He said, “We have a lot of people in shelters.”
Kelly Kaminski, director of disaster services for Catholic Charities of South Carolina, noted that while Horry County, which borders North Carolina, received heavy rainfall, North Carolina bore the brunt of the storm. Still, like Raleigh, the diocese is expecting the rivers to crest in the upcoming days and cause extensive flooding.
Father Mark Betti is pastor at St. Brendan the Navigator Parish in Shallotte, a coastal town in North Carolina 45 miles south of Wilmington, one of the cities hardest hit by Florence. The rectory is six miles away from the parish church; Father Betti opted to ride out the storm at the parish church, living there five days as the slow-moving hurricane made its way across the state.
One day, during especially heavy winds, he heard a loud crash over his head, and debris fell from the ceiling. He said, “I thought a helicopter crashed on the roof. But when I was able to go outside, I couldn’t find out what hit it.”
His presence at the church saved it from significant damage, as it had many leaks and he was able to “put buckets all over the place to catch the water.” The church ordinarily doesn’t leak when it rains, so he attributes the water to the heavy winds blowing rain in through crevices.
The ceiling in different parts of the church collapsed, and the electricity was off for two days. His most difficult challenge was communicating with parishioners. He said, “I was able to email them that the church was closed, and everything was cancelled due to the storm.”
U.S. Coast Guard members help Roger Hedgpeth, carrying his
dog Bodie, get to higher ground Sept. 16 after Tropical Storm Florence in Lumberton, N.C. The storm, downgraded to a tropical depression, was poised to affect more than 10 million the week of Sept. 17. CNS photo via Jason Miczek, Reuters
To his amazement, some parishioners showed up for Sunday Mass in the midst of “torrential rains.” He joked, “It turns out that getting them not to come to church was more difficult than getting them to come to church.”
Father Betti has lived in North Carolina for 22 years, and describes Florence as the worst storm he’s experienced since Hurricanes Bertha and Fran in 1996. When he was finally able to drive back to the parish rectory on Monday evening, he was amazed by the devastation. He said, “It was like something out of an apocalypse movie: trees down, debris everywhere and little traffic on the streets.”
A large tree beside the rectory fell over. However, the tree fell in the opposite direction of the structure. Had it fallen the other way, the rectory would have sustained major damage.
Parishioners immediately descended on the parish after the storm eased to begin the clean-up; professional contractors will also be needed for more difficult repairs.
Father noted that he had come to St. Brendan’s just two months ago. He mused, “It was Mother Nature’s way of saying, ‘Welcome to Shallotte, Father Mark.’”
Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, North Carolina, was in the path of the hurricane, but was spared some of its heaviest rains, said Franciscan Father Chris VanHaight, pastor. He said, “We thought we were going to get a lot of rain over the weekend, but we got our heaviest rain Monday morning. It was freakish.”
The area has seen “lots of water” with fallen trees and road closures. The parish, the largest in the city, had experienced some leaks and minor problems but was spared most of the damage. It was the focus of the parish now, Father said, to help other North Carolinians to recover from the storm. He said, “It is our plan as a parish now to work with Catholic Charities — the experts in disaster relief — to provide what help we can.”
Durham as a city, he noted, was “very lucky” to have avoided the worst of the storm, “but we’re hearing stories from all around us about people in dire need.”
When the residents return home, they’ll have the greatest need for supplies, Altenau said. Kaminski noted that Catholic Charities of both dioceses were working together to help those in desperate circumstances. She added, “We expect this will be a multi-year recovery effort. It’s going to take some time to get people back into their homes and have them resume a normal lifestyle again.”
Jim Graves writes from California.