Hurricane Sandy
People affected by Hurricane Sandy look through donated clothing outside St. Gianna Beretta Molla Church in Northfield, N.J., Nov. 5. CNS photo by Bob Roller

Driving around Staten Island, N.Y., in early November, Father Michael Martine saw firsthand the devastation that Hurricane Sandy left in its wake. 

Many homes were destroyed, and some washed away into the ocean. Entire residential streets were wiped out and cluttered with debris. Electrical transformers were still exploding. Sandy’s devastating waves even pushed a tanker boat ashore into the middle of a street. 

“Staten Island is pretty much wiped out. ... It looks like a war zone down here,” said Father Martine, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Staten Island. He told Our Sunday Visitor that people in his parish were without power for 36 hours. Other parts of Staten Island fared worse, with widespread flooding, water damage and reports of at least 19 deaths. 

“People are just devastated. We are dealing with so much grief,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time to get back to where we were before, but we are a resilient community. We’ll come back.”

Relief efforts

When Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast on Oct. 29, several dioceses, as well as organizations such as Catholic Charities and the Knights of Columbus, mobilized to provide relief services, opening up temporary homeless shelters and distributing food, clothing and other emergency supplies. 

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See Page 2 to find out how to help victims of Sandy.

Sandy caused widespread flooding, shore erosion, downed trees, power outages and destruction over a large swath of the East Coast and the Midwest. The so-called Frankenstorm left more than 7.5 million homes and businesses without power. At least 75 people — 40 of them in New York City — died. 

On Staten Island, two boys — ages 2 and 4 — drowned after being washed away from their mother, who had the painful task of identifying her sons when their bodies turned up in a marsh two days later. Their deaths in part symbolized the tragedy and grief that swept through New York in Sandy’s wake, but Father Martine said the community was coming together to help one another. 

“People are donating clothes, money and food,” he said. “It’s good to see people reaching out with compassion to those who need it. This is what Christ would want us to do.” 

The various local Catholic Charities agencies have also taken up that call, and are working with several other relief agencies, such as the American Red Cross, to provide aid to affected areas. 

The Knights of Columbus donated $50,000 each to the state councils of New York and New Jersey to assist relief efforts. The Knights also launched an online solicitation drive, with 100 percent of proceeds going to relief efforts.

Coming together

On Nov. 3, Catholic Charities of New York’s executive director, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, joined New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Chuck Schumer in loading and distributing emergency food supplies at a New York City armory in Manhattan.  

Lower Manhattan and large swaths of Brooklyn and Queens, especially Howard Beach and the Rockaways, were devastated by massive flooding, damaged buildings and power outages that crippled the city’s public transportation system. Many New Yorkers were forced to evacuate their homes and stay in temporary homeless shelters. 

“Everybody is working together. There are almost 100 emergency food pantries in Brooklyn and Queens. We’ve just been all over the place in trying to help,” said Stefanie Gutierrez, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Brooklyn, which encompasses Queens. 

Like Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio announced a second collection during Masses on Nov. 4 to assist with relief efforts. Bishop DiMarzio celebrated Mass that day at St. Thomas More Church in Breezy Point, Queens, where almost every family in the parish was displaced because of the storm. 

“Most of our families throughout Brooklyn and Queens are middle class or working poor. All are so incredibly generous to those suffering in other parts of our country and world. Now we need to come together to assist our neighbors,” Bishop DiMarzio said.

In it for the long term

Hurricane Sandy also battered large swaths of New Jersey, particularly Cape May and Atlantic Counties. 

“What we’ve got in four counties, I would describe as scattered damage, mainly tree limbs down, debris blown about, with fairly significant flooding in the outer portion of our diocese,” said Kevin Hickey, executive director at Catholic Charities of Camden, N.J. 

Hickey told OSV in early November that aid workers had not yet been able to gain access to the barrier islands of Ocean City or Atlantic City. 

“The parishes there have all been evacuated, but at least one priest stayed behind in Atlantic City,” Hickey said. “He’s without power, without electricity, and he’s got water in the basement up to the ceiling.” 

He added that some parishes in the barrier islands agreed to allow Catholic Charities to use their properties as distribution points where relief supplies could be gathered and sent to locations where they were needed. He said the planning began several days before Sandy arrived. 

“When we realized there was a strong likelihood that this was coming our way, and that it would be a serious situation, we knew it would be necessary to set up an incident command team to structure our response. I’m very grateful we did that,” Hickey said. “This is another speciality of Catholic Charities. We hang around for the long term. We’re not just on the ground for a week. We’re going to hang in there for a long time.” 

Local Catholic Charities agencies have also been active in relief and recovery operations in West Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New England, among other locations. Catholic Charities agencies in non-affected regions sent volunteers and aid workers to assist with the post-Sandy recovery. 

Kim Burgo, vice president of disaster operations for Catholic Charities USA, said Catholic Charities aid workers in West Virginia could not drive on some roads because of the heavy snow that the state received in Sandy’s wake. She said the snow caved in several roofs. 

Burgo said people are in need of blankets, food, water, handwarmers, gloves, diapers, formula. She urged cash donations for aid workers to purchase supplies in the communities and stimulate local economies. 

“Local residents can rely on Catholic Charities to provide ongoing support until folks are able to recover fully, and that doesn’t happen overnight,” she added. “We remain in the community for the life of the community, so we can assist disaster survivors in their needs and get them back on track.”

Day-to-day struggles

In the Caribbean, where Hurricane Sandy swept through before it made landfall on the East Coast, Catholic Relief Services has been involved in recovery efforts in Haiti, Cuba and Jamaica. 

According to CRS, the hardest hit area was Santiago de Cuba, where nine people were killed and tens of thousands of others were forced to find shelter.  

Lauren Young, a CRS regional technical adviser for emergencies, told OSV that Catholic Relief Services transferred $20,000 to Caritas Cuba to purchase food, water, water-purification tablets, as well as construction supplies to help families rebuild their homes. 

Young, who is based in the Dominican Republic, said the eastern provinces of Jamaica suffered significant agricultural losses. In one part of Kingston, at least 20 families lost their homes because of falling trees. 

In Haiti, Sandy devastated large areas of the island nation’s southern peninsula. Young said CRS, after conducting a rapid assessment, distributed emergency food rations to 1,125 people and opened emergency shelters along the south coast. The agency was also prepared to begin distributing 15-day emergency food rations, as well as hygiene kits, to about 1,850 households in that country. 

“There are tens of thousands of people who have suffered intense losses and are really struggling to meet their day-to-day needs like getting water to drink and food to eat,” Young said. “There is a lot of work to do.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.