Refuge and reprieve for the distressed
Driving into Houston a few days after Hurricane Harvey swept through eastern Texas in late August, J. Antonio Fernandez saw huge piles of sheetrock, carpets, clothes and other debris stacked along the streets in America’s fourth-largest city.
“People had nothing inside their houses,” said Fernandez, a member of Legatus’ San Antonio Chapter who serves as the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Many with nothing left
Fernandez is one of dozens of Legates who volunteered time, talents and resources to help the people in Texas and South Florida whose homes and property were badly damaged or destroyed from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which combined caused hundreds of billions of dollars in estimated damages.
Legates collected, packaged, shipped and delivered in-kind donations and relief items that included clothes, food, first-aid kits, cleaning supplies and care packages. Legatus members and their fellow volunteers also helped to provide temporary shelters during the storms, coordinated relief efforts between their companies and public agencies, and have donated money to help people pay for the costs of cleaning and repairing their homes.
Networking organizations for unified effort
“Legatus provided leadership in connecting organizations that might not otherwise have been in contact with one another throughout this,” said Anthony DeToto, a member of Legatus’ Houston Chapter.
DeToto said seven Legatus Houston members are involved with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. They helped to provide bottled water, non-perishable foods, canned goods, sweaters, blankets and jackets. Many houses of worship in the Houston area, including Catholic parishes, opened their doors to serve as temporary shelters.
“A number of the Legates are helping at their local parishes and hosting meals for those who have gone through Harvey,” DeToto said. “And not just Thanksgiving meals, but regular meals on a Tuesday night where they’ll bring in 15 families at a time, then match them up with parishioners who ask them what else they need.
In addition, a local Catholic foundation in Houston that wants to remain anonymous is donating $25,000 to help parishes cover the deductibles on their insurance policies. “People are doing their part to chip in in various ways with their time and treasure,” DeToto added.
Ave Maria provides shelter
In South Florida, Jim Towey, the president of Ave Maria University and a member of Legatus’ Naples Chapter, directed the university’s field house to serve as a temporary shelter when Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm at the time, swept through the region on the weekend of Sept. 10. Hundreds of people were also sheltered in the university’s dormitories and ballroom.
“We ended up sheltering a total of 1,200 people on our campus the day that Hurricane Irma came through,” said Towey, who added that the hurricane caused about a quarter of a million dollars in damages to the university. During the storm, a tornado touched down on the campus and literally moved the stadium’s football bleachers onto the field.
Towey said the university took in many people from the farmworker community in nearby Immokalee. Elderly patients with dementia and other illnesses were housed in the dorms and looked after by the university’s nursing students.
“It was quite an experience for our university community, but a wonderful opportunity to see the Gospel come to life with our students.”
Meals after days unfed
When people were permitted to leave the campus a few days after the hurricane, several Ave Maria students delivered 8,000 bottles of water and two vans full of food into the area’s trailer parks.
“They went trailer to trailer, passing out food. Many people said it was the first food they had in days,” Towey said. “It really was a chance to live out the Gospel of St. Matthew, when the Lord says, ‘When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat.’”
Legates helped in any way they could. Kelby Woodard, a member of Legatus’ Dallas Chapter who is also president of Cristo Rey Dallas College Preparatory School, and his school community assisted their counterparts at the Cristo Rey school in Houston. The Houston school had been mostly spared by Hurricane Harvey, but many of the low income families the school serves had their homes flooded.
“The first thing we did was contact Catholic Charities in town, and they donated about 300 food packs. One pack represents enough food for one person for a month,” Woodard said. “We loaded those into our Cristo Rey vans and a group of students and myself and a couple of faculty members drove down, including my wife, and delivered those food packs.”
Raising much-needed cash
Woodard said the Cristo Rey Dallas board, which includes Woodard and another Legatus member, signed a $30,000 check for the relief efforts. He added that the Cristo Rey Dallas school’s students raised $3,000 by themselves for their fellow students in Houston.
“The communities surrounding the school in Houston were pretty devastated,” Woodard said “When you drove down the streets, they were full of debris that families had started taking out of their homes and putting outside along the street.”
Vincent Hess, the president of Legatus’ Dallas Chapter, said he and the other Legates in Dallas were especially concerned for the Houston Legates because they have many common professional and social connections. He said Legates in both cities were in frequent contact in the days leading up to Hurricane Harvey and afterward.
“We’re upstream from Houston but we certainly empathize with what they’re going through,” Hess said. “It really affects just about everyone in Dallas at some level, either on a personal or business level. This continues to be a incredibly and horribly devastating event for them.”
Hess said he has family in Houston, adding that they saw the rising waters approach their homes, though they were spared from any flood damage.
“A lot of people were not that fortunate,” Hess said.
DeToto, of the Legatus Houston Chapter, said nine of the 12 homes on his street were badly damaged from Hurricane Harvey. He said the local schools opened two weeks late, and there were no trash disposal services in his part of town for about a month.
Remediation will take years
“The remediation that is going to have to be done is going to last years,” DeToto said. “Some of the outlying communities were really hard hit.”
As public officials in Texas and Florida seek to rebuild the hurricane-damaged areas, Legatus members say they plan to continue helping out with the relief and recovery efforts. DeToto said his Houston Chapter intends to continue buying personal safety equipment such as goggles, masks and ventilators for people who will be repairing water-damaged homes.
Extending to Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands
Fernandez, from San Antonio, estimated that 60 Legates and more than 3,000 volunteers from his part of Texas have so far helped out people not only in Houston, but also those people who were affected by the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Legates have driven trucks to Houston, delivered food on a plane to Puerto Rico and collected more than six million dollars in in-kind donations.
“Those are amazing numbers,” said Fernandez, a Legatus member for five years who added that he and his fellow Legates will next be looking to help people in Houston who need housing.
Said Fernandez, “I think it’s our responsibility as a Catholic community to provide these people with housing, as much as we can at least.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.