VENICE, Fla. — By mid-morning Oct. 4, one week after Hurricane Ian made landfall, there was a line of cars wrapped around the vast San Pedro Catholic Church parking lot and down the adjacent street, waiting their turn to get water bottles, bags of ice, and tarps loaded into their trunks to bring back home.
The operation at the North Port, Florida church is the largest of 10 distribution sites Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice is involved in across southwest Florida to get people essential resources in the aftermath of the hurricane. As of Oct. 6, the sites had served more than 20,500 people.
Those sites — set up at diocesan churches and Catholic Charities locations — will continue to operate in the weeks to come, as many people are still in the earliest stages of damage assessment and recovery from the historic storm that killed more than 100 people and caused billions of dollars worth of damage.
Going forward, though, with those sites having hit their operational stride and trucks consistently arriving with resources, Catholic Charities and the diocese will also consider how they can help address the intermediate and long-term housing needs that many people have.
Eddie Gloria, CEO of Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice, said he expects a “massive” housing crisis.
“We’re aware that it’s going to be a protracted process of making adjustments as we’re going and being creative and coming up with some solutions that you may not have seen before,” Gloria told The Tablet. “We’ll also need a lot of solutions for the time being, and I’m not sure how the county will respond, but we’re going to come together and figure it out.”
The Diocese of Venice covers 10 counties in Southwest Florida, including the communities hardest hit by Hurricane Ian. It has 61 parishes with a Catholic population of about 240,000 people.
The Tablet rode along with Gloria last week to check on multiple distribution sites while he fielded calls from two phones to discuss the feasibility of some of his intermediate and long-term ideas. His approach, for now, is to partner with contractors — plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and even Mennonite builders — to help Catholic Charities employees and diocesan schools’ staff and families.
The idea, Gloria said, is to get the diocesan employees back online as quickly as possible so they can be at full strength to provide full support to the community. That includes five Catholic Charities employees whose properties were severely damaged, 20 others that need to file claims for damage, and 175-200 diocesan schools’ staff and families that suffered total losses or have severe damage to their homes.
“Helping them get back online is our lifeline for our ability to help the community,” Gloria said.
For those whose homes aren’t total losses, Gloria said he hopes they can help them rebuild to a point that they can get back in their homes while they figure out the next steps. For those whose homes are total losses, Gloria said they’re exploring intermediate and long-term solutions — including utilizing the diocese’s rapid rehousing program for the homeless — to help those who lost their homes in the hurricane.
As of Oct. 11, the organization has received $130,000 in private donations for recovery efforts and another $72,000 in state aid that could, in part, be used for rebuilding efforts, according to Gloria.
Father John Belmonte, the superintendent of Catholic education for the Diocese of Venice, told The Tablet that he’s encouraging principals in diocesan schools to set up GiveSendGo pages for the families and staff that don’t have insurance so that people can donate to them directly.
Three schools — in Fort Myers and Cape Coral — won’t reopen until Oct. 17 because of the number of people in those communities who are affected. Father Belmonte said this week they’ll determine how things will change at those schools based on who can and can’t return to the classrooms.
“In Fort Myers and Cape Coral, I think we’re going to wait until next week really to see how things go because people are still waiting for power and water to come back on to really kind of do an assessment,” Father Belmonte said. “We’ll see how repairs go and who exactly is going to be incapable of coming back to work, and so we’re going to wait and see to assess that.”
“In the meantime, we’ve asked principals to provide names of families who need carpentry help, who need construction crew help, and that’s where [Catholic Charities] comes in,” he continued.
The school buildings themselves weren’t damaged that badly, in large part because of infrastructure improvements implemented after Hurricane Irma. Father Belmonte noted, though, that more improvements can be made to make the buildings stronger against potential hurricanes, and those will likely be incorporated into future building projects that are already planned.
The school communities are also involved in boots-on-the-ground recovery, organizing construction and cleanup crews to help out those affected, and helping distribute essential resources.
“You kind of do what you need to do to help people you want to serve, so that’s what we’ve been doing. I’m just very proud of our schools because they have stepped up,” Father Belmonte said.
Another key piece of the Diocese of Venice’s response to Hurricane Ian is the support it received from neighboring dioceses. Gloria was in frequent communication with Margaret Rogers, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, who offered both resources and staff.
Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, was also in town last week to distribute gift cards to different Diocese of Venice parishes. The archdiocese also has staff and volunteers in the Diocese of Venice to assist in response efforts.
Routsis-Arroyo led Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice from 2001 through early 2018. He explained to The Tablet that the seven Florida Catholic dioceses have a memorandum of understanding always to help each other when these kinds of situations arise.
“These storms are so traumatic and so overwhelming, and to know you’ve got other organizations that are your sister organizations, I think it means the world to us as directors knowing we lean on support, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel on some of this,” Routsis-Arroyo said. “So, in whatever way we can support [Gloria] and his efforts, that’s what we’ll do.”