Harvey, Irma, Maria, earthquakes and women religious: still caring

Franciscan Fr. John Tran Nguyen, pastor of St. Peter Church in Rockport, Texas, stands inside his destroyed church Sept. 8 in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (CNS / Bob Roller)

Editor's note: Global Sisters Report followed up with women religious who have spent the last few months and this holiday season helping others and themselves recover from a string of natural disasters, including three hurricanes and two earthquakes.

The Daughters of Mary Immaculate, known as the Marianist Sisters, is a small congregation, with only 15 sisters in the United States. However, two natural disasters affected the small community in a span of a few weeks.

Marianist Sr. Nicole Trahan's father had to be evacuated from his Port Arthur, Texas, home after Hurricane Harvey caused record flooding. Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on the Texas coast Aug. 25, displacing 30,000 people and killing 90.

Trahan wrote in Global Sisters Report that in less than 12 hours, the city went from no rain at all to water 8 feet deep in the streets. By the time a Coast Guard helicopter rescued her father, she wrote, the water in his house was 6 feet deep.

"I don't think he had shoes on when he was evacuated, so he only had the clothes he was wearing," said Marianist Sr. Laura Leming. "You can't carry a suitcase when you're being airlifted out."

Residents use boats to evacuate people trapped in their Houston homes from floodwaters Aug. 28 after Hurricane Harvey. (CNS / Reuters / Adrees Latif)

Once he was safe, Leming said, the Marianists provided him with basic necessities, including gift cards so he could buy clothes.

Just a few weeks later, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, where the international congregation of Marianists have a school. Maria made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane Sept. 20 on Puerto Rico, possibly killing more than 1,000 people and wiping out much of the island's infrastructure.

The storm caused significant damage to the school's cafeteria, but the congregation was determined to reopen the school as soon as possible to establish some normality for the students. But there were other problems besides the damage to the building.

Because students' parents couldn't work — at one point, virtually the entire island was without electricity, telephones and cellphone service — they couldn't pay the tuition fees that keep the school running.

The Marianist Brothers quickly established a fund to raise money, and Marianists across the country began making donations, which helped repair the school, pay for generators and offer assistance to students' families to rebuild their homes or cover their tuition fees, Leming said.

"Even small congregations have figured out ways to assist," she said.

Volunteer Kaely Martinez, 11, assists Martha Vega with relief goods Oct. 24 at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Las Marias, Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria destroyed Vega's home. (CNS / Bob Roller)

More than physical damage

Adrian Dominican Sr. Pat Erickson evacuated her trailer home in Key West, Florida, a few days ahead of Hurricane Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 at Cudjoe Key, just east of Key West, killing 90 in the United States. After the storm, with all lines of communication down and highways closed, she had no idea what had happened to her home or neighbors, and all she could do was wait and pray. Some said it might be six months before residents could return.

Erickson was able to go home Sept. 24, two weeks after the storm, but still had no idea what she would find. A neighbor told her to prepare herself because conditions in their trailer park were awful.

"There was no way I could have been prepared for the destruction and conditions I saw as I drove south," Erickson wrote in an account of the storm and its aftermath. "I cried most of the way wondering how anyone or anything could survive such chaos — and how people will begin again, if they can."

Hurricanes often spawn tornadoes within their already-intense winds, and officials said a tornado had swept through the trailer park.

A damaged trailer at a mobile home park in Kissimmee, Florida, on Sept. 12 in the wake of Hurricane Irma (CNS / Reuters / Gregg Newton)

"I witnessed entire trailers decimated; some trailers were half gone; tree tops were cut off. There were no leaves. Bushes had been uprooted and strewn everywhere," Erickson wrote.

And then she came to where her own trailer stood. It was intact, though a neighbor's shed had fallen against it and buried the electrical box.

Though debris is being collected and homes and buildings repaired and rebuilt across Key West, there was other damage, as well.

"This hurricane was a very traumatic event, even if one's home was not destroyed," she wrote. "To live among the destruction day after day has given me a sense of what people feel like when they live in a war zone or live on an island after a hurricane with no place to go to hide from or forget the reality."

People have told her that she was blessed because her trailer was not destroyed, but she wonders if that means others who lost everything are not blessed.

"I will never be the same, even though my tears are less these days," she wrote. "But I feel closer to and have some understanding and solidarity with people whose tears only increase because of the dire circumstances of their lives."

Joan Thoman looks for keepsakes in her destroyed house Sept. 22 in Florida's Big Pine Key in the wake of Hurricane Irma. (CNS / Reuters / Carlo Allegri)

A fight with the insurance company

After Hurricane Harvey, the Missionary Carmelites of St. Teresa provincial house in Houston had almost 2 feet of water in it, and there was extensive damage to two other buildings sisters live in.

"We're still in the process of reconstruction," said Sr. Ivana Menchaca of the Missionary Carmelites of St. Teresa. "We're still waiting on an insurance decision on the roof — the insurance company doesn't want to cover our roof" because they said there was not substantial damage caused by wind.

There was some financial assistance for repairs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Menchaca said, but more help came from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and Support Our Aging Religious.

And as they were dealing with their own damage, there was also the neighborhood around them, some of whom were suffering badly.

"There's a small community of trailer homes down the street that was completely flooded," Menchaca said. "A majority of them are Hispanic immigrants, so they're not getting a lot of help."

The sisters operate a small, informal food pantry, and though they don't track the number of people using it, Menchaca said it is obvious many more people are in need since the storm. They are also sharing any donations they cannot use with neighbors in need.

Liz Vestal looks at her destroyed home in Rockport, Texas, Sept. 8 in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (CNS / Bob Roller)

Hosting a couple with a flooded house

The Sisters of Divine Providence in San Antonio were far enough away from the path of the storm to escape damage but close enough to assist in the days afterward.

St. Anita Brenek said the sisters' Houston house has a small cottage in back that they use as a guesthouse. Since Hurricane Harvey, the cottage has been home to a couple whose house was flooded.

While the couple is grateful, Brenek said, the sister who lives in the house with the cottage, Sr. Rosalie Karstedt, has found she has received much more from the experience than she has given and is glad they are there.

Brenek said the sisters have been telling other congregations that if they want to donate to assist victims of Hurricane Harvey, they recommend The Metropolitan Organization in Houston, which concentrates on long-term help to get people re-established and long-term planning for those who lack financial or other resources.

'There's still a lot of people that are hurting'

Magnificat Houses, a ministry of the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist that provides housing for homeless people in Houston, always has a demand for its services. But the need has greatly increased since the hurricane, said John Reece, director of operations for the not-for-profit.

But while the need has increased, he said, so have the resources as people have stepped up to help.

"So many people were displaced [in Houston], but a lot of apartments were opened for them or they're living with friends or relatives," Reece said. "We still have one employee living with relatives."

As for the ministry itself, officials are still working to repair the damage the storm caused. Magnificat Houses has 15 homes, and while none had interior flooding, there was a lot of roof damage. Their soup kitchen and two thrift shops had to be closed several days because of flooding.

"We were pretty lucky," Reece said. "But there's still a lot of people that are hurting."

Rosalino Alonso Lopez, 75, cleans earthquake debris from his house Oct. 1 in Union Hidalgo, Oaxaga, Mexico. (CNS / Keith Dannemiller)

Earthquake recovery in Mexico

The Cordi-Marian Sisters in San Antonio raised money for displaced people in Houston but focused much of their efforts in the last few months on helping those affected by the earthquakes in Mexico. The congregation was founded in Mexico in 1921.

On Sept. 8, an 8.1-magnitude quake off the southern coast of Mexico killed at least 90 people; on Sept. 19, a 7.1-magnitude quake south of Mexico City killed more than 200, including dozens at an elementary school that collapsed.

The sisters raised about $4,000, said Cordi-Marian Sr. Teresa Cruz, and sent it to sisters in Mexico, who used it to help people rebuild their homes in the small towns where aid is less likely to arrive.

They raised about $1,500 for one of their sister's family in Houston, as well as blankets and other items. They stay in touch with them, Cruz said, and stand ready to give more assistance if needed.

'We've heard the cries of our town'

More than 100 days after Puerto Rico's Hurricane Maria, Divine Providence Sr. Elsa Medina said the "situation is still very difficult": Some communication is still out and many people are without drinkable water.

"But as religious, we've thrown ourselves into the streets in response to the call from our religious conference," she said. "We've heard the cries of our town and decided to encounter them, accompany them, animate them, and fill them with joy and hope, which is what we can do at this time."

Beyond bringing hope to the victims, Medina has also partnered with Water With Blessings, a worldwide network of sisters that equips women with water filters for sharing, with women religious facilitating the process on the ground.

Medina met the program's executive director, Ursuline Sr. Larraine Lauter, when she was in St. Louis last year for a conference. When Lauter told her about the program, she was interested but never thought she'd need to participate.

A year later, Lauter called and offered to send filters.

Wreaths and flowers pay tribute to people who died when a building collapsed during an earthquake Sept. 19 south of Mexico City. (CNS / Reuters / Nacho Doce)

"When she called, that's when I realized how grave the situation was, because we didn't have communication and couldn't watch the news, couldn't see anything that was happening," Medina said.

A priest who worked with Water With Blessings came to Puerto Rico to train Medina on using and distributing the filters. Now, five communities are working to distribute 350 filters: Sisters of the Good Shepherd, Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of Fatima, Sacred Heart Sisters, Daughters of Charity, and Sisters of Divine Providence.

Medina and her congregation have also been handing out canned foods and nonperishables, and every morning, they prepare hot breakfasts that they take to different homes. In addition to giving out clothes and solar lamps, they also go door to door with doctors and nurses to treat the sick and bedridden in a town close to Arecibo, where she currently lives.

"It's been difficult, but at the same time, it's been important to see the reality of Puerto Rico," Medina said. "We've discovered much about our country, because we tend to do our ministries abroad, even though we have a lot of poverty here.

"People who you encounter who feel like their world is ending — we can be the ones to show them what we can do together, how we can get through this. This has called us to see our immediate surroundings and recognize the poverty among us."

Sara Ocasio washes clothes in a river Oct. 9 near her home in the Trujillo Alto municipality outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. (CNS / Reuters / Shannon Stapleton)

Throughout all this time without electricity, neighbors would visit one another to play board games or dominoes, Medina said. They've learned to use every bottle of water to its last drop, not taking for granted anything they have.

And while there are still towns or neighborhoods they haven't reached, they're always figuring out where to go next and how to reach the isolated areas.

"All religious communities are out on the streets," Medina said. "Nobody has stayed at home doing nothing. We're all off the bench."

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook. Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]

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