WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Power outages, widespread flooding, canceled flights and a delayed Republican National Convention in Tampa will be the legacy of Tropical Storm Isaac in South Florida.
But with the center of the storm staying offshore and sparing Florida the full brunt of its strongest winds, Isaac’s outer bands left the state soaked but largely unscathed, apart from isolated tornado damage reported in the Venice and Palm Beach dioceses.
Florida’s seven-diocese network of church-affiliated emergency responders and Catholic Charities staff said Aug. 27 that they have been sharing information and stand ready to assist elsewhere as the slow-moving storm is expected to significantly gather strength over the Gulf of Mexico before its next landfall.
Isaac was expected to become a Category 2 hurricane as it takes aim at the Gulf Coast region, with landfall expected anywhere from New Orleans to the Florida Panhandle sometime Aug. 28 or 29. Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama declared states of emergency in anticipation of the storm’s strengthening into a hurricane — almost precisely on the seventh anniversary that Hurricane Katrina devastated the same region with high winds and flooding.
“Catholic Charities directors (in Florida) are dealing with flooding in certain parts of the state while in other areas it’s too early for any damage assessments — but they are already focused on what they can do to help the other folks,” said Florida Catholic Conference director Michael McCarron. He said he conducted a 30-minute conference call late Aug. 27 with church officials from around the state.
In the Miami area and the Florida Keys, Isaac dropped substantial rainfall, but church officials were unaware of any storm-related damage to church properties. Church leadership will wait to see how the Miami Archdiocese may be of assistance to both the Gulf Coast or possibly storm-rattled Haiti, where Isaac’s death toll has been highest, according to Deacon Richard Turcotte, chief executive officer for Miami Catholic Charities.
Deacon Turcotte told Catholic News Service that he participated in a regional emergency preparedness conference phone call Aug. 27 with church officials in the New Orleans Archdiocese as well as in Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere in Florida.
New Orleans hasn’t fully recovered from the Category 3 Katrina, which arrived on Aug. 29, 2005, killing more than 1,800 people and causing massive damage along the coast of several states.
“We are collectively reaching out through our state disaster coordinator and letting them know in other dioceses that we are on call for them, that we have resources available and we are willing to work with them,” Deacon Turcotte said. He and other Charities staff from Florida spent a number of weeks in the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss., immediately after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and with longer-term grant writing and church rebuilding projects in Mississippi.
Dioceses in Florida and the Gulf states have a kind of mutual aid agreement and a wealth of shared expertise in storm crisis management and response which may come be mobilized this week. One of the simplest ways they might be helping each other is through church collections and donations for hard-hit areas following Isaac.
Florida’s statewide disaster coordinator for Catholic Charities, Gabe Tischler, headed from the Gainesville area to Tallahassee Aug. 27 in case he may be needed in the Florida Panhandle or areas west of there.
“The No. 1 item on the agenda is to make sure everyone has an emergency plan in place, that they have good plans for helping their clients and the vulnerable populations that they serve,” said Tischler.
After speaking by phone with Catholic Charities directors in Mississippi, Texas, Alabama and Louisiana, he said there is a special concern for immigrant and non-English speaking or undocumented residents of the Gulf Coast who may be impacted by the storm surge and inland flooding, according to Tischler.
“They are all concerned about the migrant populations in particular because they tend to be the most vulnerable, including Asian-American fishermen in the coastal areas,” Tischler said, adding that immigrant or migrant populations may shun contact with civic or state emergency assistance but they will often turn to the Catholic Church for help.
The Department of Homeland Security said there will be no immigration enforcement efforts related to evacuations or sheltering for the storm. An Aug. 27 announcement from DHS said the priority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Customs and Border Protection divisions will be “to promote lifesaving and life-sustaining activities, the safe evacuation of people who are leaving the impacted area, the maintenance of public order, the prevention of the loss of property to the extent possible and the speedy recovery of the region.”
The statement noted that “laws will not be suspended, and we will be vigilant against any effort by criminals to exploit disruptions caused by the storm.” However, there will be no checkpoints for immigration enforcement in the affected areas during an evacuation, it said.
Tischler, a Florida native who worked for more than 15 months as Catholic Charities relief coordinator in Joplin, Mo., following the devastating 2011 tornado in southern Missouri, most recently coordinated church relief efforts for Lake City, a small town in North Florida impacted by flooding after Tropical Storm Debbie passed through last June.
“My role is to keep an eye on Pensacola and to be able to move in as quickly as possible and provide whatever they may need,” Tischler said. “The other charities agencies have already agreed to offer to send staff to whomever is affected.”
Contributing to this story was Patricia Zapor in Washington.