Date of publication: 09/05/2018

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma: the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul faces the storms

World News

These recent days have been rough for members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in the United States. The 2 tropical storms, Harvey and Irma, passed across Texas then Florida, with devastating force, passing over the Caribbean and causing unprecedented damage, to the point that Hurricane Harvey is now considered to be the most costly meteorological disaster in the history of the United States, totalling some 290 billion dollars.

Behind the figures, it is human lives which have been most deeply affected. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Texas had to deal very quickly with calls for help coming from the affected zones, particularly in Houston where the local SSVP is has been on a war-footing since the passage of Harvey on 28 August.

In addition to calling for donations, whether for supplies, non-perishable foods or money, the Council of Houston has placed a “wish list” on the site to encourage donors to supply items which will be really useful to victims, such as kitchen utensils, basic hygiene products, clothing.

On its website, it has posted messages informing the people affected about emergency measures and procedures to follow in the hours following the disaster. The SSVP is also offering administrative support to direct people to state organisations to state agencies giving aid to the victims of natural disasters. A practical advice guide is available on line, with step-by-step guidance to the procedures to follow to recover a normal life.

A sense of solidarity has spread throughout the American continent: Local Councils of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul have launched collections and there are many volunteers who have spontaneously taken initiatives to come to the aid of the victims. So in Ohio, 2 volunteers from the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul decided to send a container of emergency supplies to Texas. The local SSVP, together with another organisation (Humans with Purpose) supported this initiative by placing their dining hall at their disposal in order to centralise donations. Thanks to social networking, a truck was quickly found and the convoy set out a few days later.

A little further away, in Canada, a Vincentian member took the initiative to take a container of babies’ nappies to Texas. “We have too many nappies”, she explains. A local company lent the truck, and a collection raised the funds to pay fuel costs.

Along the path of the hurricanes, the Caribbean has been severely affected and there have been several tragic losses. The SSVP Councils in some islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda are on the ground to assess the scale of need. According to our fellow member, Edmund Keane (International Vice-President  America 1), “it is difficult at the moment to get a clear view of the situation. In Trinidad and Tobago, the SSVP has already launched a collection. The island of Barbuda has been entirely evacuated and its residents moved to Antigua; we are waiting for more information from our zone coordinator on site”.

In Florida, where Hurricane Irma has led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people living in coastal areas, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul was mobilised in the very first hours. Coordinating its work with that of other organisations such as the Red Cross or Salvation Army, it helped to evacuate the victims and opened its emergency accommodation facilities to welcome the refugees.

At federal level, the American SSVP has been prepared for years to deal with disasters. It is one of the founder Members of NVOAD – National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster launched in 1969. The National Council has also created a “natural disasters” division which is now very experienced in help for victims, particularly through the “House in a box” programme. This helps to provide affected families with material assistance in the form of a “pack” containing emergency products: bedding, blankets, kitchen utensils, clothing, food, medicines, etc.  In addition to material support, the programme also includes long-term support for victims, since a life can be turned upside down in a few seconds, but the road to reconstruction is much longer.