By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge is heralded for assisting thousands of needy families throughout the diocese with its myriad of social service programs but the agency is also gaining a national reputation for its expertise in disaster relief operations.  

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Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge disaster relief specialists C.J. Roy, left, and Lisa Lee, right, visit with a victim of flooding in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photos provided by C.J. Roy | CCDBR 

 

In the past two years, CCDBR employees have been deployed to such places as Hawaii and North Carolina when floods, hurricanes or tornadoes have wrecked communities. Most recently, two members of the CCDBR disaster relief team spent the first two weeks of July in Oklahoma helping in relief efforts following historic flooding, the same flooding that threatened south Louisiana.  

“It was the first time Oklahoma had experienced a statewide FEMA declaration,” said C.J. Roy, disaster operations coordinator for CCDBR. “Even though they get tornadoes all of the time, it was the first time they ever had an event of this size.”  

Roy, who teamed with CCDBR communications director and disaster specialist Carol Spruell after floods inundated parts of Hawaii in 2018, and Lisa Lee were deployed to the Sooner state to help Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Tulsa in relief efforts. Catholic Charities of Tulsa had contacted Catholic Charities USA for assistance which in turn called CCDBR.  

Roy said roles vary in each disaster relief effort but basically consist of answering the needs of the receiving agency. 

He said the jobs may consist from setting up a point of distribution site, distributing water and cleaning kits to infrastructure support, such as helping out in the office, gathering information from survivors, outreach to victims and field assessments.

Often, Lee said, the CCDBR relief team will drive through neighborhoods looking for damaged homes and putting flyers on doors to inform residents of available resources. 

“If there is a damaged home, debris, mucked out and left by the streets, folks cleaning up, we are trying to get an idea of what their needs are so that we can help the local agency find resources for folks that have been affected,” Roy said. 

“We (also) look to see if there is any activity going on,” Lee said. “If there is nothing being done, no one out there working on anything, that is an indication of an area that might need a little bit more help than some other areas where people are working.” 

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Flooding and tornadoes swept through the Oklahoma area earlier this year, causing widespread damage. During the first two weeks in July, Catholic Charities of the Diocese Baton Rouge disaster relief specialists C.J. Roy and Lisa Lee spent two weeks assisting Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma personal and victims.  

 

Perhaps the team’s most valuable contribution is the ability to assist the local agency as well as victims navigate the myriad of red tape of federal help, such as FEMA and other programs. Roy admitted CCDBR has had plenty of experience, including the aftermath of several hurricanes and the flood of 2016.  

He said Catholic Charities in Tulsa had taken applications for 450-460 households that had gone through Multi Agency Recovery Centers (MARCS) for assistance. He said those victims had received assistance in the forms of gift cards and various groups, including the Knights of Columbus and Red Cross had been dispatched to help those people with mucking out their homes. 

Statewide, there were nearly 4,800 FEMA declared registrations. 

“From what they told us, (CCDBR’s assistance) was extremely helpful for them because it was something they had never been through on a large scale,” Lee said. “And so what we did was a little bit of everything but the main thing was to help them develop their disaster program. So we helped structure their program in a way that fits within (the agency’s) staffing and organizational structure.” 

Although Oklahoma is only about four percent Catholic, Lee said she was astounded to learn that Catholic Charities in Tulsa has a core of nearly 4,000 volunteers. Part of structuring the agency’s disaster relief program was figuring out a way to tap into the volunteers to do the recovery work, Lee said. 

“(The training) includes calling survivors and providing information, providing resources to help guide the recovery process that include asking the right questions, to ask survivors what they have received so far so that they may be eligible for other benefits that they could pursue,” Lee said. 

Roy and Lee agree that each deployment provides an opportunity to learn what other agencies are doing and perhaps bring ideas to CCDBR. The Oklahoma deployment was no different, as upon returning the Baton Rouge, CCDBR immediately had several hundred fliers that could be hung on doors that include important information, including phone numbers on available resources following a natural disaster. 

“When people are working on their houses they might not have time to get to a MARC and by the time they get there the resources might be gone,” Lee said. “This is a good way to reach people where they are and get the word out what is going on.” 

Additionally, Lee said watching how Catholic Charities of Tulsa use their large cache of volunteers during a disaster response has CCDBR thinking how a similar model can be employed in the diocese. 

She added the Tulsa agency was receiving backpacks of small toys, coloring books and crayons. The backpacks were donated to needed families along with a note of encouragement from children not affected by the disaster. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever done that here before,” Lee said. “The children need something to do.” 

She said CCDBR is thinking of creative ways to engage volunteers in similar ways as Catholic Charities of Tulsa. A new program is in the design phase that will engage volunteers not only in disaster preparedness but in other areas as well, including training throughout the year.