By RENEE WEBB, Content and Design Coordinator, Lumen Media

Republished with permission by Dawn Prosser, Director of Communications, Lumen Media of the Diocese of Sioux City

The devastation caused by the Category 4 Hurricane Ida that slammed into the Louisiana coast on Aug. 29 was so great and far-reaching that Catholic Charities USA requested help from other Catholic Charities offices.

“They sent out an email to all of the directors across the country asking if anyone had any staff that could provide at least two staff members to assist with a virtual deployment,” said Amy Bloch, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Sioux City. “They wanted at least two staff so they would be able to provide support to each other.”

The commitment request was for two therapists to offer at least 20 hours a week for two weeks, conducting disaster needs assessments for victims of Hurricane Ida via phone and connecting them with community resources.

Even though the diocesan Catholic Charities is short-staffed and thus the manpower is a bit strained, after Bloch spoke with clinical supervisor Benita Triplett they determined it was important for the diocesan agency to do its part to assist the storm-ravaged southern Louisiana and give back to others in need.

Triplett offered to fill one of the two spots and Sarayh Gutierrez, a new bilingual therapist in the Sioux City office, filled the second spot for the virtual deployment coordinated through Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

“By the following Monday, they scheduled training,” said Bloch. “They trained us on how to use their site, how things would work, on Louisiana speak – as they call it – and how to understand their culture so they would feel comfortable talking to our staff on the phone.” The next week the therapists started the deployment by taking live calls.

Triplett and Gutierrez made needs assessments on the phone Monday through Friday from Sept. 20 to Oct. 1. Triplett manned the phone in the mornings and her counterpart did so in the afternoons.

As part of the live call team, Triplett explained, “There were about 27 questions on the assessment – where they live, where they currently are living, what damage was done to their home and what their urgent needs are.”

The therapists informed the hurricane victims of steps they should take such as contacting FEMA and their insurance as well as connected them with resources to fulfill immediate needs while they waited for a case manager to call them back.

“The need is so great. There are so many people who have been impacted by the hurricane that there is no way they (Catholic Charities in Baton Rouge) could have handled all of the calls themselves,” explained Triplett, who noted in addition to the live call team, there were others serving on a call back team to see if needs have been met.

While most individuals who called in were from Louisiana, some hurricane victims were calling from Texas and other neighboring states because their homes were no longer habitable.

“Some people completely lost their homes, some were in need of major repair and others had minor damage,” described Triplett.

The calls – which were back-to-back and were 15 to 30 minutes long – ranged from seeking basic needs such as clothes and food to help with tracking down cleaning products or debris removal. They also received calls from people who are now homeless because they can’t live in their homes any longer, the motels and shelters are full.

Triplett pointed out that it was very beneficial to have Gutierrez on the virtual deployment team with her Spanish-speaking skills. There were even times when Triplett would take a call and she would have Gutierrez speak with them because they spoke Spanish.

“For me it was fulfilling work because I enjoy being able to help someone by talking to them and offering reassurance, letting them know that some help is on the way,” Triplett said.

Unfortunately, in some cases, they had to let people know that it could take a week to 10 days to obtain some forms of assistance but in other cases help came quicker. For instance, one woman who was residing in a shelter called in and mentioned she needed a walker. They were able get her a walker that same day.

Triplett is aware that many of these hurricane victims were at risk even prior to Ida, so the storm damage really impacted them.

“I am glad that we could participate in the virtual deployment,” she said. “Because of COVID-19, everything has changed and a new way was born with how to reach people. I believe that virtual deployments will be around for a while. It won’t be that everyone must go to the place of disaster to help. With it being virtual, more people can help out and you can reach more people.

Ideally, Bloch said, it would be best to have therapists from Louisiana who know the area and resources handle this crisis, but the virtual deployment was a great option with an emergency like this. This was the first virtual deployment that the diocesan Catholic Charites has participated in. She called the experience humbling to be able to help others whom she knows “would do the same for us.”

“Benita and Sarayh did a fantastic job. Imagine being on the phone for four hours a day hearing people’s heart-breaking stories of people who have nothing,” she said, adding that the staff from Baton Rouge have been “so grateful for the help we have been able to provide them. They have been working non-stop since the hurricane came. It has definitely been a good experience for us.”

For those interesting is offering financial assistance, go to: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/hurricaneidaccdbr.