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Catholic charity providing simple but vital help in area hit hard by Hurricane Harvey

Mark Ralston | AFP
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Gift cards can go a long way in financially struggling area of Texas that was devastated by Category 5 storm.

When it comes to cleanup and rebuilding in the wake of a major natural disaster—and there have been quite a few lately in the Western hemisphere—it can be hard to know just where to begin.

But something as simple as giving out gift cards to people who are struggling can be a good starting point.

That’s what a Catholic charity based in New York has found out this week in Rockport, Texas, and the nearby town of Fulton. The Gulf Coast communities in Aransas County were the first to feel the brunt of Hurricane Harvey last month, as the Category 5 storm made landfall there. Many residents had already been struggling financially.

Malteser International Americas, the humanitarian arm of the Order of Malta, began this week distributing $75,000 in $100-denomination food and fuel cards to help those people who, they say, were forgotten by the initial wave of Hurricane Harvey relief.

“Sadly, even in the United States, the most vulnerable groups in communities are still the ones who suffer the most in the aftermath of a natural disaster,” said Jill Watson, a spokeswoman for Malteser.

Watson said that the Rockport-Fulton region, where there is a lot of poverty, was  geographically ill-prepared to withstand a storm like Harvey. The roads to these areas were flooded, making the communities inaccessible to immediate disaster relief. People who became displaced were unable to return to their homes. Often, they don’t have a car or transportation, and they often don’t have access to help.

Malteser, which is also trying to respond to Hurricane Irma damage in Florida and the two major earthquakes in Mexico, partnered with the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Rockport and the Diocese of Corpus Christi, for their ability to quickly identify those who are most vulnerable and need the greatest help in the southeast Texas region.

The Order of Malta’s Federal Association has been on the ground responding to the relief efforts since Harvey made landfall August 25.

“It’s really important that we get as much as we can to the poorest of the poor,” said Ravi Tripptrap, executive director of Malteser International Americas, by phone from Rockport on Thursday. “There are people here who couldn’t even afford $39 a month for insurance. Yesterday I was talking to an elderly couple. He’s on a 24-hour battery to get oxygen. She can hardly walk after a hip operation. There was no possibility to evacuate them. But they managed; they survived. They’re living on $500 a month from Social Security.”

Tripptrap said he was touched by the generosity of the couple, who have very little themselves.

“Because they are one of the few homes in their neighborhood with a landline, they opened their home and let friends and neighbors come in and make calls to let everyone know they were alive,” he said. “The little they have they share.”

With the gift cards, Tripptrap said, families can get whatever they need or want, including food, personal items, such as underwear and hygiene products, or “maybe just gas to get to work, to keep their job.”

Tripptrap described the devastation in the area as “extreme.” Aransas County was badly affected by Hurricane Harvey, after taking a direct hit from the storm’s eye wall. Many homes and businesses in and near Rockport were damaged or destroyed. Roofs were blown off homes and buildings, and walls collapsed. According to damage assessments, 191 homes were destroyed and another 209 severely damaged.

Not much more than a shell was left of the Salt Lake Church Relief Center in Rockport after Harvey got through with the area. In spite of losing its roof, the grassroots relief center continues to serve as a relief and warm meal distribution center, run by a group of volunteers from the community. Malteser donated $2,500 to help it make repairs.

“Rockport and the surrounding communities look like warzones after the storm and many people didn’t get the relief they needed,” Tripptrap said. “The entire area will need the support of organizations like Malteser International for years to come. You see places where there was storm surge, the water in some houses was five, six feet deep, so everything in the house was damaged. When you drive through this area you see in front of houses piles of stuff, electronics, everything they had on the ground floor, it’s all unusable. And you see all the branches and trees getting cleaned up in front of the street so that one day it can be carted away.”

The gift cards will benefit vulnerable community residents, including pregnant and nursing mothers, single women solely responsible for caring for themselves and the home, and people with disabilities, Malteser said in a statement. Relief will also be given to families who are poverty-stricken, and those who live in neighborhoods susceptible to future disasters, and who live in economically disadvantaged areas without access to public relief services, and well as people who lost their job or risk losing their job because of the disaster.

 

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