Harvey's wake: Religious mobilize to assist storm victims

Editor's note: This story was updated at 10 a.m. Sept. 1. Global Sisters Report will continue to post updates as we hear back from sisters' communities.

Women religious in the area of devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey are working on recovery and to ease the suffering of those impacted by the storm, which made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane along the Texas coast Aug. 25. As of Sept. 1, at least 39 people are dead, with more injured or displaced from flooded homes.

As of 8 a.m. Aug. 29, the Houston area received 50.4 inches, and on Aug. 30, the storm moved toward Louisiana, bringing historic rainfall totals with it, as well as flooding.

The St. Catherine Convent, home to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Immaculate Province in Houston, is nearly surrounded by floodwater-retention ponds and is close to a river. But while there was flooding just down the street, the convent stayed dry aside from some leaks in one building.

"We were so blessed and fortunate, all our sisters are safe," Provincial Vicar Sr. Maria Theresa Nguyen said Aug. 31. "So our sisters are out again volunteering at shelters for translation and distributing necessities."

The order came to Houston from Vietnam in 1975. They have eight buildings around Houston, but despite widespread flooding in the city, none was damaged.

"Yesterday and today, the water receded, so you can see people taking carpets and damaged things out of their houses," Nguyen said.

The sisters also have a convent in Port Arthur, 100 miles east of Houston. Port Arthur received so much rain after the storm made a second landfall there that shelters holding evacuees flooded. "Our whole city is underwater right now," Derrick Freeman, the mayor of Port Arthur, said on Facebook.

But the Our Lady of Fatima convent stayed dry.

"A couple of houses flooded in their neighborhood, so our sisters there are hosting two families right now," Nguyen said.

In New Caney, about 30 miles north of Houston, the Discalced Carmelite Nuns were only able to keep their convent from flooding thanks to a generator-powered sump pump in a courtyard and sisters who braved the rain to keep the drains clear. The generator also powered a freezer for the contemplative sisters who live in enclosure.

"The blessing of a hurricane is you know it's coming ahead of time and you can prepare," said Prioress Sr. Angel Sweeney.

New Caney received 23.5 inches of rain between Aug. 25 and Aug. 29, Sweeney said. On the evening of Aug. 27, the internet and cable television went out, so they had to get their news by radio. Within hours, the electricity was out, too. On the morning of Aug. 28, the city water system failed.

"But we had collected rain water, and we had collected water inside, so we had plenty to drink," Sweeney said. "But it's a real experience, seeing how dependent we are on all these things."

Power was restored Aug. 29, and water service was restored Aug. 30, though the city remains under a boil order. Sweeney said homes in their neighborhood are flooded, and there are hundreds of people sheltered in area churches.

"We're praying for all who are affected," Sweeney said, "and we're really counting our blessings."

In Corpus Christi, the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament know how close they were to disaster: The hurricane made landfall near Rockport, 30 miles north.

"We had hardly any damage, just some leaking in the roof, and that's it," said Sr. Martha O'Gara. "Thanks be to God, we're in very good shape. We had no power and a few of those things, but that's nothing."

O'Gara said sisters are anxious to help their neighbors, but city officials in Corpus Christi have said they are not ready for volunteers yet.

The Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist serve Houston's population of people who are homeless at Magnificat Houses, housing about 150 people in various locations. They also have a soup kitchen and two thrift shops. But some of their work has been put on hold by the historic flooding.

Sr. Lia Otzoy said her house was surrounded by water, but thankfully none came inside. The soup kitchen and thrift shops, however, were flooded and had to be closed.

"We didn't go anywhere because of the water," Otzoy said Aug. 30. "Only today were we able to go out. We were trapped here."

John Reece, director of operations, said he expects the soup kitchen to reopen Aug. 31, and there was no damage to the housing units other than leaking roofs. One unit was evacuated as a precaution, but the water did not rise that high.

Sr. Miriam Mitchell with the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate in San Antonio said Aug. 29 that she and Sr. Janet Nall have been working in shelters set up for evacuees. As of Aug. 28, at least 1,000 evacuees had sought shelter in San Antonio, but that figure was expected to rise, NPR reported. Mitchell said Red Cross officials are preparing to open three shelters for evacuees from Houston for up to 10,000 people.

San Antonio is just west of the area hit hard by the storm.

Nall, a nurse, worked in a shelter all weekend but had to return to work Aug. 28, Mitchell said. Mitchell has been working 12-hour shifts since the shelter opened Aug. 25. On Aug. 30, the storm moved toward Louisiana, bringing historic rainfall totals with it, as well as flooding.

One of the large Red Cross shelters is planned for the east side of San Antonio, Mitchell said, near the motherhouse, which will enable the retired sisters to provide a ministry of presence there.

"There are 15 shelters open right now, but they're all fairly small. The one I'm working in has about 300 people," Mitchell said. "I'm helping serve the meals, but a lot of what I have been doing is just walking around, sitting and talking to people. ... Some are completely stressed out because they probably have no home to go back to. Their children are getting bored, then the parents get angry at the children. I'm just trying to calm people down. I'm talking with people, praying with them, just helping them cope with the stress of the whole experience."

Because the storm strengthened so quickly, Mitchell said, people were not prepared to evacuate. The people she's working with are from the Corpus Christi area, which bore the brunt of the storm.

"All of the sudden, buses were coming and people were told, 'You need to get on the buses right now or you're going to be left behind.' So some people ran to the bus without a change of clothes or anything," Mitchell said.

She said Nall is particularly suited to the work because she is a hospice nurse and is adept at helping families deal with grief.

Sr. Geraldine Klein, also of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate, said some sisters also have relatives whose homes were in the path of the storm. The community's archivist had to evacuate her mother from Conroe, just north of Houston, where floodwaters were expected to reach the roof of her home. Others reported relatives fleeing their homes in the middle of the night.

Martha Quiroga, communications person for the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, said sisters from that community are already in the shelters, helping evacuees and providing a ministry of presence when there's nothing that can be done.

"They're in the shelters just to be with the people. They have lost everything," Quiroga said. "Sometimes they help connect them with other people they've lost contact with."

She said the order is also working with Catholic Charities to find other ways to help.

"It's unbelievable that in just an hour and a half of driving, you have this kind of disaster," she said. "Obviously, we want to help in many ways."

Those at Mission of Divine Mercy, a small Catholic community that has both men and women religious as well as consecrated laypeople, was working Aug. 28 to detail exactly what they could they could offer Catholic Charities in the archdiocese. Mission of Divine Mercy is in Canyon Lake, Texas, just north of San Antonio.

"As we speak, we have three of our staff in a meeting right now to draw up a plan," said Emily Jebbia, the community's director of communications. "We're a small, monastic community that just started in 2001, so we've never before been in a position where we had facilities to offer. As the scope of the damage began to get clear, we wondered if people would show up at our facility. This is a completely new situation for us."

Even those far from the disaster are working to help: The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky, are preparing to send their Disaster Relief Team to Texas in late fall to help with rebuilding efforts.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops has a list of charities helping with the disaster on its website.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]