BY ROCHELLE SCHLORTT
Over the years, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado has responded to disasters throughout its 10-county service area, going back to 2005 when the agency helped refugees from Hurricane Katrina by staffing the Red Cross Disaster Recovery Center with case managers. At the other end of the spectrum, Catholic Charities has been there time after time, helping families in the aftermath of house fires in rural and metro communities. In between are localized emergencies, like restocking food pantries in Kit Carson County in 2014 after they experienced a four-day power outage that destroyed their food supplies or responding to apartment complex fires in Colorado Springs.
The past five years have seen a significant increase in major disasters impacting our communities. Catholic Charities responded with disaster assistance and recovery support, beginning with the wildfires in 2012 and 2013 in Waldo Canyon and Black Forest. This community outreach carried over into helping those impacted by the ongoing floods resulting from the burn scars. And Catholic Charities regularly responds to the devastating hailstorms that hit our community.
A great partner in our local work is Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA), a major disaster response agency, which has been generous with awarding $10,000 in grants to help us respond to the needs of those affected by our local disasters. In just the past five years, our community has received $50,000 in CCUSA disaster grants.
During the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest wildfires, Catholic Charities provided thousands of meals for evacuees and first responders at the shelters and at command headquarters. This was on top of an average of 600 meals per day prepared and served at our Marian House Soup Kitchen. The grants from CCUSA, along with individual donations, helped us provide casework, gift cards for gas, lost wage supplements, minor home repairs, replacement tools, temporary living quarters, and insurance deductibles. We were also located at the El Paso County Citizens Center, along with many other agencies, to provide assistance in a central location in the temporarily created Disaster Assistance Center.
After the Waldo Canyon fire was contained, a group of local community leaders, led by former Catholic Charities CEO Mark Rohlena and Michelle Swanson of First Presbyterian Church, created the Long-Term Recovery Group, which collaborated and combined community resources to address the long-term recovery needs of our community more effectively. Eventually, this group consolidated with the local chapter of the South Central Region of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster to build and sustain a stronger response and recovery network for our region. Currently, Doug Rouse, Catholic Charities Volunteer Manager, is the chair of this organization.
Catholic Charities had a robust response to the Black Forest Fires, starting with direct outreach to areas where evacuees congregated from RVs in parking lots to the local café. Caseworkers kept daily office hours at the local café and later at the Black Forest Together community site. For many months, Catholic Charities helped hundreds of individuals with food, hygiene items, temporary housing, transportation, and tools for work. We also had a presence at the El Paso County Disaster Assistance Center, as we had previously done during the Waldo Canyon Fire. Through community support, a complete and customized list of school supplies was purchased and distributed to 161 children in District 20, from elementary to high school age, whose families had lost everything. In partnership with Our Lady of the Pines Parish, two “Out of the Ash” events were held where anyone affected by the fire could attend and receive emotional and spiritual care.
The first floods that seriously impacted our community after the fires were in the Cheyenne Mountain and Manitou Springs communities in 2014. Catholic Charities staff worked on-site at the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs to provide emergency assistance and case management.
Recent years have brought about a new type of large-scale destruction in the form of hailstorms. While a frequent occurrence in our community, the recent severity of these weather events has moved them from minor annoyance to major disaster. This was the case in 2016 when our state was impacted by widespread hailstorms resulting in more than $352.8 million in insured damage. This year, the Fountain and Broadmoor areas were particularly impacted by three summer hailstorms, resulting in widespread damage. Once again, CCUSA awarded a $10,000 grant which we made available to community members through REACH Pikes Peak, one of our community partners. With an office in the Fountain community, REACH Pikes Peak was better positioned to administer grant funds for emergency needs, such as windshield replacements and insurance deductibles.
In December, CCUSA is holding its annual Applied Institute for Disaster Excellence in Colorado Springs. This will be the 10th anniversary of this conference, where Catholic Charities staff from all over the United States come together to learn how to respond during disasters. Many are then deployed with the CCUSA staff to respond to disasters nationwide and internationally.
Each time a disaster impacts our greater Colorado Springs community, Catholic Charities, along with many other fine disaster response agencies and diocesan parishes, are there to help the community recover. As a result, disaster response has become one more way that our agency works to walk with people in their time of greatest need.
Rochelle Schlortt is the Chief Communications Officer for Catholic Charities of Central Colorado.