The good that follows the storm: Catholic Charities USA and disaster relief

Ashenafi Anota, administration and transportation coordinator for Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA), knows how good can come out of disasters.

”I have seen so many volunteers helping at churches and distribution centers,” Ahenafi said. “Even random people who happened to see me at a location have said to me that they would help if we need it.”

Part of Ashenafi’s responsibilities includes delivering the Mobile Response Center (MRC) – a Ford F550 truck donated to CCUSA by the Ford Foundation and outfitted for disaster relief services – to areas in the United States recovering from natural disasters like hurricanes and floods.

Ashenafi, who moved from Ethiopia to the U.S. 10 years ago, drives the MRC from the CCUSA office in Alexandria, Va., to the community in need. As he nears the disaster area, he begins to see signs of the devastation.

“Texas and Louisiana was my first deployment,” Ashenafi said. “I had never seen in my life what such a disaster like Hurricane Harvey does. I saw a lot of damage. People lost everything. In one day, people lost their house. It is very sad.”

More recently, Ashenafi brought the MRC to the Carolinas and Florida in response to hurricanes Florence and Michael. Both storms caused a lot of wind damage, including uprooted trees and toppled homes.

In the midst of the destruction, however, Ashenafi also witnessed so much that is good. Once on site, he helps to disburse the emergency supplies on the MRC and makes the truck available to the local Catholic Charities agency for the most pressing need. The Catholic Charities staff and volunteers are grateful for the MRC and eager to help in any way.

The MRC has many features that make it useful to communities rebuilding after a terrible storm or other catastrophe. It can carry a heavy load of emergency supplies and can be used as a field office. It also is equipped with a generator that runs on electricity or propane gas. The generator powers a charging station, which allows users to refresh batteries for things like cell phones and laptops. Awnings on both sides of the truck can provide shade on a sunny day, and six powerful floodlights make work in the evenings possible. Recently CCUSA received support from a private donor to add a trailer that houses six washers and six dryers, which are powered by the generator.

“In Marianna, Fla., I met a lot of people,” Ashenafi said. “The Knights of Columbus from St. Anne’s Church were volunteering, along with their pastor, Father William Ganci. The local fire marshal was also there helping. The marshal said that he had never seen a truck like the MRC, and he was impressed with how it was equipped with so many helpful things like the washers and dryers.”

Word about the MRC got around in Marianna, which was enduring a power outage, and people started coming with loads of laundry. In one week, the washers and dryers were handling just over 40 loads daily. Ashenafi was glad to see that the propane gas enabled the generator to run for eight hours every day.

Ashenafi says that wherever he goes in the MRC, people respond with enthusiasm and gratitude. At a Sam’s Club in Florida, where Ashenafi had purchased $13,000 in supplies on behalf of the Catholic Charities agencies, he received some on the spot help. As he was loading items on to the MRC, a number of people in the parking lot came to his assistance.

“People see Catholic Charities USA written on the side of the truck,” Ashenafi said, “and they go out of their way to help or to say thank you, whether it’s by a honk of the horn, a thumb’s up, or an extra hand.”

Ashenafi’s own sense of gratitude has deepened through his experience in driving the MRC and going to disaster areas. He is thankful for his job, and he appreciates the opportunity to help other people. He says his work has even affected the way his children see him.

“I have three kids, and they are proud of me,” he said. “They say to me, ‘It’s an amazing thing you are doing. You have left us here and you go to help the people affected by the hurricanes. They lost their house, they lost everything, and you are going to help them.’ My children tell their friends at school, ‘Our dad is doing this with Catholic Charities.’ That’s amazing. It’s such a different world from where I was to where I am.”