As Hurricane Irma moves through the Atlantic — one of the strongest storms ever recorded in that ocean — Catholic groups are offering prayers and helping prepare for the recovery efforts ahead.
A Category 5 storm with winds reaching 180 miles an hour, Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean on Wednesday, leaving behind what officials described as unprecedented destruction. Almost every building on the small island of Barbuda was damaged, the AP reported. In Puerto Rico, nearly 900,000 people were left without power, and the U.S. Virgin Islands sustained severe damage to crucial infrastructure, including the main hospital on the island of St. Thomas.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti were both in the storm’s path on Thursday. The northern coast of the two countries is particularly at risk for flooding and landslides, due to its low elevation and inadequate draining. “As previous storms have shown, it does not take a lot to devastate the livelihoods of thousands and thousands of people in countries that are as vulnerable as the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba,” said Conor Walsh, a CRS country representative who oversees programming in the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
He explained that the agency was making preparations, and working with local governments and partners such as Caritas. Emergency response teams with Catholic Relief Services are on standby to assess needs and quickly transport relief items, including tarps, hygiene items and kitchen kits.
Catholic Relief Services has had a presence in Haiti and the Dominican Republic for decades. The agency said that it already has a “robust network of logistical and human resources” in Haiti, which was slammed by Hurricane Matthew last year, as well as a massive earthquake in 2010.
Hurricane Irma will likely make landfall in Florida this weekend. Several counties in the state are being evacuated, while Church leaders have offered prayers for safety and stressed the importance of prudence and caution. Ave Maria University, located near Naples, Florida, held a rosary on Tuesday night at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, entrusting the campus to the Virgin Mary.
Although shifting weather models suggested that the campus would not sustain a direct hit, classes were cancelled Sept. 7-11 to allow students the option of leaving the area. The Archdiocese of Miami issued a hurricane plan and preparedness guide to schools, parishes and other entities, encouraging them to monitor the storm and cancel events as necessary.
On Thursday, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami announced that all regular Masses and parish activities would be suspended over the weekend. With the anticipated “severe and dangerous conditions, it is not prudent or safe to be on the road during the storm,” he said in a statement on Facebook.
“Due to the emergency and for their safety, the faithful are dispensed from their obligation to attend Mass this weekend.” Parish operations will resume when conditions are safe, he said. “(L)et us all pray for the safety of all our people both during the storm and the recovery in its aftermath.”