Catholic Charities staffer assists in Virgin Islands relief

Bobbie Lison joins CC-USA team serving hurricane victims

GREEN BAY — Six months ago, two category five hurricanes — Irma and Maria — hit the Caribbean, including the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. On March 10, the Virgin Islands’ power company finally announced that electricity had been restored to all customers in the territory.

Bobbie Lison | Submitted photo for The Compass
Toppled sign at Catholic Charities USA – Virgin Islands’ Shelter in St. Croix. Bobbie Lison, operations manager for Financial Health Services at Catholic Charities in Green Bay, spent three weeks on St. Croix with a Catholic Charities disaster team in February.

That doesn’t mean life is back to normal there, as a local member of Green Bay Catholic Charities learned firsthand.

“Just because you don’t see it in the news anymore doesn’t mean that the need is gone,” said Bobbie Lison, operations manager for Financial Health Services at Catholic Charities in Green Bay.

On Feb. 14, Ash Wednesday, Lison began a three-week deployment to the island of St. Croix. She was on a six-person team, made up of Catholic Charities USA staff from around the mainland United States, divided into three groups. Lison and Michael Wheeler from Catholic Charities in Albany, N.Y., spent their time on St. Croix, handling case management.

Every day, after arriving at Catholic Charities’ heavily damaged shelter at 7:30 a.m., they would work until 6 p.m., helping an average of 100 people fill out disaster applications. One day, they handled 165 applications. This went on six days a week.

Before joining Catholic Charities, Lison had worked for the Red Cross and done disaster work, including deploying to North Carolina after 1999’s Hurricane Floyd. So she knew what to expect as far as washing her clothes in the hotel sink, having only one bottle of water to drink a day, working in a devastated building where rainwater would leak in over her work station and having no working bathrooms. She “expected the blue roofs” (the tarps that cover missing roofs are blue) and the lack of electricity.

She was not prepared for a drive through the rainforest one day.

“Usually, when you drive through the rainforest, you have to have your lights on. There was nothing — all you saw was the sun. It was like, ‘O my gosh, where are all the trees?’ As you get out of the cities, that’s when it gets worse.”

She also didn’t expect the crowds of people waiting for them at the shelter’s gates every day — far more than the 100 they were able to help each day.

“Every day, we would get there and there would be this crowd of people you’d have to walk through” she said. “They would all see us come out of the Catholic Charities van and they would grab you to see if they had an appointment, or if they could be seen that day. It was kind of overwhelming.  All of these people would always be there.”

Besides filling out disaster applications, Catholic Charities’ usual routine includes running a shelter in that area of Christiansted, the largest town on the northern shore. However, that shelter was too damaged to safely use now. People still come there, though, for a daily meal. So Catholic Charities’ permanent St. Croix staff of five does the paperwork, but also makes meals, packages those meals and drives around to deliver them to homes. They also deliver meals to area homeless. Lison rode along one day and saw how the staff searched diligently until they found each homeless person they know about and gave them a meal.

The van they use for deliveries also surprised Lison.

“The front windshield had like a thousand cracks in it and the window in one of the sides was gone and there was just this plastic over it,” Lison recalled.

Her work of case management involved recording damages, checking on repair needs and assessing people’s vulnerabilities, including mental health needs.

While that workload was huge, what Lison said most remains in her memories is “not so much the stories of the stuff that you see (such as destroyed homes); it’s the stuff inside that people are still dealing with.”

These memories include the elderly woman who was sleeping in her four-poster bed when the storm destroyed her house. The bed saved her life by deflecting the roof debris, but now she is terrified whenever it rains.

Then there’s the family living in their kitchen because that’s the only part of the house with a roof.

There are people living in abandoned homes because they have nowhere else.

Finally, she spoke of a young woman who had come to the island last year — as many mainland Americans do — to work during the tourist season. She had saved enough to live there during the off season, but then the hurricanes hit, just as the tourist season was ready to start again.

“Even though tourism is coming back, it’s not coming back full,” Lison explained, “and she’s going to have to make the decision whether or not she stays another year because she doesn’t have enough money to get her through the off season again.”

That woman is just one of thousands, Lison said, because the Virgin Islands depend on tourism for most of their economy. The cruise ships are starting to return, but the next hurricane season begins in June.

In talking with officials from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association) helping there, Lison learned that the average time to recover from a hurricane is six years. And that’s on the mainland. Lison believe it will be longer on St. Croix and St. Thomas, which strike her as seeming now like “a second world country.”

“This kind of made me mad,” she admitted. “This is the United States.” (U.S. Virgin Islands has been a U.S. territory since 1916.)

Still, while other help may be slower than ideal, seeing Charities’ colleagues come from across the United States to help was uplifting to Lison.

“You don’t know these people (from other Charities offices), but you can be there for as little as two weeks and form these lasting relationships,” she said. “There’s just a way that Catholic Charities USA brings people together to assist clients. I’ve never been to something … where we realize that we’re all the same, and striving and working for the same thing and doing what you need to do to get it done.

“You’re part of something bigger,” she concluded. “When we’re all together, we can do incredible, amazing things.”

Would Lison return?

Definitely — though only after some time to decompress.

“I like disaster work. I don’t like disasters,” Lison said, “but I like disaster work, because you have to think outside the box. You get placed somewhere where there aren’t a lot of resources, you don’t know what it is and you’re by yourself and you’ve got to figure it out.”

She admits that she love her work, whether in Green Bay or the Caribbean.

“This is my passion, to work with poverty and homelessness, and I get to do that here,” she said. “There are certain things you are passionate about. Yes, I would do it again.”