St. Vincent de Paul in the disaster preparedness business

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More than 50 people from across the country attended the three-day conference hosted by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's (SVDP) Disaster Services Division at the Hilton Mark Center in Alexandria. Several community and government organizations were represented at the conference, with speakers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Knights of Malta and the Archdiocese of Washington, among others.

The SVDP Disaster Services Division (DSD) focuses on the long-term redevelopment of people and communities impacted by disasters. In 2015, the division reportedly helped 11,500 disaster victims and provided $4 million in services. Judy Helein, president of the SVDP Arlington Council, said the division mobilizes after first response agencies have departed, "when the glory is over but the work still needs to be done and families still need to be supported."

Irma Colabrese, SVDP DSD Eastern Region Representative, said the annual conference serves to strengthen communication and collaboration among individuals and organizations involved with disaster relief. "We've invited people who do our work or are interested in doing our work, and what we're here to do is answer their questions and build capacity in the sense of getting more people to help us. Building capacity in each region makes us better prepared when something hits," she said.

Speakers at the conference touched on volunteer management, understanding local and federal emergency services and assessing the needs of disaster zones. St. Vincent de Paul members also offered information on getting involved with their relief programs, including "House in a Box." This program provides a set of new household items for families facing situational poverty as a result of a disaster. It was started by the Austin and Dallas councils of SVDP in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and provided 15,000 household setups after the storm. The program has since been brought to other disaster sites across the country, including areas hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Alfred "AC" Claud, FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison, said organizations like St. Vincent de Paul are the "critical link" to helping government agencies provide effective disaster relief through relaying information and advocating for their communities. He said FEMA "acknowledges that the government cannot do disaster response and relief alone," and it relies on its community and faith-based partners.

Claud said being proactive by focusing efforts toward preparedness will allow everyone to provide better assistance when the next disaster hits. "We want to build partnerships during blue skies, not gray skies," he said.

Ralph Hassel, SVDP national board member, said building these collaborative partnerships is a way for St. Vincent de Paul to reach its maximum impact in providing disaster relief. "We're talking about an entire industry, and we're trying to build relationships across all those pieces of the industry," he said. "As a huge organization, we can do massive good if we just get organized, and that's what we're trying to do."

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was founded in 1833 as an international lay ministry of Catholic men and women seeking spiritual fulfillment through assisting those in need - specifically the poor. The society recognizes that often the people most severely affected by natural and man-made disasters are those living at or below the poverty line. "If they get hit by a disaster, they get pushed into a place where they can't get out," Hassel said. "We hope to keep people from going into a generational poverty situation."

Today, the society has a membership surpassing 800,000, with more than 150,000 in the United States. The Arlington council includes more than 600 members.

Helein said the diocese has been blessed to have not experienced a major disaster in recent years. While it has aided in local relief efforts for house fires and structural damage from last winter's blizzard, she said the Arlington council is able to help most through providing financial assistance to other SVDP conferences around the globe, such as in Haiti.

Husar can be reached at

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016