FIRST RESPONDERS • Anthony Pluchino and his wife, Marie, parishioners in St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan, are in Texas helping Hurricane Harvey victims with disaster management. Photo courtesy of Anthony Pluchino

FIRST RESPONDERS • Anthony Pluchino and his wife, Marie, parishioners in St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan, are in Texas helping Hurricane Harvey victims with disaster management. Photo courtesy of Anthony Pluchino

By EmmaLee Italia | Correspondent

For Anthony Pluchino of St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan, extending help in a crisis is second nature. Having experienced firsthand the wrath of Superstorm Sandy on the Jersey Shore in 2012, he didn’t think twice before offering to assist with hurricane recovery efforts this month in Houston, Texas.

As members of their parish’s St. Vincent de Paul conference, Pluchino and his wife, Marie, have long embraced the opportunity to come to the aid of those in need. When Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area, they decided to travel to Texas the weekend of Sept. 16 for a week to lend a hand.

 “We love to be able to go out and help,” Pluchino said Sept. 20 in a telephone interview from Texas. “It’s part of the St. Vincent de Paul spirit to be servants of others.”

SVDP Disaster Services – a specific entity within the charitable organization – was already on the ground in the Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston. Through the society, Pluchino was able to assist in the setting up of six parish recovery assistance centers, or P-RACs, throughout the storm-ravaged area; centers were established in St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, El Campo (Diocese of Victoria);  Sacred Heart Parish, Liberty (Diocese of Beaumont); Holy Family Parish, Missouri City (Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston); St. Leo the Great Parish, Houston; St. Bartholomew the Apostle Parish, Katy (Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston); and Mary Queen Parish, Friendswood (Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston). Liz Disco-Shearer, chief operating officer of SVDP Disaster Services, worked with the bishops of the respective dioceses to establish working spaces for the P-RACs.

“Each of these parishes has SVDP conferences that are helping man these P-RACs,” Pluchino explained. “Marie and I are at St. Leo the Great Church right now; I’m the incident commander helping run the operations here. We are giving people cleaning supplies, hygiene kits, food ... centers like this are also providing gift cards people can use to purchase supplies. All these different areas are very hard hit,” Pluchino continued. “People have taken all their belongings and Sheetrock and put them on the street.”

Most important now, Pluchino said, is making sure that victims register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and educating them about how to get financial aid, loans, and how their cases will be handled by long-term disaster management a few months down the road. Right now, the centers are doing one-on-one client intakes, assuring people get the information they need – taking what he calls a “holistic approach.”

Pluchino speaks from a wealth of experience. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, he worked for Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton at the FEMA centers in Long Branch and Union Beach, supervising the case management program. He also volunteered his time in Louisiana last year, setting up a disaster case management program in response to the flooding in March 2016. Now he’s putting that experience to work for the victims of Harvey.

“We’ve coordinated with Arnold Valentin at Catholic Charities in Trenton to get a shipment of hygiene items sent from New Jersey,” Pluchino said. “Mike Oppegaard, Monmouth county coordinator of the state Office of Emergency Management, is working with us.”

Still needed above all, he emphasized, are cash donations.

“Once they have the cash, the different agencies can use it for supplies and set up programs that can help people,” Pluchino explained. “Everything we are giving out now [was purchased with] donations. We don’t want clothing to be sent – that becomes a logistical nightmare.”

The recovery centers will be opened for about two weeks, after which people will hopefully be able to receive help through an immediate disaster case management program with a case manager assigned to individuals. The Pluchinos will be back in New Jersey by then, continuing to “support whatever St. Vincent de Paul needs us to do.”

“The floodwaters have subsided, the traffic is back on the highways, the power is pretty much restored in this area,” he said. “It’s a process of rebuilding and recovery, and that’s where the long-term recovery groups will come in.”

For more information about how to help or donate to hurricane relief, visit www.SVDPUSA.org or CatholicCharitiesUSA.org.