Hurricane Harvey: The Time to Help is Now…and Later


By Charles Gaby
Co-Director of the Tropical Storm Allison Disaster Recovery Interfaith 2001

My Experience
When Tropical Storm Allison hit the Houston area in 2001, I was working as a psychotherapist in the area, as well as running support groups at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston. As the Allison disaster moved from the early stages of rescue to the later stages of long-term recovery, I was asked by representatives from FEMA and UMCOR to step into a role as Director of Case Management for the Interfaith Recovery effort. An interfaith coordination of recovery efforts have been the preferred way to coordinate recovery after any US disaster. So, I took a sabbatical and spent six months on that disaster.

Given the widespread destruction of what we are seeing with Harvey, I thought this might be a good time to reflect on the lessons learned along the way.

Right now, we need hope, and there are many reasons to have it. In the midst of the disaster and displacement that is unfolding in Houston, it may be difficult to see it. This may well be the greatest natural disaster in US history. The response that will be required may well exceeded any that have gone before. But I am confident that it will happen and here’s why: people will come from all over the country to help. It won’t matter if they are Democrat or Republican, religious or not, straight or gay, they will join in the acts of compassion that always take place in these times.

I have carried teams from Texas to South Dakota to work on flood recovery, and I have led teams from Minnesota to work on the Texas border. I have seen people from all over the country working side by side in New Orleans. In the Allison recovery, we saw Mennonites from the Midwest working next to Navajos from Arizona. People will come, and they will stay as long as they can and make as much of a difference as they can.

There will also be those who step forward in Houston who have the capacity to look after their neighbors. Some will take on new roles, learn new skills, and take on thankless jobs. Some of them work for government agencies and some will work with non-profits, and some will just step up and give a hand to a neighbor. You are about to witness one of the greatest things you will ever see in your life…the human spirit is really all about compassion. That is where all hope lives.

Rescue vs. Recovery
What few people understand is that the need for public involvement and support in a disaster is mostly in the recovery stage. During the rescue operations, there are brave souls with resources that rush in to help and that can be lifesaving! We have seen a great deal of this in Houston. But for most us, that is not the priority we should be considering. Well-intending individuals seeking to help can often become liabilities for first responders.

In a disaster of this magnitude, we feel a great deal of concern and empathy. It can be frustrating to feel powerless, as we have to accept the limitations to our capacity to help our friends and neighbors. During this period, we can help house those who have been displaced, offer support and nurture and make plans for the long haul. In the Allison flood, displaced families applied for immediate relief to find safe housing. This came in the form of a check from FEMA. Unfortunately, the funds often didn’t cover the costs of cheap hotels to which they were referred for the length of time they had to be displaced. Still, the FEMA funds eased the immediate crisis in the first two months.

Further funds were available to the disaster, but only after a case manager had appraised the damage and assessed the individual situation including how insurance may or may not be involved. In many cases, there will be no insurance and the only long-term solution will be volunteer support coordinated through the interfaith recovery effort.

In the Allison recovery, we met weekly at United Way offices for what is called the Unmet Needs committee. At this meeting, my team of case managers presented cases. Participants in the meetings included representatives from various faith groups, Salvation Army, Red Cross, United Way, etc. Each of these groups came with resources, which would then be offered to meet the needs of the families represented in our cases.

I share this process in hopes of educating those who feel the urge to take action. One of the frustrations we encountered in the Allison flood was that many well meaning church groups jumped in immediately to aid people. But many of these folks they were helping were not the most in need and some even had insurance that had yet to be involved. While all help is great, in these disasters it is the poor who suffer most and whose recovery is often the slowest. The impact on people’s lives and property will outlive the interest of the public and the media.

Flooding Is Wild, and Then It’s Gross
When the water is rising and we see houses inundated, it is frightening and we look with awe at the power of nature. People are often glued to their televisions as news crews show us the scenes of devastation. It is riveting. But when the water recedes, there isn’t much worth filming besides a lot of moldy sheet rock, messy houses and smelly carpet. In Allison, even the local media had moved on within two or three weeks.

I can remember running into people in Houston who were surprised there was still anyone dealing with problems from the flooding within a couple of months. At three months, we were only beginning to get a clear picture of how many homes would need support due to being without insurance. The flooding had impacted many areas of low-income housing and as with most urban areas in Texas, affordable housing was scarce to start with. When these folks get displaced there is nowhere for them to go.

When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred on the World Trade Center, the recovery hit a major snag. It quickly became clear that the efforts to aid the victims of Allison would no longer be a priority for some of the agencies and organizations that had been involved. Fundraising and donations slowed, but those who had been in homes and listened to stories carried the effort forward.

Are you ready to stay engaged in helping after the news cycle turns to the next big thing?

I was often frustrated with the slow wheels of government and the limitations of city codes. This came in two forms: limitations of City Code to the placement of FEMA trailers that would have allowed families to shelter in or near their property. Also, the need for expedited building permits and the skilled supervision of volunteer crews.

For those who become involved in directing the recovery efforts, I recommend staying connected to the hands-on efforts of volunteers. Don’t give all your time to meetings and politicians who want to score points. Being a part of the stories will keep you focused on the good being done. This focus will help you as you run into the frustrations that are sure to come.

As we wait for the waters to recede, there are some things that can be done now to speed the recovery later. I leave these last thoughts as food for thought.

  • Raise money now for the recovery. It will likely be easier now as the public sees the devastation and will be harder as the visuals change.
  • Plan for the decisions that will be needed. Put in place the systems and people needed to determine the priority decision-making that will be required for each home that has been damaged. Case management in this disaster will be a major bottleneck if approached in traditional ways.
  • Consider a fast-track permitting process for contractors that the city can certify as legitimate. Volunteer efforts need careful coordination and guidance. I recommend that all faith and civic groups immediately begin talking to each           other. In my experience, the United Way in Houston is the best institution for coordinating this.One of the biggest challenges to a municipality is what to do with the trash.

Mental Health
All of us are affected differently by catastrophe. Mental health issues are likely to spike as individuals move from the adrenaline surge of rescue to the scary and distressing experiences of displacement, loss and adjustment. We can help others by listening and supporting.

Beyond the physical and financial support, people need to tell their story – not listen to a sermon that tells them how to feel or how to make sense of the disaster. Telling stories is a part of the process of moving toward acceptance of what has happened. Tragedy eventually becomes just another chapter in the story, but for the displaced, for the moment, it is THE story. Where that story leads will depend on many things, not the least of which is the capacity to feel a sense of control and self-efficacy.

There is also a tendency for those who work in coordinating disaster responses to develop compassion fatigue. Even volunteers sometimes find themselves feeling almost useless… as if their week of service was too small to matter, a drop in the bucket. That is why it is important to celebrate every milestone, every home restored, and every family whose life has been restored.

What has happened in Texas will change us. But I have faith that the change will not be toward bitterness, but rather inspiration. I hope these brief thoughts may be of help.

With hopes and prayers for all those affected by Harvey.

Charles Gaby

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