The Lead Up
For posterity, according to this CNN article, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in the evening of Friday, August 25th as a Category 4 storm. Like many people in this country in far away places, I periodically consumed the news reports leading up to the landfall. By all predictions, it was going to be a hellacious event and the human and economic loss was unfathomable. I don't know about you, dear readers, but sometimes when these events happen in places so far removed from me, I think about how well- (or ill-) prepared me and my own family may be to respond to such a thing. I went through a prepper phase; none of my family joined me in that pursuit. So my expected outcomes range from mediocre to above-average depending on the specific event. In any event, my mind usually turns to: 'what would I do if it were me?' and 'what can I do as me?'. Invariably, it falls to the latter category. I make a donation and/or check on friends and relatives who may have been impacted. That's generally it.
This time was different. To get it out of the way, I'm not working full-time. I haven't been for several months. I've made some headway into starting a residential real estate career along with a few other related entrepreneurial pursuits. I just don't have money like I used to. There are drawbacks and opportunities in my circumstances. Although I'm financially-constrained, in terms of where and how I spend my time, I've never been more free. (Doesn't quite make sense and probably not what one would expect to hear of someone in my position). My wife's work and salary is what is sustaining the family at this time, and out of respect, I try not to tax her continued ability to support us with activities or expenses that are not aimed at growing or furthering my business pursuits.
Followers of this blog know what my truck looks like, are familiar with its build, and are acquainted with our exploits. The origin story, however, is probably something I haven't shared. The condensed version is this. Everything I've done with the truck- the modifications, the shake-down runs, the equipment, the road trips- was with the aim of pre-determining how it could be used to transport my family to safety in the event of any widespread emergency. And as a secondary motivation, I thought about how it could be used to retrieve someone and safely transport them back out of harms way. It just happens to be a pretty morbid preoccupation; thus, the roadtrips, and the blogging, and the offroad club are more healthy pursuits and outlets.
People close to me know this about me though, and one such person is my buddy Dave. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, his family and their business, started a non-profit charity. I was in grad school at the time, and my fellowship group sponsored a few fundraisers. I organized a strongman-themed event (Will Power) which involved pulling a trolley across our campus quad area. But David and his family did something even more noble and impactful. They loaded up a box truck and drove it right into the fray and off-loaded needed supplies. I was always impressed by this and a bit remiss that I had not contributed. (The proceeds from my event were donated to the American Red Cross- around $1,400 or so.)
We hadn't talked about it much in the intervening years. In the last two years or so, he so happened to purchase a Nissan Xterra, and I have given him a hand or two in selecting aftermarket parts and installing them. I've taken him offroad a few times recreationally. Generally though, he's very much engrossed in supporting his growing family and helping run his family business (which is also growing and expanding into other product lines and business lines). We haven't wheeled together in over a year.
So I was a little surprised when he contacted me around Sunday afternoon.
"Hey man. This Harvey thing looks bad."
"Yeah. It's pretty sad. Gonna be rough down there for a while."
"What do you think about bringing the trucks down there?"
Honestly, I hadn't thought about it. The truck's fuel economy has been way down. My personal economy has been way down. The combination made the prospect of covering the 1,000+ miles (2,000+ round trip) seem well beyond my personal means to donate without impacting or burdening the family finances. We talked about that briefly.
"What if you didn't have to worry about gas?"
"Well, the only other hindrance would be J. He hasn't started his new daycare yet; so, I still have primary transport duties. If Jenn had some help in my stead, I could go."
These were small problems to have in the face of what people in Texas were contending against. There were also obvious concerns for my safety. I generally feel like I'll die when I'm supposed to die. I don't believe that there's a safe little bubble that envelopes me as long as my actions and chosen geography coincide with some pre-determined criteria. I had to talk to my parents because they were likely the first line of support for Jenn in my absence. Surprisingly, my dad was the more conservative and concerned. He acquiesced because, "...you're going to do what you want to do; there's never been any convincing you otherwise. But I had to make sure you were considering the risks for your family." My mom was a bit easier. When I talked to Dad he raised a larger barrier of resistance because he assumed I was running down there alone. "Dad, you're acting like I'm just some wildcard, rogue agent driving alone into a storm. I'll be down there with 5 other people." That seemed to allay some of his concerns. So I lead with that when calling mom. After the pleasantries, "So, Dave and I are thinking of heading down to Texas." There was a brief silence. "He's such a nice young man. Be sure to update us on your whereabouts. Do you need me to help watch J?"
Ummm. What? I should just lead with "So Dave and I are going to..." with anything that sounds controversial.
I frankly was not involved in much of the coordination. Dave was feeding me updates on his staff's work to arrange for donations (including the donated 26-foot Penske box truck) and contacts on the ground; I was working on childcare arrangements and shaking down the truck. It had basically been put away rough after Moab, and I needed it in the best shape I could muster on short notice and shorter funds.
My primary responsibilities were to be convoy management while in transit and hazard mitigation on the ground. We had been reading disconcerting reports about panicked citizens firing upon would-be rescuers. Threat deterrence was added to my basket.
Dave and the company president would be in the Xterra as the lead car; the box truck would be operated by his brother-in-law Shane along with a co-driver; I would bring up the rear in the Frontier along with another co-driver and relative of Dave's.
There was to be another supply pickup at a Costco in Lafayette, LA. We would continue to monitor conditions en route and determine the best point of entry. All we knew upon heading out was that certain portions of I-10 leading into Houston were shut down. We would need to rely on local knowledge as we approached in terms of the best path into the impact area.
We had a robust group chat going that culminated in a conference call Tuesday prior to departing. Dave's team did a great job of securing donations and interacting with local media to enhance their outreach. I contributed by advising of the specific items of convenience and personal protective equipment that I anticipated would be warranted based on the conditions we would encounter. Highest on that list were hip waders and life jackets. We needed to minimize contact with the water which would likely be contaminated with sewage and industrial runoff. Even though the support vehicles were equipped with snorkels, if a levee failed or other action caused the waters to rise rapidly, we would need to be prepared to abandon the vehicles. Many of the refineries were under water, and we anticipated that localized fuel shortages were a possibility. Although I had been working on cutting down weight and cargo, I rigged together a bed restraint to secure four additional 5-gallon jerry cans in the back of the truck. We would travel with them empty and then fill them at our last fuel stop prior to entering TX. Both trucks already had CB radios installed; I brought my spare handheld CB for the box truck operators. There were a few other mundane preps, but we were generally as well-outfitted as one could expect of a group of novice responders on a couple days' notice.
This brings up an important point. I've been involved in my local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and have participated in some FEMA-sponsored courses and trainings. Generally, it is not advisable for untrained persons to enter into a disaster area. I know this. The well-meaning outpouring of persons and supplies can inundate and tax the ability of responders to coordinate on the ground. And would-be rescuers run the risk of needing rescue themselves. I knew this going in.
So our plan was to simply transport the goods to a church that Dave and his folks had contacted. And once there, we would submit ourselves to contribute in whatever way or capacity that any volunteer organization on the ground could use us. Prior to leaving, I followed the suggestion of news agencies and the FEMA website to register with the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters website (nvoad.org). I can tell you that I did so prior to Tuesday August 29th, and, as of the time of my writing this on September 8th, I have not been contacted by anyone to my knowledge. Several plausible explanations for this. There were likely more responses to that URL than there was capacity for processing. It is possible that, due to my listing of my home state of MD, it was not believed/considered that I would be able to physically volunteer on the ground. (I did indicate in a dialog box my dates of availability and anticipated arrival in the Houston area).
My point in bringing this up is not to shade NVOAD; I am illustrating that in the immediate aftermath of an event, one can expect significant delays in response and coordination. I am hopeful that my contact information may be utilized in subsequent emergencies in the event that I can avail myself.
On the Ground
We left Wednesday morning before the sun rose and drove until well after sunset.
Fortunately, I was able to improve some of the fuel economy woes and got better range on this trip.
A couple of things happened here. One, I think this is where I first encountered the media clip of the survivor who became very upset with the CNN reporter regarding her perceived insensitivity in reporting the news. It got widespread coverage as an indictment of how media can do a better job of balancing the need to satisfy interest in compelling stories with respecting the trauma that is being experienced by the subjects of their reporting. I gained something else from that story though. The woman advised that she had been waiting 36 hours before anyone even did a welfare check on her family. And then she described even greater delays in being rescued, in getting to the shelter, etc. It brought home, for me at least, that although we would be arriving almost a week after Harvey first made landfall, we might realistically be encountering people who had not received any outside support during that entire time. These are the logistics of disaster.
The second thing was we learned at some point on our drive that Harvey had not simply dissipated over land but had regained strength and was somewhere over or near portions of Louisiana that we would be travelling through. This concerned me greatly. I had not anticipated driving into any storm activity. I usually use the truck to get away from storm activity (i.e. literally EVERY time I've driven through Kansas.).
|Couldn't tell if they were also responding or were in the area for training exercises.|
|I posted map updates such as this one to advise folks back home of my last known whereabouts.|
I do not mean to make light of this. In a way, it was the kind of thing that elicited a sympathetic chuckle (definitely not a hardy belly laugh that I'm known for). But it also personalized for me the reality that typical shipments of perishable goods- at whatever their normal frequency may have been- had been completely interrupted. In the aftermath of such disasters, it can be remarkable how much we take for granted simple modern conveniences. Bread.
We talked with the volunteers about where else in the area there was need. They had specifically run out of many of the baby supplies that we had. There was a shipment that had been promised to them that had experienced transit delays. And then suddenly, here we were just 30 minutes away looking for a new destination. They told us about Sabine Pass which had been all but cutoff from the outside world and about a volunteer-run supply depot that had been established at nearby Central Mall. While we were talking, the pastor began fielding calls from individuals and other groups desperate for supplies. And we saw, in real time, these people begin to arrive to the church and walk out with the goods we had just delivered. For me, the 'why' was validated. People needed this stuff. There wasn't any before we got there. And now, at least for a short while, the needs were being met.
Thankfully this was not the case. The Coast Guard had been monitoring this area to ascertain at what point the road might be deemed passable for their purposes. They were actually awaiting my return for reports on the observed depth. (Someone had been out the day before and noted that the water had been considerably higher. Chest high or on the order of approaching a 5-foot depth). My colleagues had been explaining our presence and the Coast Guard representatives seemed interested in helping. In the middle of our conversations, a local resident in a much more lifted pickup encountered us as well. Although he advised that our group should have no trouble navigating the depths, the Coast Guard was reluctant to allow us to head back. It's one thing for a resident with local knowledge to pass through there. He has a right (and the capability) to return to and from his home. For us, there was less of a compelling right or need to travel there, but there was an undeniable need for the supplies we had.
What we worked out was to transfer an initial load of goods into the pickup. The Coast Guard then dispatched one of their boats to receive additional supplies. The pickup would then return to a rendezvous point after offloading his initial load and would receive the cargo that was transferred by the Coast Guard boat. The concern was that if one of our vehicles failed, it would further impede access to Sabine Pass which was already pretty well choked off as it was. So although it was not a sexy outcome, it was the most reasonable considering the resources that once again had serendipitously availed themselves to the mission.
Again, while there, we saw the populations of people who were being served. At this point, there was a lot of backlash on the internet surrounding a well-known pastor and his congregation's response to the disaster. This was a sizable but considerably smaller facility. The pews in their sanctuary were the temporary holding area for yet-unprocessed clothing donations. Their multi-purpose room was converted into a well-organized distribution center with all manner of supplies. Their kitchen had become a canteen where staff was preparing modest meals for volunteers and the entry foyer was the nerve center and processing hub. I felt good helping a place that was positioned and primed so effectively to help others.
There were a few things that we had that they needed; so, those were offloaded first. Then we collected a quantity of food items and toiletries as these were being requested by groups in Beaumont. Additionally, friends of mine from back home had been inquiring about how they could contribute with many wishing to donate directly to me. I did not want to receive any funds. With all the driving and loading we were doing, I did not have time or opportunity to do an accurate accounting of funds collected versus funds spent. I didn't know how much longer we would be in Texas. And I had no way of knowing when/if we went into stores if they would have any stocks of materials that coincided with the needs we were inquiring. There was a lot of conversation about the transparency and efficacy of donations to larger, national/international charities. The topic of Haiti came up frequently, etc. People felt like they knew me and trusted that I would use it for good.
While in Spring, Tx, we did try to have a friend place an order for fulfillment at a nearby big box retailer. However, the storm had disrupted something with their IT order fulfillment system. So although the transaction went through, the order could not be fulfilled. We didn't find this out until I arrived at the store with the order # and was advised that there was no way to access or recognize the funds to even self-fulfill the order.
Here is where I will levy some criticism.
The faith organizations listed above were essentially the only actors that I encountered directly contributing to relief and recovery. There was, of course, police presence to ensure public safety and to deny access to unsafe areas of town. But in terms of relief, bringing supplies, and such, it was churches that were doing the heavy lifting in the areas we visited. And their efforts were supported by unorganized/unaffiliated volunteers. (Their staff people were organized. By 'unorganized', I mean the random neighbor that drives up in their pickup truck and drops off a bag or box of canned goods. I saw several and repeated instances of that sort of giving and contributions). I travelled alongside long convoys of military vehicles, but they were headed to parts unknown. We were only briefly around rescue efforts on our way to Central Mall where we turned around due to extremely high water. But those rescues were volunteers on boats and driving monster trucks. (Yeah, more on monster trucks later). I did not see CERT. I did not see the Red Cross. I'm not sure what a FEMA presence would look like, but I didn't see them. I just saw badgeless, credential-less people helping other people. And that's fine. It was encouraging. I just think we may want to revise some of what we tell the general public. We were among the groups of people who might otherwise be cautioned away from entering a zone and doing this work with the belief that other professional response organizations are present. In many cases, the scope and breadth of the damage was beyond what I think one could reasonably expect these entities to cover. So, I think our advice is wrong. That's one criticism.
This is perhaps the more damning. There is another group that I will not mention and I would rather people not try to do any sleuthing to identify the subject of this anecdote. We did end up servicing a faith-based group in a more remote area outside of Houston. At the end of our work, the conversation turned to an area where they were expanding to build an additional church, and the representative made a comment of the difficulties they encountered due to their church's stance on homosexuality. They perceived that the delays they had encountered were an affront to their specific beliefs in this respect. It bothered me. They kind of tip-toed into it and around it. I suppose not knowing their audience, there was some hesitation, but it was there. Exclusion. Further we were offered accommodations at a nearby compound that either the church or the family maintains. And once there, it got weird. There weren't enough beds for all 6 of us and three other volunteers. I had wanted to continue on back to Port Arthur to deliver the balance of the water that they needed and to observe the camp at night. The family patriarch kept making a big to-do about only 'natural brothers' sharing a bed. There were two such natural brothers among the other three volunteers. The accommodations were large, stately and lavish. And this seemed oddly juxtaposed against the impoverished community in which we found the church. My truck had arrived their first, and I spoke to a woman who had lost everything, including her car when she attempted to escape rising floodwaters and the intake ingested water. She has since been living out of her car in the church's parking lot. And here we were, outsiders, being treated to palatial accommodations 30 minutes drive away. I didn't stay.
This is my concern. In my experience, as stated before, the faith-based organizations were the most active and best-positioned to receive goods and volunteer services in the communities we visited. And the organizations that I previously chronicled by name were all, as far as I could tell, faithful stewards committed to serving all who were in need. I intend no criticism of those 3 aforementioned church groups. The risk, however, in relying solely on the benevolence of such groups is that there is a potential for bias and exclusion in the practice of a church's theology as was evidenced (or at least alluded to) in my anecdote regarding this other group. And I worry about the capacity and desire of such groups to willingly extend their services to ALL in their community and how receptive ALL in the community may be to taking of these benefits if they feel that the congregation is otherwise discriminatory against people of their demographic or orientation. I'm not a religious man. I'm a spiritual man. I go where my spirit compels and enables me, and I try not to be constrained by any bias or prejudice. I believe any dogma or doctrine that would impose otherwise is simply not for me and not anything to which I need adhere. My spirit rejects it. So while I do not regret that we serviced this group, I regret that there might not be other alternatives for people in that particular area who may need aid and find that aspects of their existence are in conflict with that church's ministry and practice of theology.
My convoy mates arrived early the next morning and delivered the last of our water to Central Mall. Sean, the volunteer, volunteer-coordinator was not on site. Others had taken up his charge of directing trucks and volunteers to where they could deposit goods. The depot was crudely organized, but people were trying. That's what mattered.
We began our trek home that morning. The return leg was without incident.
More than a week after landfall, areas surrounding Houston were still suffering under significant areas of inundation.
Supply chain and logistics of material and personnel transport were severely challenged due to flooding, detours, and traffic volume. Goods were making it into supply hubs with some difficulty. It was considerably more difficult to distribute the goods out to communities where needed.
Travel was further exacerbated by non-emergency personnel who began also travelling on the shoulders or engaging in impromptu lane reversal (i.e. travelling eastbound on the westbound side of a highway) as was being done by emergency convoys.
Large, national aid organizations had not yet established meaningful presence/operations in outlying communities that were also impacted.
Local groups such as CERT, likely themselves significantly impacted by the storm and its aftermath, did not appear to have retained capability or resources to mobilize in the areas observed.
HAM band radio traffic on 70cm and 2m was all but non-existent. (In fairness, it only occurred to me to turn the HAM radio on during our last full day [Friday] in Texas. No one else in our group was equipped with a HAM radio or licensure.) There was some conversation I picked up on a frequency that I could not reach via simplex. I monitored both bands for between 4-6 hours. I am therefore presuming that ARES/RACES activity, at least in the areas of Nome and Beaumont was minimal.
Communication and coordination amongst smaller charitable groups appeared to have been conducted/facilitated largely via social media. Additional investment and study should be made into how to track and aggregate this information to enhance coordination and updates of availability and needs.
Additional utilization and empowerment of unaffiliated volunteer resources should be considered prior to the next disaster. Pre-registration approaches following a disaster did not prove beneficial. However, such a database or registration approach may be of benefit prior to the onset of an emergency event to catalogue contact information of interested volunteers for the purpose of contacting these individuals for training opportunities and to assess response capabilities.
These were my humble thoughts and responses to what I saw and observed in the course of attempting to help others.
The impacted areas will need continued and sustained support, financial and otherwise, to recover from this disaster. Please consider making a donation to any of the three referenced organizations. Of what I saw, they were doing the work.