Lives Changed and Lessons Learned

By BETH MASSARO and LOU ANN ROMERO

After Hurricane Harvey landed in Texas, students and staff from New Mexico Highlands University traveled to Rockport Texas in Aransas County the last week of September to serve as volunteers in the disaster relief effort. We completed the trip with some successes and many challenges and now share this reflection with the hope of providing some insight and considerations for future disaster response volunteer projects based from college campuses.

Making landfall on August 25th, 2017, Hurricane Harvey raged through Texas leaving serve damage in Rockport, Texas, a community located on the coast and one of the first to be hit by the hurricane. There were more than a thousand structures destroyed, approximately 2,000 with major damage and 3,000 with minimal damage out of an estimated total of less than 10,000 structures in the county (Aransas County Long-term Recovery Plan, 2018).

President Minner, NMHU, asked the community to form a team to travel to Texas to see how we could help. Forty undergraduate and graduate students and faculty answered the call, and on September 27th, the team set out for Rockport to spend five days and four nights at the home of Professor Ben Nelson, a NMHU faculty member with a home in Rockport, who generously donated his home as a base for the volunteers.

The team arrived to find conditions they could not have imagined and absolute chaos. Prior to departure there had been an effort to secure contacts and specific assignments so the team could get right to work. It had been a challenge to identify resources and make contact as there was limited power and phone lines were out across the county. We made dozens of phone calls to offer our help only to be told that there were limited opportunities and often the organizations that were doing relief work had requirements we could not meet as volunteers from a public university. Some required everyone to sign a faith-based statement. Others only accepted volunteers with formal emergency training.

Coming from Northern New Mexico, we were not as prepared for the heat and humidity as we should have been. We took a number of trips to the emergency room and students often had to stop working to rest and rehydrate. We struggled to feed the volunteers well. There were limited bathrooms and little bathing available. We had a goal of attempting to be as self-sustaining as possible to avoid stressing an already overburdened emergency system and it was made more difficult by our decision to go without a formal agreement with a trained disaster relief agency. Volunteers were accepted without screening and more preparation could have been done to help the team to understand more clearly what they would be up against. Some students came home discouraged and unsatisfied with the experience.

But even with all the barriers the team faced, through collaboration with the city manager and the Coastal Oaks Relief Effort, Hurricane Harvey Relief Center, the team was able to assist a number of families. They mucked out homes and threw out trash for the first few days. On the final two days of the trip, the team worked closely with the relief efforts coordinated by FEMA and The Rockport Harbor Supply/Food Bank. In one instance, a mother who was deaf came with her children to seek aid and one of our students was able to sign for the family to help them get their needs met.

After the team returned home, many of the students expressed deep appreciation for the opportunity. One student reported, “One of the most meaningful things for me was seeing the grateful look in people’s eyes when we helped them. I had a long conversation with the father of one of the houses we worked on and at the end he placed his hand on mine and thanked me. It was the most heartfelt and sincere “Thank you” I had ever received. I will always remember that look and would do it all again without even thinking about it. I want people to know that this trip was not easy, it was not a vacation. It was hard work and it was hot, humid, exhausting but very worth it.”

Another student wrote, “This trip was extremely meaningful and perhaps the most meaningful part about the trip was getting to help our friends and neighbors out in Texas. I truly enjoy helping others and I feel that everyone who went on the trip are selfless individuals who all had the same goal. This truly was a positive and memorable experience for me. The people we met are survivors who are determined to overcome this horrific disaster. The smiles on the faces of children when we would give them a toy from the donation center will always remain with me. The hugs and handshakes from the people we helped and their expression of thanks will also always remain with me.”

One student shared, “It was definitely hard work, but the conditions were just how I pictured it would be, if not worse. It was an amazing feeling seeing the looks on the faces of the people that we were helping, they were so grateful. Also, staff from the Rockport Harbor Food/Supply Bank that was set up with FEMA, were just as grateful. They had been running it for six weeks straight with no days off themselves and were so happy we were able to go help them, they definitely needed it, and I wish I could have stayed and helped longer.” Lou Ann Romero, one of the staff team leaders and a trained emergency volunteer said, “Being exposed to the mass destruction, the elements of the land and the pain of the people really challenged us to self-reflect as individuals and recognize the true level of empathy, selflessness and love we were willing to give to each other as team mates and to the people of Texas.

As a strong believer in helping others when they are in need, this trip gave me the opportunity and pleasure of being of service. Helping people without judgment and working without reward. Watching the magnitude of destruction reminded me that there are much greater forces than us at hand and we should be humbled and grateful daily for all we have in our lives. Although our time was limited, I believe we in our own small way made a big impact on those we were able to help. You cannot experience something like this and walk away without often thinking of the families and the people we met and wonder how they are doing. I wish we had the opportunity to stay longer.”

As we reflect back a year later, there were lives changed and lessons learned, and the experiences were both positive and negative. Yet we would recommend emergency response trips for other schools, and we would do it again.

About the Authors Beth Massaro is an associate professor of social work at the Facundo Valdez School of Social Work and enjoys working with students in community engagement and seeing them take their skills out into the field.

Lou Ann Romero has been a social worker for 30 years and been with Facundo Valdez School of Social Work for 15 years serving as the continuing education coordinator. She is a Red Cross volunteer for many years and appreciates the opportunity to engage with students in community service.

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