Mobile kitchen units, truckloads of tools and thousands of supplies are ready to help people impacted by Hurricane Harvey, but there is one problem: They are hundreds of miles away from Houston.
The extent of the disaster caused by Hurricane Harvey and its remnants, which lashed hundreds of miles of coastline from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and flooded more than one quarter of Harris County, Texas – home to 4.5 million people – has made it impossible for relief agencies to help in some of the hardest-hit areas. Trucks now sit hundreds of miles away, waiting for roads to become passable and search and rescue teams to finish their jobs.
“The scope and size of the storm is unlike anything the army has ever experienced,” said Lt. Col. Ronnie Raymer of the Salvation Army.
Trying to navigate flooded roads and an ever-changing situation as levees breach, rivers overflow and tides change makes it too difficult and dangerous to even attempt getting supplies in. The biggest issue is that the storm just won’t let up: Tuesday and Wednesday, the Beaumont-Port Arthur area received more than two feet of rain.
“We’ve got units set up as close as we can,” said Mike Ebert, a spokesman for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Many of them are in Mississippi. The mission board has deployed kitchens traveling to smaller towns including Rockport along the Texas coast to feed first responders. The units also contain showers and laundry facilities.
Some relief organizations cannot get supplies into Houston, where highways are flooded, and authorities are still searching for and rescuing people from their homes. Organizations that do not help with basic shelter needs will wait until the situation changes from a search and rescue to a recovery operation to help people with flooded homes
“What we don’t want to do right now is get our volunteers in there and have them get stranded and need to get rescued and create more problems for first responders,” Ebert said.
Tim Haas, manager of disaster relief at a [relief organization] , said the organization has more than 60 volunteers in Victoria and another base of operations in the Portland/Rockport area. Two other disaster relief units – 53-foot trailers filled with tools – are en route from North Carolina and will not get there for a few days as they try to drive around the heaviest rains.
But the flooding makes even immediate needs difficult to fill. A mobile kitchen capable of feeding 40,000 people a day was expected to arrive at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Tuesday. The center is housing 10,000 people – double the expected capacity. It will now not arrive until Wednesday.
“It can be frustrating as people are wondering: When can we get deployed?” said Bill Bumpas, a spokesman for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief. Some, however, don’t have to go far: One man has rescued people from rising water in his own neighborhood, Bumpas said.
The magnitude of Harvey has shocked even the most seasoned disaster organizations. Because the storm devastated so many places in different ways, from winds to flooding, the response will be different in each area. And because of its massive geographic reach and impact on the highways and roads, organizations are realizing that setting up one centralized command center won’t work.
“We also quickly realized this is going to stretch us more than Katrina did and that we’re going to have to begin thinking outside the box in how we move forward, especially in long-term recovery,” Raymer said.
Raymer said the Salvation Army is starting to think about opening centers in different neighborhoods because Houston’s sprawl was difficult to navigate even before the storm. The organization has opened shelters in the city and a command center in Northwest Houston. Raymer was in Rockport, Texas, Wednesday, which took a direct hit from the storm. Raymer said it is “devastated,” and that he did not see one building that was unscathed.
Now, Raymer and others are waiting to fully deploy in other areas inundated with floodwaters.
“It’s got to stop raining first,” he said.