- This is a firsthand experience written by Volunteer Services Specialist serving the Arkansas/Oklahoma Region, Rick Harvey, who was deployed as part of the Public Affairs team during Hurricane Harvey. Harvey was deployed to Houston and the Gulf Coast Region.
Tears. Genuine tears.
When I reflect on the time I was deployed with the American Red Cross, one of my most memorable moments is our response to the Hurricane Harvey disaster.
It all started and ended with the tears of Juan Tobar, whose family of six lost everything when floodwaters engulfed their home in Holiday Lakes, Texas
I met the Tobar family while visiting his rural south Texas neighborhood with a hot-shot Disaster Health Services team – two nurses and a mental health volunteer – who were making the rounds checking on residents who were affected by the storm.
The Tobar family journey was especially tough to learn about. The family had been in a horrible auto accident just a handful of months prior to Hurricane Harvey and their youngest son, Adrian, age 10, suffered a brain injury as a result and is currently wheelchair-bound. The family had just completed renovations to their home to make it handicap accessible when the storm hit.
I learned first-hand how the Red Cross came into the Tobar family’s lives shortly after the storm hit and had been by their side ever since. As I talked to Juan, he welled up in tears – more than once – when talking about the Red Cross volunteers his family has met.
“They came at the right time, like heaven-sent,” Juan said. “The Red Cross was here when we went through the last flood, when we went through Hurricane Ike, and they’ve been here now. The Red Cross has always been here and means so much to our family.”
It was a sentiment I heard over and over as I visited community after community.
I met a family in Dickinson, Texas – a mother and her two sons, one disabled – who were living in a pop-up camper provided by a neighbor. We were following an American Red Cross feeding truck that day and as we approached the area, the mother teared up with excitement.
“I don’t know what we would do without the help y’all are giving us,” the mother, with tears streaming down her cheek, said as Red Cross volunteers gave her an extension cord off their Emergency Response Vehicle so she could plug in a mini refrigerator and keep cold what little food her family had. “Y’all are like angels who came along at just the right moment.”
I also met an elderly couple from Texas City, Texas, who were busy working at their home, which had been devastated by the flooding. All their belongings were piled four-feet high in front of their home. Red Cross volunteers were handing out hot meals for lunch that day.
“We knew it was around noon and the Red Cross would be by with lunch,” the lady said. “Y’all have been here from the start and we knew you’d be here today. I have been saying that I think God did this to bring people together.”
Like the others, she teared up early and often while talking about her 89-year-old husband who had recently had bypass surgery just before Hurricane Harvey hit, and wasn’t yet fully healed at home when he had to wade in neck-high water just to be rescued as floodwaters quickly rose.
“I was so worried that the nasty water was going to turn his surgery site to get infected,” she said. “We were lucky.”
My time in south Texas wasn’t my first national deployment. But this one was different. Much different. And it took me being home a handful of days before what I experienced fully hit me.
I was supporting public affairs on this deployment, and sure, the media and the negativity was tough to deal with every day. It was like a daily kick in the gut for the organization I worked for, the organization I care so passionately about was being mercilessly attacked every hour, every day.
But the tough questions from the media, the tough criticism online, that we fought hard to prove wrong and combat daily, was nothing. I knew I had a home to return. I know I had running water, a roof, electricity, etc.
The journey in Houston has left me emotional quite a few times since I’ve been back. The scenes of devastation, the look of total disbelief, of worry and of stress of the dozens of residents I interacted with are cemented in my head. It causes me to tear up often. Wondering how those amazing people are.
The day I departed Houston I made one last visit to the operation headquarters. I heard that the Tobar family I had met two weeks prior were in the building meeting with nurses and caseworkers. I knew I had to visit.
When I entered the room, Juan smiled from ear-to-ear. He was so excited to update me on all the help he had gotten from the Red Cross.
“Thank you for coming into our lives. Thanks to all of you,” he said as he broke down, sobbing, as he hugged me.
Tears. Genuine tears.