On the ground in Texas: Challenges rise as recovery transitions from cleanup to rebuild

Fear, distrust and encroaching apathy threaten response efforts even as disaster response leadership display commitment and creativity.

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Hurricane debris removed from a church in Port Aransas, Texas following Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Christopher Mardorf / FEMA.

Editor’s Note: Jim Truitt was invited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist in the formation of a Long Term Recovery Taskforce for Hurricane Harvey. Truitt, who serves our PNW Conference as the UMVIM Disaster Response Coordinator, had previous worked alongside FEMA during the Galena, AK recovery effort. He’ll be spending up to four weeks working out of Austin, Texas.

The following is Jim’s third update written for friends and family. You can find the the first two installations here: Week OneWeek Two.


Week three is now complete. I spent most of this week on the road visiting Long Term Recovery Groups (LTRG) in Southeast Texas. As the recovery from this hurricane begins to transition from cleanup to rebuild, these groups will be key to helping survivors achieve their new normal. Their task is going to be overwhelming. It will take years to complete. The consensus around the Joint Field Office (JFO) is 8 to 10 years at a cost of over 60 billion dollars.

The stories we hear really tug at your heart strings. One couple we talked to are in their 80s, living on social security, and they lost everything in the flood of the Colorado River. The husband burst into tears as he told us their story. “We lost everything. We have no place to go. What are we going to do?” Others in the same area are refusing to let anyone clean out their homes because they have no place to go while it is drying out and sanitized. Many are living in homes that are still wet from the flood and mold is going everywhere. Some have even started putting sheetrock on top of the old wet sheetrock. Some refuse to talk to anyone or allow anyone in their homes because “they might be from the government”.

There is a large illegal immigrant population here and they’re afraid they’ll be deported if they talk to anyone. The local churches are the most trusted and they are doing their best to help as much as possible but many of them were also flooded. The congregations are overloaded trying to recover themselves and help the church recover. It’s going to take many, many volunteers from outside faith-based organizations to rebuild people’s lives here.

On a more positive note there have been 106,005 registered volunteers who have reported 2,821,620 volunteer hours. This doesn’t include neighbors helping neighbors or the spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers (SUV) who didn’t register.

The downside is the number of volunteers is dropping off dramatically. Hurricane Harvey is no longer in the news. Unfortunately, there are many pockets of survivors who have had no volunteer support. These are generally marginalized residents or those living in outlying rural areas. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just a capacity problem. There are only so many volunteers to go around.

I have been particularly impressed with the dedication and commitment of the FEMA and State personnel who are trying to help those impacted by Harvey. Their focus is totally on getting people back in homes that are safe, sanitary and secure. They constantly think outside the box to solve challenges. Many of them have been here from the beginning and they don’t know when they will get to go back home.

My tour is about up. I will leave on the 12th. My replacement is from Eastern Pennsylvania and he’s due in on Tuesday. I’m looking forward to being home again but there is a nagging feeling that I wish I could do more.


What you can do

Word was received this week of gratitude for the thousands of cleaning buckets that have been received in response to the recent hurricanes. The warehouses are nearing capacity so people are being asked to ceasing making new buckets for the time being. If you have already made cleaning buckets, they are still being received.

Be sure to check out some of the upcoming training opportunities if you are available to volunteer your sweat equity toward efforts to respond to natural disasters in our conference and beyond.

If you want to help United Methodist Early Response Teams (ERT) get to and from Texas, you can contribute to the Conference Advance #353 through your church or send a check to the Conference Treasurer at PO Box 13650, Des Moines, WA 98198. Put Advance #353 on the memo line.

To financially support relief and recovery efforts in U.S. states and territories, give to U.S. Disaster Response Advance #901670. To give to non-U.S. territories in the Caribbean, and to empower other efforts around the globe, please donate to International Disaster Response Advance #982450.

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