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LETTER FROM AMERICA: Coping with hurricanes

November 2017 | by Ben Wilkerson

Members of the South Carolina’s Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (SC-HART) perform rescue operations in Port Arthur, Texas, August 31, 2017. The SC-HART team consists of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the South Carolina Army National Guard with four Soldiers who are partnered with three rescue swimmers from the State Task Force and provide hoist rescue capabilities. Multiple states and agencies nationwide were called to assist citizens impacted by the epic amount of rainfall in Texas and Louisiana from Hurricane Harvey. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez)
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Late on Friday 25 August 2017, Tropical Storm Harvey made landfall as a category 4 hurricane in south Texas, after gathering force in the Gulf of Mexico.

With wind gusts of 130 mph, it hit Rockport, Texas, and then moved back into the Gulf, only to make a second landfall in Corpus Christi as a category 3 hurricane.

The storm soaked the Houston area with over 50 inches of rain. While many hurricanes break up after making landfall, Hurricane Harvey parked itself over southeast Texas, especially the Houston area, for five gruelling days with little signs of dissipating.

The combined effect of record-breaking rainfall and the overflow of reservoirs, bayous and levees caused massive flooding in the streets. In many places the floodwaters were over 10 feet deep and people had to take shelter in trees or on rooftops.

Nearly a quarter of Harris county was submerged under floodwater. The storm caused widespread power loss in the Houston area and shelters were scrambling to find adequate food and water for thousands of refugees.

By 29 August, over 13,000 people had been rescued and more than 30,000 were displaced across the state. Houston airport was shut down and hundreds of flights cancelled.

Since its advent in the Caribbean, Hurricane Harvey has caused the deaths of over 80 people and billions of dollars in damage. It is probably the worst storm to have made landfall in the United States.

Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard move through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continue to rise, Monday, August 28, 2017. More than 12,000 members of the Texas National Guard have been called out to support local authorities in response to the storm. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West)
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Civil response

As floodwaters began to rise in Houston, people scrambled to get above water. The city police, National Guard and many other first responders rescued thousands. Many looked to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to issue a mandatory evacuation, but the mayor declined, stating, ‘You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road. If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare’ (CNN, 8-29-17).

Other city officials and even CNN meteorologist Chad Myers agreed with the mayor: ‘He was right when he said, “I don’t want 6.5 million people on flooded roadways and dying in their cars”.’

The mayor of Houston did order a city-wide curfew and positioned high-water rescue boats near critical areas for immediate evacuation. The George R. Brown Convention Center was opened as a shelter, with hundreds assisting evacuees with food, water, first aid and other needs.

The Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, issued an order to the National Guard to assist with evacuation and rescue efforts and the Army Corps of Engineers worked hard to manage the large reservoirs brimming with water from the rains.

With nearly 6.5 million people in the Houston metro area alone, rescue and aid efforts were overwhelmed and in desperate need of manpower. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was also involved in coping with the disaster.

Civilian response

One of the amazing things about this tropical storm was how so many civilians were instrumental in aiding the rescue efforts. Locals in the Houston area with boats, fired up their motors or used their canoes and kayaks to help neighbours out.

Federal groups like FEMA welcomed this aid. An article in The Atlantic put it this way: ‘That isn’t necessarily a sign that FEMA was unprepared for the hurricane, or that it’s unusually overwhelmed. In fact, the expectation that civilians will spring to action is central to the way federal, state, and local governments approach huge disasters like Harvey.

‘There’s simply no way for those levels of government to marshal the resources fast enough to do all that needs to get done. Roads are impassable; resources are spread out; and manpower is limited’.

While government cannot provide a response as quickly as needed, a top-down response from the government probably wouldn’t have been the best answer anyway. Local people know much better what they need and benefit from being involved.

Groups from all over Texas drove down to help out. Men from the Fort Worth area fired up their airboats to help out. When asked why he volunteered, one boater commented, ‘We’re Texans, dude. We’re … crazy. We help each other’ (‘As Harvey moves east’, Los Angeles Times).

Cajun Navy         

Not only were locals involved, but volunteers from other states came to help. The ‘Cajun Navy’, a flotilla of boaters organised through Facebook from neighbouring Louisiana, drove down, with their boats in tow, to assist with rescuing those displaced by the floods.

Experienced in navigating the waterways in Louisiana and having helped out during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the boaters drove nine hours from Baton Rouge, through heavy rain, to the edge of the floodwaters in Humble, Texas, about 20 miles north of Houston.

One group of the Cajun Navy, led by Todd Terrell, had organised 763 boats and had over 1,500 volunteers spread out over Texas. Using map and walkie-talkie apps on their phones, they spread out on the flooded roads looking for those who needed rescue.

During one such rescue effort, the Cajun Navy came to the aid of stranded residents at an assisted living home in Port Arthur, where elderly folks in wheelchairs were waist deep in water.

One pastor from Louisiana was asked why he came. ‘I lived through Hurricane Katrina, and, in some ways, this is worse’, he said. ‘It’s going to take Texas a long time to come back from this. When we were in trouble twelve years ago, Texans came down to help, and so we are just loving our neighbour back’ (Ibid.).

Church responses

Since Harvey’s catastrophic touchdown in southeast Texas, churches have been at the forefront in giving aid and providing shelter. USA Today interviewed two members of City Church in Houston, who loaded 30 vehicles with blankets and other supplies and distributed them at local shelters.

One of the church’s members, Joe Looke stated: ‘Christ says the two biggest charges are to love your neighbour and to love Him, and that’s what we’re trying to do’. One local children’s minister saw 16 refugees huddled together in a gas station and invited them all, including their dogs, to her home (‘In a storm the church is bigger than Joel Osteen’s building’, USA Today, 8-30-17).

Many criticised Lakewood Church, the 16,800-seat megachurch pastored by Joel Osteen, for not opening its doors to refugees during the flooding. The church closed its doors over the weekend and did not open them until Tuesday morning.

Local social media users posted pictures of the megachurch with little damage from the storm and apparently in excellent condition to host refugees. Someone tweeted, ‘Worth noting that some of their parking is underground (note flood gates) but they could still drop ppl off at the door easily’ (@cmclymer).

Due to such criticism, many statements were made by the church in defence of their decision. Don Iloff, Osteen’s brother-in-law and church spokesman, stated that there were safety concerns over flooding and the church posted pictures of standing water in the hallways and car park. Iloff also reported that the area around the church was flooded and three flood victims had come to the church before being taken to the George Brown Convention Center.

The church officially stated: ‘We have never closed our doors. We will continue to be a distribution centre for those in need’ (CNN, 8-30-17). When Lakewood did finally open as a shelter to flood victims, they posted pictures of donated items that had been brought to the church.

Wider help

Other churches around the USA sent funds and fresh supplies to the refugees in Texas, Louisiana and other affected areas. Organisations such as the Presbyterian Church in America’s Mission to North America and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Disaster Relief raised monies to help provide supplies for the flood victims.

Please be in prayer for your American brothers and sisters who have experienced the loss of homes, businesses and even family members. May God use this disaster as a means of bringing people closer to himself.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA