Red Cross executive reflects upon Hurricane Harvey deployment

Disaster struck the Gulf Coast three years ago

By Todd James, Executive Director, American Red Cross of North Central Ohio

August 25, 2020- Note: At the time of this posting on Tuesday, August 25, the third anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Harvey, Tropical Storm Laura was expected to gain major hurricane strength and target the same area along the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday morning, August 27.   

Three days before Hurricane Harvey would make landfall, I returned home from a 10 day deployment in Hopkinsville, KY. The small town of a couple of thousand was the point of totality for the recent total eclipse and expected an influx of up to 300,000 visitors to witness the event, putting a severe strain on local resources in the case of an emergency. I had been home for a few days when I got the call to head to Houston. The next day, all travel into the area was suspended because of the storm. I was diverted to Baton Rouge, where American Red Cross teams were staging to deliver supplies and help when the conditions were safe to travel.

Todd James helping hand out water from an emergency response vehicle (ERV) outside of Sealy, TX

Austin City Limits

In Baton Rouge, hundreds of Red Cross responders waited and prepared as Harvey continued to batter Texas and Louisiana. In total, 60 inches of rain flooded Texas and Louisiana with 33 trillion gallons of water, creating unprecedented flooding and destruction. As the storm ended, I headed to Texas. But instead of Houston, I was sent to Austin to support the response. Thousands of families had been driven from the Gulf Coast and were headed north seeking safety, many to the Austin area. 

Todd and his team in Austin with Gail McGovern, President and CEO of the American Red Cross, when she came to Austin

I arrived in Austin and met the Public Affairs team I would be leading. Our job was to communicate critical information about what help was available, where to find safe shelter and to let the American people know how they could support our efforts. 

Harvey was my 21st deployment, but it was the first time I’ve seen our team set up a mega-shelter for more than a thousand people. In just a few days, a large, empty warehouse was turned into a clean, safe shelter for hundreds of families with a kids play area, tented shelters and an area for pets, an internet café, showers, a cafeteria, a medical area and other amenities to give displaced families the best care possible. It was an amazing effort!  And that was just a small part of the work done in response to this disaster. 

Todd helping 7 year old Carsyn Collins unload about 200 toys she collected and donated for kids in Houston

The Red Cross moved quickly to address people’s immediate needs after Hurricane Harvey with thousands of trained workers supporting emergency relief efforts by: 

  • providing more than 414,800 overnight shelter stays with partners
  • serving over 4.5 million meals and snacks with partners
  • making more than 127,000 health and mental health contacts
  • distributing more than 1.6 million relief items

providing more than $345 million in financial assistance to hundreds of thousands of households

 Little Ol’ Band from Texas        

There are a hundred stories to tell from this deployment. One of my favorites is the day my partner and I visited several shelters in the rural areas that were hit by the storm. One town we visited was LaGrange, TX. Being a rock n’ roll fan, I couldn’t head into town without playing LaGrange by ZZ Top at a very loud volume. Luckily, my partner was a fan too!

Todd with local volunteer Tom Hill at a warehouse in San Antonio

I spent 10 days in Austin, working with dedicated, passionate people doing all they could to give these families a sense of safety, comfort and hope while getting ready for the recovery effort to come. I didn’t know it then, but I would very soon be part of that effort.

Edited by Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer

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