Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana last August devastating the region. The storm dropped feet of rain, causing widespread flooding. Authorities reportedly estimated more than 80 people died from the storm, which caused billions of dollars in property damage. In the face of tremendous amounts of need, Redbirds stepped up and helped with the relief effort.
Lindsey Earl, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and a 2017 Newman Civic Fellow, arrived in Houston August 19 for her placement as part of the Stevenson Center Applied Community and Economic Development program. She was placed with Change Happens, a nonprofit organization operating out of Houston’s Third Ward.
A couple of days after her arrival, she learned that Harvey would hit the area. Earl had taken several disaster relief courses through AmeriCorps and thought she could help, so she signed up for a volunteer shift with the Red Cross.
“I was always interested in disaster relief efforts because it is really meaningful work and it really helps people out,” she said. “When I saw Harvey coming, I had no idea what to do because I am from Colorado, a landlocked state. But I knew I wanted to help out since I knew that disaster responders may be understaffed.”
The Red Cross took up Earl on her offer, and it was quickly apparent that a lack of volunteer staffing was going to be a significant issue. While there were many experienced and willing volunteers available nationwide, getting them to Houston in time with the weather conditions was a daunting task. To help with this, her team set up a volunteer intake station. Earl helped intake over 7,000 volunteers.
These volunteers needed training and direction, and some of those volunteers were brought in to help intake even more volunteers. As a result, Earl found herself working 14-hour days, helping run those crucial operations and giving people the training they needed to be more effective in the field.
After six days of grueling work, Earl was able to take a day off September 1. She went back and worked the following weekend for the Red Cross. At that point, the Red Cross was able to bring in volunteers with years of experience, and that a stronger infrastructure was in place to help with volunteer management. Earl returned to focusing her skills toward the relief efforts being put forward by Change Happens.
In Normal, Jenn Coletta, a graduate assistant in the English Department and a Houston native, watched the storm coverage and was moved to help her hometown.
“I essentially watched my whole home be destroyed,” she said. “My family, my friends, my whole community were there, and it was really hard to watch that happen and not be there to help. You feel helpless watching your home completely under water.”
Coletta brainstormed with fellow graduate assistant Claudia Sanchez and came up with the idea of taking donations for some of the most crucial items such as hygiene items, cleaning supplies, and infant care items. Coletta partnered with Powell Industries in Chicago, which was also doing a relief drive, to have the supplies driven to Houston in a semitruck.
Coletta said the support of her colleagues in the English Department was crucial.
“I approached Chris De Santis (the English Department chair) about my idea, and he said not only is it allowed but encouraged, and we will do everything we can to help,” she said.