By Dr. Preston VanLoon | Submitted Photos
At 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning I was notified by the American Red Cross (ARC) that they wanted me to leave Bismarck within 24 hours for a two week deployment to Houston, Texas. I was to serve as a disaster spiritual care volunteer with those devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
After booking my flight and quickly packing, I arrived in Houston on Monday afternoon and reported to the ARC headquarters of Greater Houston. I was told that I would be working in a large shelter which provided refuge for about 700 people who had lost their homes.
The ARC shelter was an old Macy’s store that was now closed and located at one end of a shopping mall. Cots were spread throughout the store with only two or three feet between them. They were separated into “dorm” areas for men, women, and families with children. There was also a designated section for eating meals and another for obtaining different types of assistance. Bathrooms and showers were provided outside in mobile trailers.
In addition to the diverse population of people living in the shelter, there were many volunteers and workers from other places in the U.S. who came to help in various ways. The agencies on site were FEMA, Housing and Urban Development, Medical, Mental Health, American Red Cross, Texas Baptist Men, and many volunteers who helped by managing the dorm areas, assisting with meals, cleaning, providing activities for children, and security.
As a trained ARC disaster spiritual care volunteer my role was one of being present, offering hope and encouragement, and listening to the heartache and stories of devastation that clients experienced in the hurricane. Our days were long, usually beginning at 7:30 a.m. with a briefing before we each left to our respective service locations, and not ending until 10 to 12 hours later.
My heart went out to each person as they talked and cried about their difficult situations. In 2005 my wife and I were in the same position as we lived in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, so I had somewhat of an idea of what to expect. As I listened to story after story, I was moved by what I heard.
I remember talking with one man who came from Ethiopia about 20 years ago with no money and wanting to pursue the American dream. With the help of Habitat for Humanity he built a house for his family and found a job driving a taxi.
When the storm came, his home was flooded and mold began to grow when the water subsided. He lost everything including furniture and clothing. The water in his home destroyed the walls, floors, and other property. He also lost his only source of income as the flooding made his taxi inoperable. I asked him what gave him hope and he said, “There is still air, I can breathe.”
A 59-year-old grandmother was also living in the shelter along with her two adult children, three grandchildren, and two small dogs. Her trailer home had flooded. When asked how she was coping she stated that she was trying to receive help from FEMA and the Red Cross to find another place to live. She said that she thinks God allows these storms to happen to bring everyone together because there is so much hatred and division in the world.
I also met a 64-year-old disabled veteran who evacuated the hurricane and lived in his car for four weeks with his small dog before he came to the shelter. We spent a lot of time talking about his struggle and how he coped. His dog was everything to him. She was his source of support and he didn’t know what he would do without her.
Recovering and healing from Hurricane Harvey was going take time, longer for some than others. Though many of the clients were down and out, they still looked up. They also knew that they were not alone; they had one another and God. They never lost what mattered most to them—their faith.
Dr. Preston VanLoon is a chaplain, counselor, author, and much sought inspirational speaker who has presented domestically and internationally on a variety of topics, including interpersonal forgiveness.