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In Texas, An Army Of Volunteers Sprang Into Action After Harvey

Sep 7, 2017
Originally published on September 7, 2017 3:37 pm
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In Texas, Hurricane Harvey created an army of volunteers. They scrambled to help in any way they can. From Houston, NPR's Melissa Block reports.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: If you were in trouble in a big storm, you'd be lucky to have Rocky Breaux on your side.

ROCKY BREAUX: We were with the Cajun Navy. We jumped in boats and air boats.

BLOCK: Breaux is from Houma, La. Right after Harvey hit, he drove to Texas with his boat to rescue people from the floodwaters. Now that ad hoc Cajun Navy has gone airborne.

BREAUX: We're locked and loaded. And we're going to do whatever it takes to help out Texas. They've always helped out Louisiana, so we're just returning the favor.

BLOCK: Breaux has just flown into Houston in his four-seater Piper Arrow with a planeload of requested supplies for the littlest Harvey evacuees - toys and games, books and strollers.

BREAUX: Clear? Clear prop.

BLOCK: This Cajun airlift pilot points his plane home. He figures he'll be flying back to Texas soon.

REGINA TROXELL: I'm going to get the boxes. Like, the boxes...

BLOCK: The next morning, volunteers unload that fresh batch of toys at the NRG Center, which has turned into a huge shelter for Harvey evacuees. And within minutes, a little boy gleefully brandishes his new Buzz Lightyear.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: This is Buzz Jet Pack.

TROXELL: Did you get Buzz Lightyear?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yes, you did. You've got Buzz Lightyear in your hands.

BLOCK: The big disaster response teams are here - FEMA, the Red Cross - but alongside them are a legion of individual volunteers who've found themselves on the front lines of disaster response, like Dr. Jennifer McQuade.

JENNIFER MCQUADE: This is completely outside of anything that I've ever done.

BLOCK: She's a melanoma oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center. The first day, as Harvey swamped Houston, she made her way to a shelter to donate blankets and socks. It was chaos. People were being brought in in the back of dump trucks, soaking wet and wounded. But there was no medical team in place.

MCQUADE: And there was a first aid - one table that was set up that had some Ibuprofen, some Tylenol, a little bit of Neosporin and some Band-Aids. And...

BLOCK: That's it?

MCQUADE: That's it.

BLOCK: So McQuade made an urgent plea for help to the Physician Moms Group on Facebook, some 70,000 women strong. Right away a doctor from Louisiana wrote back.

MCQUADE: And she said, are you running the medical shelter? And I said, no, (laughter) I'm a medical oncologist. I'm absolutely not running a medical shelter.

BLOCK: Well, you are now, the Louisiana doctor said. She knew from her own experience during last year's Baton Rouge floods that you can't wait for the Red Cross or FEMA.

MCQUADE: Those take time. Any time you're dealing with large organizations, they're amazing, but it takes time.

BLOCK: So McQuade took charge. And using the power of social media, she enlisted doctors, pharmacists, nurses to come volunteer and bring supplies, everything from insulin to EKG machines. They responded in droves. Finally, she says, a good use for Facebook.

MCQUADE: You know, it's something that I'd seen as a frivolous distraction that I kept on trying to quit but couldn't quite make myself quit. I'm really glad that it showed its true value with this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, Stan, how many chicken quarters you got panned up?

BLOCK: A volunteer food collective is in frenzied swing in Houston. Chefs are preparing huge pans of roast chicken and sliced pork shoulder with gravy to be sent to first responders and evacuees not just in Houston, but all over southeast Texas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, can you hit me on three total right now?

BLOCK: They've cooked up tens of thousands of hot meals. To coordinate, a volunteer logistics team created a website. It lets them match restaurants that have food to donate with those who need it. Claudia Solis, an eighth-generation Texan, works on that end of things. She's exhausted but grateful.

CLAUDIA SOLIS: There's a kindness in Houston that's really - people are just kind. They're your neighbors. You have to help. You shouldn't think about anything other than that. And it's beautiful, but it's also that it required this tragedy for us to see it.

BLOCK: Now, as hurricane Irma approaches Florida, the Houstonians are talking with the restaurant community there, sharing what they've learned from Harvey. Organize as much as you can ahead of time. Line up kitchens and transport and volunteers. Social media will be your best friend. Above all, don't wait. Melissa Block, NPR News, Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.