At the height of Harvey’s devastation, floodwater covered 444 square miles of Harris County, which includes Houston. Officials estimate nearly 200,000 houses across the state need repair. The recovery effort could take years and cost as much as $125 billion.
As the extent of Harvey’s destruction became apparent, FEMA director Brock Long said community-based cooperation would be vital to recovery: “Helping Texas overcome this disaster is going to be far greater than FEMA coordinating the mission of the entire federal government. We need citizens to be involved.”
Getting involved is exactly what Jeremy Rust and his wife, Dana, did: The couple helped organize Nassau Bay Baptist’s early cleanup efforts. Rust, a safety engineer who works for a NASA subcontractor assisting astronauts during spacewalks, had no experience with disaster relief. But he had a cell phone and a Google spreadsheet.
After the storm, a team of volunteers began compiling a list of Nassau Bay church members with flood damage. It included three of their four pastors. People began dropping off clothing, food, and cleaning supplies at the church. Mud-out crews got to work the next day. Rust said his church just did what churches are supposed to do: “We’re here to minister to the community, serve the community. We’re trying to be here as a beacon to the community. While you’d like to do that all the time, it’s a testimony to step up in times of catastrophe.”
‘I remind pastors and faith leaders everywhere I go that a disaster should be the church’s finest hour.’ —Jamie Johnson
When it comes to disaster relief, the federal government hasn’t always been very welcoming to outside groups, said Greg Forrester, president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Before Katrina, FEMA viewed volunteer organizations as an uncoordinated network that didn’t mesh well with the government’s systems-based approach. But when the government’s approach failed after Katrina—emergency supplies ran out, crowded shelters became their own disaster zones, and agency infighting led to paralysis of aid distribution—volunteer groups stepped in to pick up the pieces.
“Katrina proved that the voluntary sector does the vast majority of response and recovery that happens in this nation,” Forrester said, noting volunteer organizations make the difference in how well a community recovers. His association has 62 members, groups that span the secular, religious, and ideological spectrum. Their diversity makes them especially good at identifying disaster victims who need help but might be overlooked by larger organizations, including the government.
Local volunteers did most of the heavy lifting during the first week of Harvey recovery. But after Labor Day, many Houstonians returned to their regular jobs, turning over ongoing cleanup efforts to national groups. Samaritan’s Purse partnered with five churches across the area to house and deploy hundreds of volunteers who converged from across the country. On a recent muggy morning in Pearland, another southern suburb, about 30 volunteers tugged bright orange Samaritan’s Purse T-shirts over their heads and gathered in the parking lot of Crosspoint Church to pray before heading out to three job sites.