Our friend, Audrey, is volunteering for a disaster relief organization called All Hands and Hearts. She's living in the small town of Aransas Pass in Texas, helping those affected by Hurricane Harvey. All Hands and Hearts has been in Texas since September 1st, while most other organizations have left. We asked her some questions about her experience and how all of us can help.
Can you tell us a little about All Hands and Hearts and their involvement with Hurricane Harvey?
All Hands and Hearts has been in Texas since Hurricane Harvey hit. We have bases in Houston and Aransas Pass. We are a volunteer-driven organization that goes to places where natural disasters have occurred and help underserved communities in need.
How did you come to volunteer in Texas?
About a year ago, I had heard about All Hands and their work in Nepal and thought I'd really like to go there to help rebuild schools. All Hands has been in Nepal since April 2015. I actually applied to go to Nepal about 2 days before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. After Harvey though, I started thinking about changing my plans and going to Texas instead. It just felt so right to come here and help instead of going abroad. So, I decided to apply to come to Texas instead, and was assigned to Aransas Pass, a town on the Gulf of Mexico about 3 hours from Houston.
As a volunteer, what do you do on a daily basis? What's a day in your life?
We are currently based at a local church gymnasium. We have 40 bunk beds that were made and donated by a church in Austin. We eat, sleep and work together. Every day, we are assigned to a home in need. Every home has different damage so that could mean that we are tearing down dry wall, ceilings, pulling up moldy carpets and floors, removing debris from people's yards, cutting down fallen trees, or helping people salvage their personal items that have been water damaged.
How do you maintain a positive attitude in the midst of tragedy?
I remember driving into Aransas Pass and seeing the damaged homes and businesses here. It was very emotional for me. I was also really excited to be of assistance to this community that so obviously needed help. The community of Aransas Pass, and the homeowners that we help, are so grateful and such generous, loving people. It's such an honor to help such humble and caring people. I think that our interactions with them help us to keep positive and to see the effect that even just small, kind actions can have on others.
Also, the All Hands and Hearts community here in Aransas Pass is amazing. There are, on average, about 40 people here on base. The people who come to volunteer for All Hands and Hearts are some of the most open-hearted people I know. They come from all over the country and world to help. Some stay for a weekend and some stay for a couple of months. You don't need experience to volunteer here and all are welcome. Anyone with the desire to help is accepted and trained on the job. I know that the All Hands community here plays a huge part in helping us all to maintain a positive attitude and to get through the more challenging days, of which there definitely are.
I can only imagine the ongoing efforts that are needed to repair a city after a storm of this magnitude. Can you speak to how the relief efforts are organized in terms of phases and how long the rebuilding process is expected to take?
Currently, we are in the response phase. Originally, there were around 20 other organizations here in Aransas Pass, but now All Hands and Hearts is one of the only ones still here. Most response organizations stay about a month to do initial cleanup work. There are also organizations that specialize in recovery that will eventually come back to help. All Hands and Hearts does both response and recovery. We come early and stay late.
The goal of the response phase here in Aransas Pass is to remove water and mold-damaged materials from homes to prevent its spread. We aim to create safer homes so that people are not living in mold-filled houses. Many homeowners do not have the financial ability to hire someone to do the work for them so we aim to decrease the cost for homeowners when rebuild begins.
Damage is always hard to assess when you don't live in the same area and are only being shown what the news delivers. Can you tell us about the damage you have witnessed and give us a sense of the living conditions people are enduring?
There are many businesses that have totally closed after the hurricane because of extreme water and wind damage. Many of the houses I have been working in have either had part or all of their roofs ripped off. Once that happens, the home suffers a lot of water damage and mold grows and much of their personal belongings are also ruined. Many of the people that we have assisted in this area are either living in homes with mold or have been living in tents or trailers on their property. Others have been forced to leave their homes to live with family in San Antonio or other areas. It's challenging because they have their jobs and lives here but cannot afford to pay for additional housing and there is very little, if any, transitional housing.
Speaking of media coverage, how accurate do you think it's been? It seems like we heard so much about the storm when it first hit and now there is a lack of coverage, even though people are still suffering. What are your thoughts?
We often hear about the massive property damage after natural disasters but rarely hear the stories from the people who have survived them. I think that being here, we get to meet the people, hear their stories, learn about their lives and experiences, while the media tends to focus more on numbers and events. Also, there have been so many natural disasters that have occurred since Harvey so the media has been spread very thin. The media's focus is more on the actual event and not the aftermath. Many people don't realize that it can take several years for a community to recover. They can never regain what they've lost but we can help them regain a sense of normalcy in their lives.
There has been a lot of talk about how the President and our government have handled hurricane relief, in Puerto Rico mostly, but in general too. What's the consensus among the volunteers you work with?
Honestly, the volunteers here are more focused on helping the people and the community so we don't really go into the politics of the situation. We are not greatly impacted by the decisions the federal government makes. We are a non-profit that is volunteer-driven and we rely on donations to do the work we do. We don't have a religious or political affiliation and accept all volunteers from all walks of life that have a desire to help those in need.
How can people help?
People can help by volunteering or by making donations to All Hands and Hearts here: https://give.hands.org/fundraiser/1162565! We always need more volunteers! All Hands and Hearts has committed to staying in Texas for two years. There are also programs running in Houston, and in other parts of the world as well.
All of the proceeds from our 'Don't Mess With Texas' tee have been donated to the hurricane relief efforts. Here's a breakdown of what's gone where thus far.
All Hands & Hearts: $1.5K
Team Rubicon: $1.5K
Team Rubicon unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders and disaster professionals to rapidly deploy emergency response teams into disaster zones.
We will continue to donate the proceeds to the areas in need. If you have organizations you'd recommend be sure to email us.