SRH staff provide hurricane relief
Two University of Maryland Shore Regional Health behavioral health staff members traveled to Texas through the American Red Cross to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
EASTON — Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, which first made landfall along the Texas coast on Aug. 25, and then lingered for days, produced large amounts of rain and catastrophic flooding to much of southeast Texas into the beginning of September.
Two University of Maryland Shore Regional Health behavioral health staff members took the needs of those caught in the aftermath of the hurricane to heart and traveled to Texas to assist in any way they could through the American Red Cross.
Terri Fox of Easton is a behavioral health response team clinician who works at UM Shore Medical Center at Easton and Dorchester. She is a licensed graduate practicing counselor and has been working with SRH for nearly two years, since 2015.
Tyler Betz of Berlin is a clinical social worker with the UM SRH behavioral health response team, working part-time, mostly at UM Shore Medical Center at Dorchester.
Fox said she received an email from the American Red Cross saying there were mental health needs following Hurricane Harvey. She applied and was accepted as a volunteer within three days, her only requirement to take three online classes in mental health and disaster relief through the American Red Cross before leaving.
“(The Red Cross) said they had 52,000 people apply. Not just for mental health, but for the whole Red Cross system. So many people wanted to go and help, because that was the first hurricane, at that point,” Fox said.
She took a week of her own vacation time to volunteer in Texas, leaving Wednesday, Sept. 13, and returning Wednesday, Sept. 20.
“I just felt like it was a good opportunity for me, and I was lucky enough to be able to go,” Fox said.
Fox said, following Hurricane Harvey, residents from Beaumont, Texas, who lost their homes and their belongings were evacuated to shelters in Dallas. Fox was stationed in Dallas, working at a mega shelter, which housed about 2,300 people, she said, and a men’s shelter.
The mega shelter was set up in the parking garage of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. The parking garage included several levels, with cots on one level, food service in another and other ser vices on other levels.
“It was like a bubble of a world ... everyone was so willing to help,” Fox said.
Fox said many people experienced issues related to the distance they were sheltered after being evacuated from their homes, and not knowing was causing them stress.
“All the people that were (evacuated to) Dallas were three to four hours from home, unlike the people who were in Houston, who were right there, where their houses were,” Fox said. “That was a huge part of the problem for the people (in Dallas), is that they had no way of really knowing or seeing anything that was going on with their houses or getting back.”
Many people also did not have cellphones they could use to communicate with family, friends and those who could provide them information about their lives back home. Others were concerned about getting back to jobs they were forced to put on hold because of evacuations, or wondered whether those jobs still existed for them when they returned, Fox said. Others wanted to check on prescriptions they needed to stay healthy, and others needed medical attention because of injuries sustained during the hurricane.
“Most of them, they had nothing. Some people that I talked to, it was like their fourth hurricane,” Fox said.
“You’re just talking, you’re listening to them, you’re giving them a shoulder to cry on,” Fox said. “You’re not there to do therapy. You’re there to just listen and kind of assess where they are and what they need ... It wasn’t just mental health stuff that you did; it was being there for someone. That was your only job.”
Fox said while working in the shelters, her job was to walk through the shelter, visually assessing those who may be in need of assistance. Volunteers mostly worked in 12-hour shifts, she said. If someone was visibly upset, Fox said, mental health volunteers were there to listen. She said there were about five mental health specialists working with all the people staying in the shelter.
Fox said one woman she spoke to, who had a 2-week-old baby at the time of the hurricane, said she and her family had to be rescued from their roof as floodwaters rose in the middle of the night. She grabbed her newborn and her daughter, who has autism, but had to leave the family dog behind. In addition to the trauma she had experienced and the family’s losses, the woman also was experiencing postpartum depression.
Another older man who couldn’t walk well told Fox he floated on his dryer through floodwaters for two days before being rescued. He had post-traumic stress disorder from the experience.
“He was so afraid to get off the dryer, because there were giant spiders and cockroaches floating in the water and swimming,” Fox said. “It gives you an idea of the many things that must have been floating in the water ... He was traumatized ... He couldn’t talk about it without crying and shaking and sweating.”
When Fox left the shelter on Sept. 20, there still were about 600 people waiting on their towns to tell them they could come home. She said when those calls came, large luxury buses would come take people back to their homes, or what was left.
While working at the mega shelter, Fox said, the shelter functioned like its own city.
“The mega shelter was like a city. It was like its own working city,” Fox said. “It had tractor-trailors lined up outside where people took their showers ... You can’t even imagine how many Porta-Pottys they had set up. Then they had to come clean all that stuff all the time. But the people that kept everything together were the Red Cross workers.”
Fox said the Salvation Army helped provide food to those in the shelter, and Walmart had a pharmacy set up, where prescriptions were filled for free. She said Walmart also had an area set up where people could get clothes, if needed, as many people left home in emergency situations, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
In addition to these resources, she said doctors were available to see those in need; a clerk of court was set up to help people acquire new ID cards; breakfast, lunch and dinner were provided every day, as well as snacks and drinks; general hygiene items were donated to the survivors of the hurricane; and the National Guard was there for security and to help people load what they had on buses to return home.
“It’s important for me to let people know exactly what Red Cross and Walmart did for (the survivors). It’s not about what I did or anything, because I was so minimal,” Fox said. “The amount of money and time and energy that they all put into it is just phenomenal ... I’ll be with Red Cross for the rest of my life,” Fox said.
Betz left on Saturday, Sept. 2, and returned Tuesday, Sept. 12. He said he was stationed at the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center in Fort Worth, Texas, also volunteering through the American Red Cross.
Betz said he has volunteered with the organization for five years as a disaster mental health worker.
In addition to the occasional deployment, Betz responds to local community members affected by tragedy. He said most of those calls are for house fire victims, and he helps out, when needed, on a regular basis. He also works full-time as a clinical social worker with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Any person, regardless of professional skill set, can go help during tragedies with the Red Cross,” Betz said.
Betz said about 200 people were sheltered from Port Arthur, Texas, air and boat evacuations and rescues at the Fort Worth activity center. He said his job was to support evacuees and volunteers with mental health needs, often discussing the loss of survivors’ homes, the experience of being evacuated and helping to attach those who needed them with resources.
He said volunteers often had issues dealing with secondary trauma, dealing with trauma victims and being away from home.
He said his most memorable experience was witnessing the best in humanity.
“These people were distraught, upset and traumatized, and you have folks that come from the community and wrap around these folks, and lift them up,” Betz said. “It was people taking time out of their own life to support these folks who are in need”
Joe Miletti, American Red Cross’ regional volunteer services officer, said volunteers are vital to the role the Red Cross plays following a disaster.
“Being affected by a disaster on any level is traumatic, and people have various levels of resiliency or coping skills,” Miletti said. “And needs are fluid, but we use volunteers that are health professionals, spiritual care workers, shelter workers, logisticians and more.”
Lenore Koors, American Red Cross’ regional communications officer, said donations are key to helping survivors of tragedies.
“Although there has been a recent uptick in large disasters, the generosity of donors has been phenomenal and provides the resources to train and deploy volunteers and maintain our fleet of emergency response vehicles to meet local and national disaster response and recovery efforts,” Koors said.
She said donations received throughout the year designated for “Disaster Services” are used to pre-position supplies, volunteers and other resources so the Red Cross is on the ground 24 to 48 hours in advance of major and known disasters, such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
“Once the disaster hits, donations designated specifically for Harvey, Irma, Maria and West Coast wildfires provide the resources to maintain ongoing response and recovery — including case work — sheltering and feeding,” Koors said.
She said undesignated donations are used “to meet the preparedness, response and recovery needs within local communities so we can respond to house fires and other local and smaller-scale disasters.”
A survivor of Hurricane Harvey is pictured surrounded by all that he owns in the blue bags that were given to him by the American Red Cross and Walmart.
Tyler Betz of Berlin was stationed at the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center in Fort Worth, Texas, volunteering through the American Red Cross following the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Terri Fox of Easton is a behavioral health response team clinician who works at University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Easton and Dorchester. She traveled to Dallas, Texas, in September to assist the survivors of Hurricane Harvey.