Using corporate disaster knowledge to ease human suffering in flood ravaged Texas

Red Cross volunteer Heather Shampine, Senior Project Manager of Emergency Planning with National Grid, spent two weeks in Texas responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Heather wrote a two-part blog entry for the American Red Cross describing what it’s like to respond to a massive disaster, how she made new friends from across the Red Cross, and what it’s like to experience life-changing events while helping people profoundly affected by the flood waters brought by Hurricane Harvey. 

September 6, 2017:

In the nearly three years I have been inrco_blog_img_natgrid Emergency Planning at National Grid, I have learned a great deal about what it means to plan, prepare and that an effective response to emergencies can make the difference to our customers. Those lessons inspired me to pursue my Masters in Emergency Management. While I have experience with responding to utility emergencies and have an academic understanding of disasters and their impact on people, I really do not have much in the way of field experience.

The Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) seemed to be a solution to that need. On any given day, the DAT teams in Massachusetts respond and assist victims of house fires with basic comfort needs, supplies, recovery information, and simple, caring comfort. They also provide those services for major disasters like floods, wildfires, hurricanes and more, all over the United States and even internationally.

I signed up online to volunteer for DAT, and very quickly I was in the database, vetted and ready to get trained and get started locally. Instead, I received a call-to action for Massachusetts volunteers for Hurricane Harvey a few days later, and found out I could ask to be deployed after some basic training was completed. After a check on remaining vacation days, checking in with my managers and understanding how it might impact my school schedule, (and securing pet sitters!), I was on my way!

On September 1st, I arrived at the Austin Convention Center, the command post for the relief efforts in that district. It was interesting to see that the command post looked and operated very much like a National Grid emergency operations center. As volunteers arrived from cities and towns across the country, we were asked to report to the staff shelter to await our local assignments.

The staff shelters, this one located in a local church, are just like the shelters set-up and manned for the disaster victims, with limited space and just the essentials. As the shelter need grew and the need to quickly prepare for more volunteers grew, I jumped in to assist the staff in building cots and getting ready for what would be just under 200 volunteers for that night. After a less-than-cozy night’s sleep, we all readied to move on to where we were needed most.

I was assigned to a Houston bus and I volunteered to be the “bus boss,” shepherding the volunteers to their designated location, and essentially just ensuring the same number got off as got on. As we traveled, the need to keep Houston HQ informed of our status and expected arrival time was crucial as well as working with them to virtually check in the 54 volunteers on “the Austin bus.” Being bus boss had its perks as I was able to get to know more of the volunteers and had a bit of fun on the way.

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Arrival in Houston had us checking in straight away to a hotel (that was a surprise!) to await our final assignments. Coordinating thousands of volunteers is an enormous, time-consuming task. I found that “standing by” was a frustrating reality as I and my fellow Red Crossers were are all super anxious to help.

On Sunday, the Austin bus volunteers who were not already pulled for various assignments across southern Texas were assigned to shelter care at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which as of this writing housed approximately 2,000 clients (down from 10,000). A shelter tour and instructions to report that evening for a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift was exciting but also daunting as many had not slept to prepare for 9+ days of the graveyard shift! But, you quickly remind yourself it’s a small sacrifice to help the traumatized, displaced folks of Houston and the outlying areas who likely now have no home to return to and are sleeping on cots with thousands of other people.

As of today, Wednesday the 6th, approximately 1,600 people remain at GRB where my role has been to register them into the shelter, provide information such as their dorm assignment, meal times, what services are available, and where they can get clothing, and supplies. I have met some great people who now know me by name and who are thankful for the Red Cross and the countless volunteers who are giving their time and comfort. I’ve even met a few four-legged evacuees as GRB has a dorm for folks who were able to bring their pets or animals. That has included dogs, cats, bunnies, birds, a pig, a snake or two, and we’ve heard a squirrel! Friends for Life staffs a section in the pet family dorm everyday providing food, crates, toys, bedding, and veterinary services.

The shelter clients’ stories are heartbreaking and we see so many individuals and families that are completely devastated by something they never thought would happen to them. But, I’ve also been incredibly impressed by how people staying at the shelter have stepped up and helped strangers there with everything from pushing them in wheelchairs, to getting them food, and simply providing comfort. It’s truly inspiring.

Sometime in the next few days I will be reporting to a new assignment at Houston HQ to assist in Red Cross damage assessment. I am super excited to learn more about another way in which I can help in this disaster and use some of my National Grid skills and training. I am so grateful for my colleagues in Emergency Planning, and especially my VP, Mike McCallan, for supporting me in this unforgettable opportunity to serve.

As in storm duty, it’s easy to get lost in what day it is, become exhausted from the shift and the work, to interact with stressed out and sometimes angry folks you’re helping, and to miss home. In the end, for me and the other volunteers, it’s temporary; for the Texans impacted by this unprecedented disaster, the effects are long-lasting. So, we step up and do what we can to say yes to the call and make a difference.

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