The Rio Grande Valley pitches in to help those affected

As Harvey approached the Texas Coastal Bend howling, its winds at 130 miles per hour as a category four hurricane, Ian Caceres had a choice to make.

The pastor of the First Baptist Church in Aransas Pass could either stay or seek shelter two hours south in his native Donna. When Caceres learned the strength of the storm on Thursday Aug. 24 he, his wife, their five-year-old son and 15-month-old son made for the Rio Grande Valley. Harvey slammed the coast Friday, Aug 25.

While Caceres was in the Rio Grande Valley he kept in touch with multiple friends. One friend, Shane, who decided to stay at his mother-in-law's house, was having trouble scooping water out of the house due to the demolished roof. Another friend, Glen, was luckier as the two massive falling oaks on his property missed his home.

“I saw that with a lot people as they were able to escape total devastation,” Caceres said.

By Monday, Harvey was on a war path back in the Gulf of Mexico headed up towards Louisiana. Caceres and his family returned home to find Aransas Pass had been ravaged. Driving through town seemed like winter as all the leaves from trees had blown away. Light poles and electric lines were down on the street. Maneuvering through the city with a population of about 10,000 was difficult to say the least.

“We knew it was going to be bad, we didn't know how bad,” Caceres said. “As soon as we were driving into town passing the local businesses, Whataburger was mangled, McDonald's was mangled, and the Lowe's had a lot of damage.”

Surveying the damage, Caceres said it would have not surprised him if tornadoes went through town as damage was more significant in some places than other places.

One member of the church, Iva, was devastated beyond belief. A year and half ago her husband passed away and all that was left of his memory was their home. Iva's husband built the home as his labor of love. Now it was completely destroyed.

As the days passed, Ian now began to think of how his congregation was going to persevere. Not only spiritually but financially. With businesses around town destroyed how was the congregation going to work? How was Ian going to provide for his family? As a pastor, he relies on the donations from the congregation.

“There's a whole lot of uncertainty and unknowns and there can be fear there,” Caceres said. “But at the same time God is going to come through and he's going to take care of us, no matter what happens and no matter what that means for us.”


The Parishioners

Texans have a second nature to help others when times are tough. By Saturday Aug. 26, Caceres began receiving calls on how people could help even though the scope of the situation was still unknown.

Church Unlimited in Corpus Christi called, Matt Moreno from Church Unlimited in Alice called, Palm Valley Church in Mission called, and so did Baptist Temple in McAllen.

Marshall Johnston, Executive Pastor at Baptist Temple, and his wife Kathy lived in Aransas Pass for nine years. So this storm literally hit home.

Kathy has been at the helm of the relief immediately after Harvey. As the disaster relief coordinator at Baptist Temple, it was her job to round up the troops, get up to the disaster areas and go to work.

Before mobilizing, Kathy and Marshall drove to survey the damage in Ingleside, Aransas Pass and Port Aransas. Due to being self insured, Kathy felt First Baptist Church in Aransas Pass needed immediate attention.

At Baptist Temple, it was announced Sunday Aug. 27 volunteers were needed. Forty-five people were in the first caravan Saturday Sept. 2 and headed straight to the church.

“We started trying to get water out of there and everything that was water soaked, which was almost everything,” Kathy said.

They crew worked for about eight hours that first day and returned home. On the drive back, tired and full of emotion the consensus was the volunteers from Baptist Temple would return.

Every weekend since that first Saturday, Kathy has returned to Aransas Pass with her trusty list of 74 volunteers to help with the resurrection of the city. Not all go every weekend, but those who can make the trip get put to work.

For Kathy, she knows by helping the First Baptist Church, they're helping the congregation not have to worry about the church. The congregation can take care of their own homes at this point and time.

“There's so much that people have to do to get back to normal,” she said.

The relief effort continues for Kathy and the rest of the Baptist Temple volunteers. Saturday Sept. 23 the crew caravanned to Rockport. Some with chainsaws to remove debris.

Both Baptist Temple and Palm Valley Church told Caceres they were committed for the long haul.

It will take the better part of a year for the First Baptist Church to be back to normal. When the Texas wind-storm insurance increased, funds at the Church were not up to par so the policy lapsed. Everything the church is doing to rebuild will be entirely based on donations.

Baptist Temple and Palm Valley Church have both written checks. Baptist Temple contacted Vega Roofing in McAllen and they came to help immediately, saving the church thousands of dollars.

“There's no mark up, there's no profit margin, nothing,” Caceres said. “They're literally doing it for the cost of materials and how much it costs for labor.”

There were a couple of weeks where Kathy and the team took a break from hands work. Baptist Temple helped with some ministry. There will be a reassessment soon, and if the First Baptist Church needs more reconstruction the volunteers will go back.

Currently, supply drives have been put to a halt. Kathy said they could not accept supplies because there is no where to store it in Aransas Pass.

Sunday school, weekly gatherings and scheduled church activities have been cancelled until further notice due to signs of mold. The sanctuary for First Baptist Church was one of the areas Harvey did not destroy completely. Some water reached inside so carpet needed to be removed, but the congregation meets Sundays at 10:45 a.m. A normal meeting during a disorderly time.


The Realtors

Wednesday Aug. 24, one hundred and fifty miles away from where Harvey made landfall Aaron “Nick” Cantu was monitoring the storm closely before it slammed the coast. As the president of the Greater McAllen Association of Realtors (GMAR) he has a responsibility to make sure his association was not going to be affected by the storm.

When he learned where the storm was headed he made a phone call to Chris Duff, the president of the Corpus Christi Association of Realtors.

Cantu told Duff they were going to collect items for the relief effort. That was the easy part.

A couple of days after Harvey, GMAR was able to collect four trailers full of supplies.

“We took 22 volunteers, we took four full trailer loads and we put in a days work out there in Port Aransas, Cantu said.

Port Aransas was closed but Duff managed to get the volunteers access to the island.

Thursday Aug. 31 the crew set up in a supermarket parking lot which served as Ground Zero. Once supplies were dropped off they headed to house and put in much needed man hours of work.

Cantu said while they were working other volunteers came by to see if they were doing okay.

“You know what was mind-blowing, as raw and ugly the storm was it was moving to see people going around asking if you needed food or water,” Cantu said. “There was a car full of teenage girls driving around offering spaghetti to the workers.”

Although things have somewhat settled there is still much work to be done. The game plan is identify the real-estate body which was taken a large hit. Cantu said the most difficult part will be logistics.

The volunteers are there but where will they stay?

The association is willing to help with manpower but at the same time they don't want to take up hotels that can serve someone who has been displaced. So the plan is to continue to head to the Coastal Bend.

Cantu said not only realtors can join in on their effort and currently he said some construction companies have helped.


The Doctors

While Hurricane Harvey may have ravaged the Coastal Bend cities like Aransas Pass, Port Aransas, Rockport and Refugio with destruction, Houston was being flooded by more than 40 inches of rain.

Buildings were taking in water leaving some completely uninhabitable. Naturally medical assistance was needed.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine received a phone call from the United Health Foundation (UHF) for help.

For Dr. Eron Manusov, assistant dean of clinical education it was an easy choice to pack up their 45-foot-long mobile clinic equipped with two examination rooms, a laboratory, restroom and state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment. The clinic, dubbed Unimovil, was purchased with funds from a UHF grant.

A team of six people deployed before dawn to Sugarland, just south of Houston. While there the doctors visited with patients until the need slowed down. Their next visit was a building which housed elderly people and had seen significant water damage to the first floor.

It was another day at the office for doctors like Eliana Costantino Burgazzi who is doing integrated community care as a resident at Knapp Medical Center.

Burgazzi said there were a lot of people that needed help. Most of the patients had their houses flooded with the majority of their belongings lost.

“They had chronic conditions,” she said. “Some were unable to take their medications because they lost everything.”

Another day Unimovil opened their doors in a parking lot where lines of people began to form. Most of the patients only spoke Spanish. Manusov said several patients were traumatized with injuries, infections, lung problems and some that had not seen a doctor at all.

One patient stood out the most to him. She was undocumented and was recently caught and given a bracelet on her ankle to track her whereabouts. The patient had suffered unspeakable trauma trying to reach Houston.

Manusov realized helping that woman was what the five-hour, week-long trip was about.

“It was just a blessing I could do that,” he said.

Eventually just like everyone else the team with Unimovil needed to return back to the Rio Grande Valley. Parishioners, realtors and doctors where only a fraction of those helping their neighbors in their time of desperate need. Time only allowed for a few stories to be told but hundreds of volunteers donated thousands of hours of work.

While it may take years before all the affected areas are back to normal on thing is for certain. When help is needed, Texans heed the call.