22 January 2018

VICTORIA, TEXAS - Hurricane Harvey devastated coastal Texas and Louisiana in late August 2017. It was a Category 5 storm, with 135 mph winds, and up to 60 inches of rain that fell over four days. It lingered and lingered.

Ground Zero for the storm was the area of Rockport, Texas, just north of Corpus Christi. Many homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged. Entire pole lines between towns along the coast were ripped down and many workers planting new poles and restoring electrical service. This was still being done more than two months after the hurricane hit.

The following is an interview with Rev. Bill Barwis, a Volunteer Chaplain/Emergency Disaster Services Coordinator for The Salvation Army-Fox Cities in Appleton, Wisconsin.

What was your main role while you were there?

My assignment was ESC (emotional and spiritual care).

My role here at the Fox Cities corps is to be volunteer Chaplain, primarily counseling people. I am also a co-leader of the Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) team made up of Corps staff and volunteers. We train and prepare for local disasters.

How long was your deployment?

I spent 2 weeks serving on a team and doing hurricane relief in the area of Victoria, Texas.

How did you find out you would be deployed to Texas?

Five members of our team (Ed Thomas, Ginger Lee Hooley, Jim Edbrooke, Mark Van Straten and me) volunteered to go and do hurricane relief. Ed Thomas and I were the only ones sent.

What was the condition of Texas?

Our team’s base was in Victoria, a city about the size of the city of Appleton. The damage there was not as visible as at the coast, but we saw store signs twisted or severely damaged. The Salvation Army corps building in Victoria had water damage. Nearly the entire outside wall around the building had its drywall removed prior to our arrival.

What were your first thoughts?

The weather was hot and humid, with lows in the 70s and highs in the high 80s and low 90s. There was only one day of rain during the two weeks.

What was a typical day like?

The first Sunday we were there, three of us took a cooler with water to the Rockport area. We saw many of the houses on the water several damaged or destroyed. Hispanic workers were doing roofing and other cleanup chores, so we offered them the cold water. They were very appreciative.

How many other volunteers were you with?

Our total team was about 20, with nearly half of them women. Maximum stay for all of them was two weeks, but a couple of them were off two weeks and then came back for two more weeks. Most of them were paid Salvation Army staff, probably two-thirds.

The team leadership was from the Salvation Army in Georgia. The leader was a Major from Atlanta. They were almost called out to Hurricane Irma in the middle of their Texas deployment.

What was a typical day like?

Disaster recovery is done in phases.

First is the assessment and setup of operations.

Next is the sheltering and feeding/hydration of victims. The Red Cross does much of the sheltering, although the Army does some. The Army does much of the feeding and hydration, using large canteens. There were several in the Victoria area.

Once the victims have a steady food supply, we transition to the next phase, which is points of distribution. A warehouse is set up and donations are then distributed at various locations. The high demand items during our time were child diapers, cleaning supplies, personal hygiene, food boxes with non-perishable items and dog food. This is done with box trucks and forklifts, plus a lot of organizing. A semi-trailer would come from Dallas once a week with 60 pallets of donated goods. Our job was to organize it, re-palletize it and prepare it for distribution, then go to the sites and unload it. The recipients would line up and pick what they wanted.

The final phase is long-term recovery, where corps operations are fully restored and long-term assistance is given to victims in need. In Victoria, they brought in a retired Major who will oversee the long-term recovery efforts in that area.

Can you share your most memorable moments during your deployment?

High points for me:

1. One of the team members from South Dakota learned that his 11-year-old daughter was having serious emotional issues. We were able to minister to him in the crisis until transportation could be arranged home for him.

2. Each team member was debriefed by leadership prior to departure at the end of the deployment. One of the young men asked me to debrief him. His Salvation Army job is to seek employment for ex-offenders who are in the Army’s halfway house. This man wants to get a law degree and go overseas to advocate on behalf of the needy with foreign governments. What a vision!

3. I happened to be eating lunch at a fast food restaurant and had my EDS shirt on. An older woman came over and told me she was homeless and in poor health. She had been abandoned by her family. I was able to take her to the local library where she could apply to the Red Cross for cash assistance. I also provided a small amount to her.

4.  We grew very close as a team and I was able to give encouragement to several who were struggling with emotional issues. One was a DHQ Captain lady in her mid-40s who had experienced much trauma in her life.

5.  Two of us delivered adult diapers to several area nursing homes. At one, we participated in a worship service that was incredible.

6. Four of us were sitting in a restaurant and invited the waitress to say grace. She joined hands with us and praised God!

7. We visited a woman who took on the rescue of abandoned animals, especially dogs. She had about 15. We tried to encourage her and, in fact, one of our team members took home one of the dogs.

Please add anything else you want to share!

This whole experience was a great privilege for our team and me. We carried the name of Jesus Christ into difficult situations every day. The Salvation Army is highly revered by so many people because we do that.