Humanitarian efforts aim to minimize Harvey's misery

Greg Toppo
 A volunteer carries a woman whose home was impacted by severe flooding following Hurricane Harvey in north Houston Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

From good Samaritan Cajuns to pet lovers in Austin with pickup trucks and motorized canoes, humanitarian efforts are underway in Houston and beyond to minimize the misery of flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey. 

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez this week called upon anyone with a "high-water, safe boat or vehicle" to pitch in — and like clockwork the boats arrived. Hundreds of boatsmen from around the region, as well as others from the “Cajun Navy,” have been traversing the flooded streets of Houston for days.

Jon Bridgers, who founded the Cajun Navy’s Facebook page, told the Houston Chronicle that another squad of rescuers from Louisiana was en route Tuesday.

Aid groups, accustomed to widespread disaster declarations, expected the Harvey relief effort to be among their biggest ever.

The Salvation Army of Georgia said its Harvey intervention would be the “largest and longest emergency response” in the history of the organization. The group is deployed in nearby Victoria, Texas.

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief said it began sending teams to Texas before Harvey made landfall on Friday and will likely be in Houston "for months to come." The group said it is assisting up to 60,000 people displaced by the flooding by providing hot meals, laundry services, hot showers and companionship. It also will aid Houstonians return to their homes by helping clear land, remove fallen trees and restore flooded homes.

The American Red Cross’ Brad Kieserman said the group was just at the beginning of "a massive relief effort” in Houston. 

The Red Cross said more than 80 tractor-trailer loads of cots, blankets, ready-to-eat meals and other supplies were on the ground in Texas, with shelter supplies in place for more than 34,000 people. Supplies for another 18,000 were en route.

Aid across the region is flowing in unlikely ways.

Do-it-yourself fundraising efforts, facilitated by sites like GoFundMe, are sprouting. By late Tuesday afternoon, a crowdfunding effort begun Sunday to help replace the personal belongings of students at KIPP Houston High School had not only raised more than $12,000 of its $20,000 goal — it was also trending on the website.

Elsewhere, a YouCaring effort to raise $3 million for victims of Harvey had raised $2 million.

Austin Pets Alive, based in the Texas capital, said Tuesday that it had saved about 430 animals from Harvey's floodwaters with the help of other pet welfare organizations. The groups expect to rescue 1,000 pets by week's end.

Volunteers and first responders work together to rescue residents from rising flood waters from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Aug. 29, 2017.

Mary Mattia, the Austin group's communications director, said Tuesday she was leading a caravan with pet supplies and transport kennels headed back to Houston. She was behind the wheel of a "big Texas pickup truck with a canoe in the back," she said, leading four other vehicles.

One of her team pulled a motorized canoe and another member had stopped at Walmart to pick up a few rubber boats, she said. "We’re going to figure it out for the animals,” Mattia said.

Another effort started on GoFundMe had raised about $114,000 by Tuesday — more than four times its goal — to aid 4 Paws Farm,a pet rescue operation north of Houston.

Though not technically a charity, the vacation rental website Airbnb said Tuesday that it had expanded its “Disaster Response Program” to provide free temporary accommodations to people in the storm’s path. 

"We encourage everyone who has a room to spare to consider listing their space through this program,” Kellie Bentz, Airbnb’s head of Global Disaster Response and Relief, told USA TODAY.

Airbnb said users can sign up to offer their room in their homes — or entire homes — to evacuees in several Texas cities, including Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. It said more than 400 homes had already been offered. 

The site began allowing users to offer free “urgent accommodations” in 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Since then, it said, users have aided victims of more than 70 disasters worldwide.

Austin photographer Olivia Vale is offering her place, a “charming renovated bungalow” in East Austin. Over the weekend, as Harvey came ashore, she hosted three Navy pilots who had been forced to evacuate from Corpus Christi.

“I think that it would be inhumane not to,” Vale said. “It’s just a game of luck that I happen to be in Austin and other people are in Houston. The same thing could be happening to us.”

Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo 

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