As Texans continue to grapple with the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey, which over the past week has resulted in at least thirty-nine deaths, displaced tens of thousands of people, and flooded much of the greater Houston area, Unitarian Universalists are stepping in to help.
In less than two days, more than 700 donations have come into a Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund that the Unitarian Universalist Association and the UU Service Committee set up on August 29, said Suzanne Murray, the UUA’s direct marketing manager. While the gifts are still being processed, the first 226 donations represent $22,355, with another 480 gifts yet to be tallied, she said. The most common gift is for $50, but they range from $10 to $1,000, she said.
Update 9/7/17: In its first week, the Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund raised approximately $165,000 from 1,500 donors, and some congregations are planning collections for the fund on September 10. Beacon Press announced that 20 percent of all sales from its website in the month of September will go to the UUA-UUSC fund. A separate fund is likely to be launched to support recovery efforts from Hurricane Irma, UUA officials said September 7.
Half of the funds raised will go to at-risk populations served by grassroots partners of the UUSC, including those who work with undocumented immigrants. The other half will support UU congregations and members of those congregations most affected by the storm. The funds will be administered by a group of leaders in the UUA’s Southern Region, which includes Texas.
“We are so moved by the generous response already and the outreach of so many,” said the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, the UUA’s director of Stewardship and Development. She said she expects and hopes that many UUs will have the opportunity this coming weekend to make donations through special collections during worship services at UU congregations.
At this time, it appears that none of the approximately 3,000 UU congregants in the flooded areas of South Texas are known to have been injured, said the Rev. Kenn Hurto, regional lead for the Southern Region. However, UUs have been displaced from their homes, although leaders are still unsure how many.
“We know members are calling to check on fellow congregants and some have been offered a place to stay by other members,” said Morn. “It’s heartening to know this vital ministry is going on in our congregations in the midst of this horrifying tragedy, and that UUs all over the world are responding with financial generosity.”
Although the complete fallout from the storm is still unknown, as of August 31 it appears that at least three of the eight UU congregations in the greater Houston area sustained some damage to their buildings, said Natalie Briscoe, a staff member with the Southern Region. Emerson UU Church in Houston sustained roof damage and First UU Church of Houston also sustained damage, although she doesn’t yet know the extent of the damage, said Briscoe. Spindletop UU Church in Beaumont, a city that was hit hard by the storm’s second surge on Wednesday, was flooded, although Briscoe said she doesn’t yet know how much.
While many UUs have already contacted the UUA and UUSC to volunteer to help in Texas, the time isn’t yet right as emergency teams are still rescuing victims of the storm and assessing damage, said the Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of the UU College of Social Justice. Her organization, a joint program of the UUA and the UUSC, has experience in coordinating volunteer efforts, including in Texas, and is already gearing up toward organizing a long-term response to Harvey.
McTigue encourages UUs eager to volunteer in Texas to sign up now with the UUCSJ, which focuses on helping marginalized people. The UUCSJ will compile a database of volunteers, including their skills and availability, then organize and deploy them once more is known, McTigue said.
“Nobody knows yet where the best efforts need to be coordinated,” said McTigue, noting that “in a disaster people who want to help can so often be in the way.”
She added, “What everybody has to wait for is more information from people actually on the ground there in terms of what kind of volunteer energy is most needed, and then in terms of where does staging happen,” since volunteers must be housed and fed.
“Sign up and stay tuned,” she said. “We’ll collect the list of names, and when our partners on the ground are clear on what’s needed, we can start deploying.”
Of key concern is the fate of the 600,000 undocumented immigrants who live in the Houston area, she said, since government officials have given mixed signals over the past week about whether they are safe from prosecution at this time.
UUCSJ has been working the past several years in Texas with RAICES, a grassroots organization that provides legal and other support to immigrants and refugees, including women and children in detention centers. UUCSJ is now working with RAICES to determine how to help this population in the wake of the storm, McTigue said.
There will be many volunteers needed in the coming years for help not only with this group but with many others who are being affected by the storm, McTigue said. “The need for people to help is going to go on for months and years, based on what we know already,” she said.
The Hurricane Katrina recovery effort went on for years, she said, “and this is a much larger area that’s been impacted, so I think we will be in this for the long haul.”