With Hurricane Ike aimed at the Texas coast last week, members of the Blanco County Disaster Response Group, in cooperation with the American Red Cross and United Methodist Church, opened a “silent” shelter to help evacuees trying to get through Blanco County to destinations elsewhere.
The idea of a “silent” shelter is not to bring coastal evacuees to the county, but to take in those who have car trouble or illness while trying to pass through on their way to somewhere else.
For that reason, there was no publicity and no signage on the highways inviting refugees to stop.
First-responders were notified, though — sheriff’s deputies, police, firefighters and EMS — so if they found a stranded driver, they’d know where to send the family for a meal and a bed for the night.
“It may seem odd to have an emergency shelter and invite people in,” said George Barnette, of the BCDRG. “But without the Red Cross, we don’t have the resources to maintain a full-service shelter for 100 people with no idea how long they’d have to stay.”
The Red Cross housed most evacuees at its primary shelters in Austin and San Antonio. Some overflow went to a shelter in Kerrville, with another on standby in Fredericksburg. Eventually, the Fredericksburg shelter also opened, but took in only a dozen “guests”, and was able to close Sunday afternoon.
“Our Red Cross assignment was to stand by in case Fredericksburg filled and we had to catch the overflow, but happily that never happened. Meanwhile, we clicked our ready-status up a notch and opened quietly to help keep evacuation traffic moving through Blanco County,” Barnette explained.
This time, the shelter was in the First United Methodist Church in Johnson City, handy for both north-bound and west-bound traffic through the county. A second shelter was on stand-by at the Blanco United Methodist Church, which also was supplied and ready to open if the first one filled.
The Johnson City shelter was staffed 24-hours through the evacuation period, then closed Saturday morning as Ike blew ashore in Southeast Texas.
“We only had six guests in our shelter, and that was only for one night,” reported Shelter Manager George Cofran, “which tells us there weren’t as many evacuees passing through the county as we would have had with a closer landfall.”
That doesn’t mean opening the shelter was a waste of time, he pointed out.
“The way the landfall point kept moving along the coast, the traffic easily could have been a lot greater, and we could have had a lot more guests. Better to have the shelter up and ready to take people in, than to wait and find families sleeping in their broken-down cars.”
And, of course, the shelter was very important to the six people accommodated.
Had Ike come ashore on the central coast, it might have come directly over the Hill Country. With the resulting flash floods and tornadoes, a ready shelter here could have been much more critical to house our own neighbors forced out of their homes.
Volunteer Manager Jeanne Hardy scheduled volunteers to come in for two-to-four-hour shifts. Most had little or nothing to do because of the light demand in the shelter.
“The experience still was valuable,” she said. “Most of our volunteers had never worked in a shelter. This also was the first time the disaster group has actually opened a shelter, so we weren’t sure how our volunteers would be able to respond to the call for help on short notice.”
“We were delighted to discover we had more volunteers than we needed. We didn’t even need to call on everyone. We left our Fredericksburg volunteers available to help in the shelter there, and our Marble Falls and Austin members free to work in the big shelters in Austin. Our Blanco contingent also was not tapped so they’d be ready if we had to open the shelter there. We can say confidently now Blanco County is ready.”
The turnout was even more impressive considering that, like other Blanco County residents, many of the volunteers had opened their own homes to friends and relatives who evacuated the Houston area ahead of the storm, so they were pulling double duty.
Supplies for the shelter came from a variety of sources. The cots, blankets and personal hygiene kits were pre-positioned in the Blanco County shelters by the Red Cross.
Food came from generous gifts from the shelter host — the United Methodist Church — and from the Johnson City Lions Club, Hochheim Prairie Farm Mutual Insurance, and anonymous donors.
“We had a delicate balance with food and kitchen workers,” said Carol Summy, Food Service Manager for the shelter. “On one hand, we needed to provide instant meals for small numbers of people who might show up without notice.”
“At the same time, we had to be ready to switch quickly to full food service for as many as 100 people. How many kitchen workers would we need to schedule? How much food did we need to stockpile? The answers changed from hour to hour, but we kept on top of it and, in the end, made everything come out about even.”
As with volunteers, the exercise ended with food resources left over. Some restaurants and groceries were contacted as standby suppliers but the light need meant that they didn’t need to be called.
“Having more volunteers than we needed, more shelter sites than we needed, more resources than we needed speaks volumes about the people of Blanco County. The news headlines from Houston and elsewhere prove that it hasn’t been the case everywhere,” according to Martha Mason, the Blanco County Chair for the Red Cross.
“This was a triple-value event for the disaster response group,” she said. “We proved that we have the structure in the county to respond to the human needs of a disaster, we provided the Red Cross the standby capability to expand their shelter capacity if needed, and we provided a very real service to the families who came to our shelter.”
In the end, the shelter closed in plenty of time to put the church Activity Building back together for Sunday School classes on Sunday morning, but that wasn’t a sure thing early in the shelter’s life. There was no way to know initially whether the building would be full of families on Sunday.
“We did some scurrying to find alternative locations for some of our classes, in case we had people living in those classrooms. We knew we could work out those problems, though,” added Pastor Sid Spiller, “because in the end, the highest calling for a church and congregation is to extend help to those who need it most.”
“I can’t think of a sermon or Sunday School lesson that would outweigh that.”
Even the interfaith game night was able to be held in the church Activity Building where the guests also were spending the night. They even joined the game tables for a hot game of dominoes.
Although the shelter is closed, the process is continuing as the group digests the lessons learned over the past week.
The BCDRG and any other interested residents will meet at 9:30 Saturday morning at the First United Methodist Church in Johnson City to review those lessons and start figuring out how to smooth out the bumps they found this time.
To join or support the Blanco County Disaster Response Group, call JoAnn Routh at 830-868-7414, or just come to the Saturday morning meeting.