As floodwaters surged with Hurricane Harvey, Dan Christopulos was among the first wave of Minnesotans to hit the soggy turf of Texas.
He led a team that sent counselors to help the 10,000 homeless people swelling a Houston convention center, tracked down churches to discuss home repair, and drove a van packed with water pumps, shovels and tools to clear out mud-drenched homes.
Now Minnesota volunteers and supply trucks also are heading for Florida and the southeastern U.S., where Hurricane Irma is expected to hit this weekend, possibly followed by Hurricane Jose.
As of Friday, the American Red Cross was planning to send 20 Minnesotans to Florida to help those hurt by Irma. Gov. Mark Dayton announced that a team of 16 emergency management specialists from public safety departments across Minnesota would be in Florida for two weeks.
Other Minnesotans — from faith-based groups and charities to businesses and ordinary citizens — have been gearing up.
“Another 13 pallets of diapers, three pallets of baby wipes, 30 cartons of shampoo and conditioner are scheduled to arrive by the end of the week,” said a weary Christopulos, national coordinator for International Orthodox Christian Charities and board president of the Minnesota Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).
Nearly 60 Red Cross disaster relief workers have deployed to the Texas Gulf Coast as part of the organization’s massive mobilization in Harvey’s wake. A dozen volunteers from the Salvation Army are also on the ground in Texas. Volunteers from both agencies are staffing food trucks, and Red Cross staff members are working in emergency shelters.
Both have launched national fundraising campaigns.
Nationwide, the Red Cross has raised $211 million. The Salvation Army has raised $19 million nationally, with donors from Minnesota and North Dakota giving $748,307.
“Everyone is thankful that their families have survived. They are looking to the future, yet they are heartbroken over what has happened to them and the people around them,” said Red Cross volunteer Carol Christianson of Badger.
Christianson, a retired mail carrier, and Wendy Frederickson, a retired Minnesota Department of Transportation worker from Virginia, Minn., drove a Red Cross food truck from Duluth to Houston. Since arriving Sept. 4, they have worked 12- to 14-hour days taking hot meals to shelters and churches.
People are grateful
Their view from the front seat is one of devastation — large piles of rubbish, dead animals alongside roads, homes and businesses that are largely total losses. Some neighborhoods are still under several feet of murky water.
The modest meals Frederickson and Christianson are delivering — chicken and rice hot dish, spaghetti and chicken patties — are met with immense gratitude.
“They’ve left their homes and they don’t have as much as a toothbrush. They have nothing to go home to — not even a vehicle to go home in — but they are grateful and they hug us and hug us and say, ‘Thank you,’ ” Frederickson said.
Nechama, a national disaster relief group based in St. Louis Park, is sending its first group of volunteers Monday, said executive director David Kaplan. In the weeks ahead, it will deploy five full-time staffers and coordinate 20 to 40 volunteers per day.
“We muck-and-gut houses down to the studs,” said Kaplan. “We take down drywall, woodwork, doors … until there’s nothing left. So when people start working with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] or their insurance, the house is ready to rebuild.”
An emotional challenge
Helping people who have lost everything is both physically and emotionally rigorous, relief workers say.
“You see that stare in their eyes,” said Christopulos. “They are really traumatized. You try to help them do concrete things. You might ask, ‘Have you registered for FEMA?’ ‘Have you gotten your insurance policy out?’ You do that, knowing it won’t solve everything.”
Meanwhile, in Florida, the Red Cross is pouring in hundreds of disaster workers, truckloads of kitchen supplies, tens of thousands of ready-to-eat meals, and enough cots and blankets for more than 120,000 displaced people.
“Twenty Red Cross relief workers from Minnesota are in place or on their way to support people impacted by” Hurricane Irma, said American Red Cross Minnesota Region CEO Phil Hansen in a written statement. “Thankfully, dedicated and trained responders are able and willing to help those in need.”
Individual churches join in
While most groups on the ground are larger nonprofits working with veteran disaster workers, some individual Minnesota churches have disaster relief arms.
Hosanna! Lutheran Church in Lakeville and Shakopee, for example, sent a semitrailer truck full of food to Houston last week, said Tony Caterina, director of the church’s relief ministry. The food, donated by a local business partner, was cooked by a national group called Mercy Chefs and served to first responders and others.
Over the weekend, Hosanna! is asking parishioners to stop by the church parking lot and fill up another truck with cleaning supplies. On Monday, it’s sending a volunteer cook to Houston. In the weeks ahead, it plans to ship truckloads of donated building materials, Caterina said.
Other Minnesota groups are recruiting volunteers and monitoring the situation.
“Our philosophy is, let first responders go first,” said the Rev. Brad Nelson, global outreach pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. “We wait a week or two, and partner with some churches known in the community.”
“Right now 25 people have signed on,” Nelson said. “Some are builders. Some landscapers. Some guys who are really good chefs. …. We’ll send a team the last week of September. And then early November. Then January.”
‘Someone cares enough’
More than 100 volunteers — twice the number expected — showed up in downtown St. Paul on Tuesday to pack 15,000 oatmeal breakfasts for a Houston food shelf as the sweet smell of cinnamon filled the room. Vieux Carré restaurant hosted and sponsored the event for the Twin Cities-based nonprofit Harvest Pack.
“We have a weekly meeting. This was the first thing on everyone’s mind. We started talking about ways we could help,” said Martina Priadka, operations manager for Vieux Carré and the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. The Dakota also donated $5 for every person who walked through the door over the Labor Day weekend and auctioned off tickets online, with $3,500 going to Harvest Pack.
Emergency room nurse Rhonda Townsend of New Richmond, Wis., brought her 4-year-old granddaughter, Emma, to help pack meals and write inspiring notes on the shipping boxes.
Townsend said she volunteered to work at a Texas hospital, but they have a waiting list of volunteers. That’s why she sought an opportunity to help closer to home.
Minnesota corporations and foundations also have stepped forward. Target Corp. is giving $3.5 million to communities and nonprofits. The Andersen Corp. and the Andersen Corporate Foundation are providing $175,000 in cash and products to individuals and communities. The Minnesota Vikings and the Wilf family, the team’s owners, are donating $300,000.
Retired Ramsey County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Daly went to Victoria, Texas, this week with the Salvation Army to distribute food. He is part of a team relieving aid workers from Georgia who are hurrying home before Irma hits.
Volunteers bring food and supplies, but also compassion, a shoulder to cry on, proof that the outside world is watching and cares.
“I call it the ministry of presence,” said Daly of Little Canada. “Someone cares enough to be there to give you that sandwich or that coffee.”