Texas Gulf Coast American Red Cross

Red Cross taking technology into hurricane-battered communities

By Jim Burns, American Red Cross 

SEADRIFT, Texas – The 1,000 or so people in this seaside town, like residents in many communities in the Coastal Bend area of the Lone Star State, are facing Texas-sized challenges in their recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

With that in mind, the American Red Cross launched a financial assistance program to help augment its normal services of providing shelter, food, health and mental health support and disaster cleanup supplies.
Applications for the financial program – which as of Oct. 1 had authorized $160 million to some 400,000 households in Texas – are filed on line, so Red Cross volunteers have been taking laptops to the hardest-hit communities, to help residents access the aid.

But when the mobile application team arrived in Seadrift this past Thursday with laptop computers and internet-connecting “hotspot” devices, they couldn’t get a digital signal. Five weeks after Harvey made landfall, local infrastructure too is in need.
Undeterred, the Red Cross assigned two technology volunteers to go with the financial assistance team to Seadrift the next day. Merritt Markussen from Missouri and Vixian Phimmasone from California brought along a satellite dish that could pick up an internet signal transmitted from space.

Within minutes on Friday, the Red Cross laptops were connected and residents who lined up at the small Civic Center were able to sit with volunteers who were all-too-eager to help them apply for the $400 the program is providing to each qualified household.

“It was fabulous how quickly the tech guys got us online,” said Barbara Wood, a Red Cross volunteer from Maryland who came to Texas two weeks ago to help. “A lot of the people in this town don’t have adequate internet access, so having us help them apply for the assistance is a critical need.”

Donald Holder is one of those residents. He has lived in Seadrift for all but five of his 71 years. “The only time I wasn’t here was the one year I lived in Louisiana and the four years I was in the Navy,” he said.

Donald is still living in his mobile home, although his insurance company pronounced it “totaled” by the hurricane. Donald is hoping the insurance money he has been promised will be enough to buy a replacement. By then, he hopes that electricity is restored to his neighborhood.

“I can definitely use the money right now,” he said of the Red Cross assistance. “It will definitely help.”

Wood said that supporting people like Donald inspires her to volunteer for the Red Cross.

“We are helping the residents here apply for the financial assistance they badly need,” she said, “but we’re doing more than that. We are also providing hope and encouragement, and giving these great people a sense that they are not forgotten.”
Danella Hughes, executive director, American Red Cross of South Texas, said the volunteers’ outreach efforts in this part of the state have to date taken them to the more remote towns of Rockport, Port Aransas and Seadrift. Outreach visits are also planned for Tivoli, Austwell, Port Lavaca and Port O’Connor.

“We’re bringing meals, snacks, water, supplies, and helping the residents with their financial assistance applications,” Danella said. “Helping people in the Coastal Bend area is what we do, and we’re honored to do it.”

When Red Cross volunteers traveled to the remote town of Seadrift with food, water, and cleaning supplies for residents there, they hoped that the internet-connected laptops they also brought would enable them to help residents file an online application for Hurricane Harvey financial assistance. But damage to the area’s electrical infrastructure made it impossible to get online. So, the next day Red Cross tech guys Vixian Phimmasone (left) and Merritt Markussen joined the team of volunteers in Seadrift, bringing with them a satellite dish that quickly restored connectivity.
Red Cross volunteer Barbara Wood, who came to Texas from Maryland, helps longtime Seadrift resident Donald Holder file an e-application for the $400 the Red Cross is providing to households that qualify for Hurricane Harvey financial assistance.