Deacon Miguel Santos has been to hell and back. He saw death, destruction and despair during a two-week stay in Houston while offering relief to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. He has also seen strangers helping strangers, and people forgoing aid because others need it more.
Deacon Santos, who serves at Holy Cross Parish in Buffalo, has been a disaster volunteer with the Red Cross since 1994. His last mission was to New York City after the 9/11 attacks.
Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 storm, struck Texas in late August, flooding Houston and leaving 300,000 people without electricity. The Red Cross sent out an urgent call for volunteers. Deacon Santos answered, arriving in mid-September. He wanted to go because he has friends, former Buffalo residents, who now live in Houston.
"We were receiving text messages and Facebook messages indicating how frightened they were," he said.
The Red Cross provides standardized disaster training, so in a case like this, where people from different communities need to work together, they can work like a well-oiled machine. Deacon Santos took some online courses to become a caseworker just before he left. Once in Texas, he took on a variety of roles. As a caseworker, he helped get people from a temporary shelter into hotels or apartments.
"We were fairly successful to do that with the greatest majority of them. We worked very closely with FEMA. FEMA would provide the cost of hotels. Red Cross would provide moving them with a taxi and initial food expenses," he explained, adding that social service agencies coordinate their efforts to cover all needs. "All the agencies tend to work hand-in-hand with each other," he said.
After three days, Deacon Santos switched to driving an emergency response vehicle, which served as a food truck, bringing meals and water to trailer park residents that refused to leave their water-damaged homes.
"The people in this trailer park were afraid of leaving the trailer park to go into a shelter because shelters are not comfortable and can be quite dangerous," Deacon Santos explained. "Secondly, people were afraid to leave their trailer parks because people might loot. We would go to them twice a day. We would provide them lunch and provide them dinner."
Deacon Santos also used his caseworker training to help answer questions and explain how to apply for FEMA support. FEMA would pay up to $500 and Red Cross would provide up to $400 to those displaced from their homes.
Volunteers from across the country, as well as U.S. territories, Mexico, Canada and even Denmark came to join the effort, which freed up Deacon Santos' time to do some ministerial work. Bishop Richard J. Malone had written a letter of recommendation to the cardinal of Galveston-Houston, stating that Deacon Santos was an ordained deacon and has permission to perform any religious obligations where required. He worked with the Latino Community Outreach offering condolences to those who lost family members.
"During the hurricane, people died," he said. "My first case was with a 7-year-old boy who did not make it to the hospital on time (after an asthma attack). As a result, a team would go out - it would be a mental health worker; a medical worker, in this case it was a nurse; a caseworker; and a spiritual individual, that was my role. The four of us would arrange ahead of time to do a home visit, comfort, in this case the mother, who gave mouth to mouth to her son and saw her son give his last breath. We offered any assistance we possibly could. Even if people are somewhat religious, at that point people still believe in God, and she seemed to be very open to the information and comfort that I was able to give in relationship to life after death and so forth. What do you tell the mother of a 7-year-old boy?"
Other cases involved people leaving their stranded cars, only to get hit by another car or fall into a ditch and drown. The team tried to offer comfort and financial assistance to bury the loved ones.
"We all play our role. We are all there to provide comfort, and we do it as a team," he said.
Deacon Santos saw things that seem foreign to a city like Buffalo, where snow and ice are the big concerns. Houses had to have walls removed to allow the house to dry. People were developing coughs and skin infections from growing mold. The Red Cross teams provided cleaning supplies to kill the mold and mildew. They also supplied water, diapers and other basic items. Many houses had piles of "personal belongings" lumped in the front yards.
"We try to be gentle and not call it 'trash,' because there is a lot of emotion attached to these items," Deacon Santos said.
One former Buffalo resident and parishioner of Holy Cross had to be rescued by boat, then faced gunfire when scavengers came by.
"Something that was very sad for me to see was computers, lots of cellphones, in the trash. We are all so dependent on our cellphones, but once it's wet, it's destroyed. You saw a lot of kids' computer toys, now they're destroyed," Deacon Santos said.
Over two weeks, he did see improvements. The water receded. The Bayous stopped overflowing. He also saw selflessness among the victims.
"People, generally speaking, had a stiff upper lip. They would say, 'I'm OK.' People didn't want to apply for services because other people could use it. I would have to say to them, 'But you need it, too.'"
The Buffalo man didn't want to apply for aid. His car had water up to his engine, shorting out his electrical system, but others had cars completely submerged.
"It was a great experience, difficult but great," he said.