What an incredible journey I had last week. Allison Randall, OVW Chief of Staff, and I set out Tuesday morning on our tour of victim service programs, law enforcement offices, and courts in Southeast Texas that were affected by Hurricane Harvey last year. We travelled with Gloria Terry, Maria Jose Angelelli, and Linda Phan from the Texas Council on Family Violence, and Rose Luna, Chris Kaiser, and Rick Gipprich from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. They were amazing. They are committed to victims and survivors, and committed to ensuring Texas has competent services for all.
By the time we arrived back in DC Friday night we had driven 450 miles and met staff from 17 victim service programs, as well as four prosecutors and three law enforcement officers. Sherri Kendall, CEO of Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse in Houston, Texas, pulled together no fewer than 11 local service providers in Houston. Sherri Kendall said she appreciated that OVW “listened to our stories surrounding Harvey’s catastrophic impact on our agencies and domestic violence victims as well as our subsequent funding concerns. We also highlighted the amazing partnerships and collaborations amongst our agencies to serve domestic abuse survivors following Harvey. We are grateful to be heard and to have a voice in Washington to further our shared missions to end domestic abuse.”
As we heard the stories of the effect of Hurricane Harvey on these programs as well as the experiences of the people during the hurricane a few things became apparent.
First, the healing is not done. While Harvey hit less than a year ago (August 25 to 31, 2017), there is still devastation. Debris is still stacked on the medians, houses and businesses remain abandoned, community members have moved out and on, and many victims who were utilizing services at the time the hurricane hit have not been heard from.
We visited Family Services of Southeast Texas, an emergency and transitional housing facility that was submerged during the hurricane. The day of the flood, staff were bailing water out of the shelter and came to work every day to assist in the clean-up. Deborah Tomov and her team at Family Services of Southeast Texas began accepting clients in November by getting creative with space. They continue to focus on the rebuilding of the entire shelter. Nearby Rape & Suicide Crisis Center of Southeast Texas, Inc. staff were in their backyards bailing water for days to prevent flooding (and all the time having to watch out for gators and snakes that washed up from the bayou).
Other programs, such as the Purple Door and Mid-Coast Family Services had to make excruciating split-second decisions about whether to shelter in place or find shelters for their clients. What a daunting task! Transportation had to be arranged, beds needed to be identified, while being ever mindful of the safety for the victim and children. According to Frances Wilson, President and CEO of the Purple Dorr and Ginny Stafford, CEO of Mid-Coast Family Services, the decision to evacuate was the toughest decision they have made.
Ginny Stafford drew connections with the survivors they serve: “In so many ways, our experience with Hurricane Harvey mirrors the experience of survivors of domestic and/or sexual violence. The fear of the unknown, self-doubt, self-blame and even feelings of hopelessness that we went through remind us that our emotions are powerful motivators and are shared by all who experience trauma. Packing up the shelter and evacuating the day of the storm, not knowing what the next day would bring, made me wonder if that's how a victim feels when she makes the decision to leave. And now, as we are in the recovery stage, we have learned it will not take weeks or months, but years. For survivors, we know it may take a lifetime to recover from their trauma.”
Abeer Monem, Chief Programs Officer of the Fort Bend Women’s Center explained many of the women they house have traumatic brain injuries caused by persistent domestic abuse. Abeer Monem said: “It’s very important to have Washington policy makers hear from local programs to understand the obstacles and challenges that face the survivors we serve. Obstacles like traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, depression and other challenges that call for intense and innovative interventions in addition to traditional services.” Fort Bend Women’s Center is built to withstand brutal winds and flooding, so they did not evacuate. Their center was an island with water all around.
It was particularly striking, as a former Judge, to see the effect the hurricane had on the courts. In Rockport, we met with service providers and prosecutors at the makeshift courthouse in a strip mall! In Houston, I met with Carvana Cloud, the dynamic and passionate Division Chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Family Criminal Law Division, who explained that their immediate intake process was not delayed or deterred even though the courthouse was submerged in water! Harris County Court was held in jails, and moved several times. The law enforcement officers from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department and the Houston Police Department worked for numerous days in a row, ensuring the community shelters were secured and safe, unable to go home between shifts. They all agreed they knew they had to help those who lost everything, those who had nowhere to go.
I returned to Washington full of information to share with my Department of Justice colleagues. Frances Wilson, President and CEO of The Purple Door, told us that the visit “was a wonderful opportunity to share the work that The Purple Door does while highlighting the issues victims of violence face every day. The discussion around Hurricane Harvey and how we might develop best practices regarding natural disasters, in terms of the continuation of services to victims and the impact to service providers, was very hopeful. Katie will be able to take our concerns and those of victims to help create awareness of an issue that most have never considered.”
We are impressed and inspired by the work of all the service providers in the Southeastern Texas region. But we are also awed by all of you. We know many of you have faced similar choices about evacuation and have cleaned up and carried on after fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other traumatic events for your communities. As always, thank you for the work you do every day.