‘Organized chaos’: Summit County man returns from 2 weeks of Hurricane Harvey relief
September 12, 2017
When Summit County resident Andy Aerenson arrived in Beaumont, Texas, two weeks ago, the small industrial city had just been treated to 26 inches of rain in a day, courtesy of Hurricane Harvey.
Interstate 10, running through the middle of the city, was a lake. Businesses and restaurants were all closed, and most neighborhoods were underwater.
The next day, Monday Aug. 31, the city's water system failed, and around 2,200 people in shelters had to be airlifted to Dallas. (In true Texas spirit, water pumps headed to a refinery were diverted and later restored water to Beaumont's 120,000 residents, according to a local news report).
The scope of the record-shattering storm is hard to fathom. After making landfall with winds up to 130 miles per hour, it hovered over southeast Texas for days, dropping as many as 52 inches of rain.
In the aftermath, Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated Harvey's damage to be as much as $180 billion.
But before there was even talk of rebuilding, American Red Cross volunteers poured in from across the country to provide food and shelter to the throngs of people emerging from the soggy ruin.
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Aerenson, who returned to Summit County last Thursday after a two-week relief deployment, was one of them. He had a mini-adventure just getting there.
"I always feel like I'm on a little spy mission on these deployments," he said. "They say, 'We're going to need you somewhere in Texas, so start moving that way.' You don't know exactly where until you get there."
On the way, three different Red Cross emergency response vehicles Aerenson and a partner were driving broke down. At one point, they had to hitch a ride with fellow volunteers after being stranded in the middle of Oklahoma.
Those were minor headaches compared to the devastation that awaited them on the Gulf Coast, and if Aerenson's learned anything after multiple Red Cross deployments, it's that you have to take things in stride.
"I'm a relatively impatient person," he said. "But when I do these deployments, I have to bring an incredible amount of patience."
Aerenson, who works as a ski instructor and summer hiking guide at Breckenridge Ski Resort, went on his first disaster relief deployment after Hurricane Sandy slammed the east coast in 2012.
His trip to Harvey was his third Red Cross deployment after the 2016 Louisiana Floods.
Luckily, the delays getting to Texas didn't matter too much; the flooding was so extensive that relief workers still couldn't get into most areas, and Aerenson would've been mostly sitting on his hands at a staging area in Austin.
He was only in Houston for 15 minutes before the Red Cross sent him off to Beaumont, a warren of refineries and chemical plants 85 miles east.
By the time he got there, the rain had mostly stopped, but the work of the Red Cross was just beginning.
"Picture a scene of organized chaos," Aeresnon said. "Everybody's amped up, because everybody is ready to do something and just looking to find any way to help out."
There was water everywhere but none to drink. After the city's pumps went down, the lines for free water grew unimaginably long, Aeresnon said.
"The stores had plenty of water, but nobody could afford it," he said. "A lot of those people live paycheck to paycheck, and they hadn't been paid in two or three weeks. So what could they spare to buy water, or gas or the rent — if they were lucky enough to still have a place to live?"
While in Beaumont, Aeresnon was the point man for all of the little things that can fall through the cracks during such an enormous relief effort. Behind the wheel of a Red Cross pickup, he was dispatched to wherever the flooded roads allowed for last-minute supplies, like extra cots for an overcrowded shelter, for instance.
The thousands of evacuees had plenty to despair over. But Aeresnon said he was impressed by the resilience of residents and the gumption of the neighbors who showed up with boats on trailers ready to rescue the stranded.
In his conversations with evacuees, Aeresnon often turned to a quote from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's book, "The Opposite of Woe."
"His phrase is, 'The opposite of woe is giddy-up,'" Aeresnon said. "We see so much woe, but the inspiring part is the amount of giddy-up we see, especially in Texas. I would quote that and the big beaming smiles came out."
After Aeresnon returned, he got some well-deserved time to decompress at Breckenridge's Oktoberfest.
Will he soon giddy-up to Flordia, where Hurricane Irma struck over the weekend?
"We'll see. It's calling."
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