The above photo is taken from the Texas Military Department, and is captioned as follows: “Photo By Capt. Martha Nigrelle | Texas National Guard soldiers, service members from the U.S. Coast Guard and Texas Task Force 1 and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service swift water rescue technicians work together to rescue a man with special medical needs from high-rising waters and medically evacuate him to a safe location, in Orange, Texas, August 30, 2017. Thousands of first responders from the military and local, state and federal agencies joined together to render aid to all those endangered by the high-rising floodwaters in south Texas following Hurricane Harvey.”
The following is a part of a series of profiles of U of R students who were in someway affected by the Hurricanes that hit the United States at the end of the summer. For more background on the devastating hurricanes and their consequential damage across our nation, please read “A Summer of Hurricanes: Context for Stories of Those Affected.”
Sophomore and music performance major, Star Wasson, looks to her hometown of Austin, not as survivors of the storm, but as an aid to those who were affected.
Wasson is a Texas born native and has lived there all her life.
“I liked growing up in Austin,” Wasson said. “It [has] a really big music scene. We’re called the live music capital of the world. We get people from all over the country flying into Austin for the weekend.”
The lively city provides entertainment to those who live there, and those who choose to stay for the weekend.
“Austin is a safe haven for self expression.”
Not only does the city specialize in music, refugee aid is also a part of its repertoire.
“With Harvey, [Austin] did a lot of prep,” Wasson explained. “The storm went very quickly from a tropical depression out in the gulf to a category 3 hurricane, and within 24 hours of it making landfall it went from category 3 to category 5.”
“All of a sudden you had this monster storm coming for the coast and once they realized how severe it was going to be they brought in all kinds of resources to the city because everyone was going to come to Austin because we’re a big city, we have the space,” Wasson said. “We had a couple thousand people coming in. They upped the emergency workers on standby. They had every member on the police form in uniform at one point,” She continued. “We had a lot of emergency services from Austin that were sent to Houston. My former high school was a storm shelter for the people coming up from the coast, and they used one of the event centers.”
Austin was not hit as hard by the hurricane, suffering from only rain and winds, so the city’s population was able to expend their energy on those hit hardest by the storm.
Wasson remembers, “I haven’t been through the worst of a hurricane. I’ve never experienced any severe effects from it, a lot of what I see is just the after effects of the rain, and I see a lot of people coming up from the coast, and I see a lot of the sheltering activities that go on. San Antonio, Austin and Dallas are the big hubs where people go after a disaster…”
Wasson illuminates how the city’s community provides support for their fellow Texans, a state that has a reputation for sticking together.
“My high school, where my sister is currently a senior, was doing a lot of donation drives,” she said. “The Red Cross did training for volunteers all over the cities in a lot of the recreation centers where you could go and do an hour long class where you learned how to be a volunteer; how to be a proper support member. That way they could go to the shelters and help distribute items and tell people what to do and where to go.”
Not only were the emergency workers and volunteers ready and willing to help, but they excelled in their job helping those who came because, “Most of the people had the clothes on their back. They literally grabbed their kids and drove up 4 or 5 hours to find safety.”
Although Austin wasn’t hit as hard as most cities in South Texas, the city did prepare in case the hurricane hit them harder than expected. The schools put up sandbags to avoid the flooding but, “A lot of the prep that I saw was for the people coming in, not necessarily for the safety of our city. We knew we wouldn’t have 4 feet of rain in 24 hours which I’m thankful for.”
Wasson said she is grateful for the central location of her city, and the general safety it affords them. Her personal house has never flooded as it is on a hill, however the city of Austin is does tend to be prone to flooding.
Wasson explained, “In the last 3 or 4 years we’ve had severe weather events where we’ve had flooding in our city during the Halloween floods of 2013 and 2015. Onion Creek rose thirty six feet because it’s a runoff area and there had been so much runoff that the system was overloaded and that’s the closest the city has ever come to having hurricane like conditions. Downtown Austin was under a couple feet of water. We had Lamar boulevard, that runs all the way through Austin, [most of] the southern portion of it was completely under water at one point.”
Wasson explained that part of the city was declared a flood zone after this flood.
“They realized that with the changes in the city and the changes in the layout, the water doesn’t drain the same way that it did 20 or 30 years ago, so now the dynamic has changed because the city is buying back some people’s houses,” Wasson says. “They’re offering them almost ridiculous amounts of money because they’ve lived in their houses forever, but they’re living in a flood zone now. They set up a buy back program so that people would have enough money to move somewhere that was deemed safer.”
Despite this effort, many refuse to leave the houses that they have made into their homes.
The businesses on Lamar boulevard were severely affected, Wasson explained.
“[Some] lost their buildings and all of the goods in their shops,” Wasson said. “They even sometimes lost their own homes so that was pretty disastrous for that portion of the city.”
The floods took away people’s homes and their livelihoods, forcing them to deal with the remnants of the lives they once knew.
Wasson recalled her experience with Hurricane Ike of 2008. In the city that provides shelter for human refugees, Wasson was also concerned about the animals.
“When I was in middle school, Hurricane Ike hit the coast, and I was still a Girl Scout back them,” she recounted. “I did a large donation drive at my church for the animals that were displaced by hurricane Ike because a lot of them get brought up to the shelters here in Austin. People forget that with a hurricane coming you have not only the [families] driving themselves away; you’ve got elderly people, the people in hospitals and animals. I was an animal lover at the time, and still am, but at that point I wanted to do everything with animals, so I put together that donation drive for a lot of the animals that were brought up.”
In the rush for safety, many individuals are unable to think of the animals that hold a place in their family. Wasson did this project through the Bronze Award Program showing her compassion for the smallest family members in a tumultuous time.
Regarding the other towns hit by hurricane Harvey, Wasson explained, “Rockport was one of the hardest hit cities and I agree with their decision to have a mandatory evacuation because that probably saved all of those people’s lives. Corpus Christi and a few other big cities did not have mandatory evacuations and I was upset when I heard that because they’re massive cities with thousands of people in them. They’re just far enough inland that they don’t see the brunt of a lot of these storms and they thought that they could ride out the storm. That’s such a risky move with something like this.”
Although there was not a mass evacuation, individuals who were most at risk were evacuated. The babies of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) were evacuated by helicopter from Corpus Christi to the Dell Children’s Center in Austin.
“They focused on getting the people that were at the most risk out,” She continued. “This went from a moderate rain event to what could have been a catastrophic disaster within a matter of two or three days. There really wasn’t time to get all of those people out. They really only had time to get out the people who needed it most.”
Wasson does recognize that in some cases it is not possible to evacuate.
“I think some of the decisions made were not the right decisions,” she explained. “The governor of one of the coastal cities did make an open statement about why he didn’t choose to make a mandatory evacuation. He didn’t enforce the evacuation because with a city that big if you say, ‘Hey everyone get out right now’ you’re going to have 60 miles of traffic going absolutely nowhere, and you’re going to cause mass panic. There’s not a good answer, there’s good and bad to it. You can’t please everyone just like you can’t save everyone in a situation like this.”
“There could have been more presence from certain political figures,” Wasson said. “Some of the figures in these cities kind of hid which is the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to be there to guide the cities on what to do and some of them just said, ‘Save yourself bye’ but I think Austin did well with this and we were there to support a lot of people who needed it.”
Some people did not want to abandon their homes.
“I know there were some people who died because they refused to leave, and they literally drowned in their own homes,” Wasson said.
As Wasson explained, “Water can be very deadly; flooding is one of the most deadly natural disasters. The water can creep up so fast. You’re just sitting there in your living room watching the storm and within an hour you’ve got six feet of water in your house.”
Now that the storm has cleared people are able to return to their homes, leaving their refuge and Wasson’s home. All that is left to do is clean up.
“Some of it was just clearing roads so emergency vehicles could get through,” Wasson said. “It was similar to what the city workers do, so the roads were passable again. Either for people to get back into their homes or emergency vehicles to come in and save people who need it, and to salvage what’s left.”
Wasson remains at the University Redlands, knowing that her city helped those who needed it most. The storm has passed, but the damage remains.