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Numbers smaller than expected but hurts still big after hurricane

July 28th, 2008 at 11:06 am

BROWNSVILLE – Hurricane Dolly moved on, but disaster response remains a moving target in the Lower Rio Grande Valley as resources react to meet needs.

Baptist Child & Family Services, tasked by the state to provide medical special needs shelters, set up at its original site in Brownsville but within hours was asked to open a second shelter in Port Isabel.

“You guys are like the queen on our chess board,” Jeff Johnston director of Brownsville Office of Emergency Management, told the San Antonio-based agency Thursday afternoon.  “You can do it all — we would love to keep you for ourselves but we are in better shape than anywhere else and other people are hurting a lot more than we are.”

“BCFS is the only MSN caregivers in the Valley—your outfit is awesome,” Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumanda added. “We are glad you’re here but we know other places need you worse.

That “other place” was Port Isabel, just 20 miles from Brownsville but a world away in situation. Expected to be without power for seven days and with no shelters, BCFS split its staff, sending the mobile medical unit, generator and a full medical/staff complement into the darkness.

“There were only two lit-up places in the whole area,” Tony Tomandl, finance section chief for the operation, said. “Burger King had a generator as was doing a land office business. We had power and police started bringing in people when we got operational around midnight.”

The very need that brought BCFS to Port Isabel presented challenges. Getting the generator connected, space cleared in the small community center so cots could be set up, medical screening in place and food service organized kept the staff scrambling with flashlights.

But the ministry was immediate. A retired army veteran and self-described “traveler” was camping on the beach when told Hurricane Dolly was approaching. He simply moved a hundred yards up the beach to a pavilion.

“I wound up hanging on for dear life for seven hours,” he explained. “I came here because I needed a dry place to rest some food and, most importantly, I needed my high blood pressure medicine.  The bottle washed away along with everything else.”

A young couple with a two-year-old daughter, the wife 10 months pregnant with complications, arrived obviously relieved to be greeted by registered nurses. Another family, back visiting Port Isabel after moving away seven years ago, arrived after their lodging was destroyed. “This wasn’t what we came back for,” the father said as he fed his three-year-old son. “But if you weren’t here, I don’t know what we would have done.”

A diabetic with dangerous insulin levels, three days without medicine, came in and was treated and stabilized without having to be hospitalized.

Even Port Isabel Mayor Joe Vega came with a red welt on his right arm. “I was passing out water last night and lay down in the grass for a few minutes around 1 a.m. and maybe something bit me,” he told the nurses. “But before you even look at it I want to tell you officially how grateful we are for all BCFS is doing, you are life savers.”

Back in Brownsville, though conditions were nicer, the individual needs are just as intense.

“The projections for shelters proved very high,” Johnston said.  “As the BCFS convey headed down Thursday, we had identified 850 medical special needs evacuees, by mid-afternoon that was down to 225 as people refused to leave their home areas or original shelters or found family or friends.”

“What we are getting in Port Isabel is the overflow when people with houses intact run out of space — literally — and have to send family members here. Even then they are down here regularly checking to be sure everything is okay,” said shelter manager Asennet Segura.

“The projections of need didn’t factor in the strong, extended family in this culture so the first response is not to look for a shelter but to seek out family. And you don’t send a relative to a shelter if you have space on your floor for them to sleep.”

Throughout Friday and into Saturday the shelter population climbed, to 27 at Brownsville and 62 in Port Isabel, which is capacity.

As power is restored and clean-up begins the need is expected to drop, though another surge is possible as general population shelters in the outlying areas close a people there who have medical special needs agree to come for assistance.”

“Every disaster is different,” Kevin Dinnin, president of BCFS explained. “At Katrina it was like a tidal wave while here was dispersed. But the constant is the need to work through the natural confusion in communication and organization that results when disaster hits.

“Most of our people worked 20 hours days the first 24 hours, but we got things into shape and we helped hurting families and children. That makes it all worthwhile.”

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