Illinois volunteers on their way to Texas to aid Harvey relief effort

Chicago Tribune

As catastrophic flooding and persistent downpours ravaged Texas on Sunday in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, volunteers from the Chicago region mobilized to help.

Volunteers from northern Illinois are part of the developing American Red Cross relief effort to provide shelter and food to residents affected by the storm's destruction. About 10 Illinois volunteers have so far been deployed to provide assistance in the Houston area and the Texas coast. But with downtown Houston and many of the surrounding roads under water, it is unclear when emergency responders from across the country will be able to access the region.

The director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, James Joseph, has been in contact with his counterpart in Texas, a spokeswoman, Patti Thompson, said. Illinois also is monitoring Texas's requests for assistance and its specific needs so regional emergency personnel can effectively assist.

At least five people have been killed and more than a dozen injured amid the ongoing disaster. The National Weather Service projected rainfall from the storm could reach 50 inches in some areas, and in tweets called the storm and the scope of its damage "unprecedented," "life-threatening" and "beyond anything experienced."

Photos on social media show several feet of flood waters swallowing up large swaths of the city, including major expressways and intersections. Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared Sunday it could take years for Houston to recover.

Volunteer Jim Connelly, a longtime shelter supervisor, made it to Dallas late Saturday after three flight cancellations in Chicago. With torrential rain and wind still battering Houston, Connelly and the other volunteers were standing by Sunday at the regional Red Cross headquarters in Dallas awaiting assignments and instruction. They are in a holding pattern there until it is safe and logistically possible to travel into the disaster zone.

"We're all here to do the job, and we're anxious to get to work," said Connelly, 78, of Lincolnwood.

Connelly, a volunteer with the Red Cross for 48 years, is an experienced responder to post-hurricane disaster areas. He helped at a shelter last year in South Carolina after Hurricane Matthew. In his duties as shelter supervisor, he helps run the aid centers set up at schools, churches or community centers where displaced residents can receive food and a warm place to stay.

That will be Connelly's assignment again once it is safe for him and other Red Cross volunteers to travel to the Houston area. When affected residents first start arriving at the shelter, Connelly said volunteers will help provide a supportive and calming environment. Then the displaced will be offered food, beverages and assigned a cot.

"I enjoy helping," Connelly said.

The Chicago, the northern Illinois and northwest Indiana regional division of the Salvation Army is on standby to assist since flooding was worsening and the Houston airports are shuttered. They hope to send personnel and supplies by midweek, a spokeswoman, Shanna Schwarze, said.

The Salvation Army's southern territory teams are already on the ground in Texas, Schwarze said, setting up 42 mobile kitchens and two field kitchens. They also are staging emergency supplies, including bottled water and food boxes, in Arlington, Texas, and points closer to the Gulf Coast. And the Salvation Army of Corpus Christi, Texas, is helping to feed first responders at a FEMA shelter there.

Others with the Red Cross will be dispatched into neighborhoods across Texas to provide safe shelter and food. Once the storm subsides, the Red Cross also offers health services and distributes emergency relief supplies, such as comfort kits and cleaning supplies. The Red Cross is coordinating with government officials and community partners in both Texas and Louisiana for help after Harvey.

Those who wish to donate to the Red Cross efforts can text the word HARVEY to 90999 to make a $10 donation or call 1-800-Red-Cross.

To help the the Salvation Army's relief efforts, visit salarmychicago.org and click the donate to Hurricane Harvey link.

poconnell@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @pmocwriter

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