Some thoughts for Harvey helpers

Twelve years ago, I stood in the Astrodome for the first time and began a long weekend of attempting to care.

I wrote and published my first article after that weekend.  I’m a little embarrassed by the words I wrote then, but I still remember what I felt when I typed those words.  I remember how it felt to walk in, adrenalin pumping, ready and eager to help, so desperate to do something and so sure I could.

I learned a few things that weekend, but I learned a lot more in the years after.

This is a marathon, not a sprint

Soon, when the volunteers get bored, or get over it, or when the country begins to forget, these people will still be living within a foot of a stranger, with no personal space, in a room where the lights never really go out.  They will still be wondering where their families are, and they will still be wondering where they should go, or how they should live.

We are in what is known as the honeymoon phase of a disaster.  There is grief and pain, but there is also shock that numbs and  the world is responding and rushing in to help, and this is going to change.  I know that because I came back from that Astrodome and I quit my job and became a case manager for Hurricane Evacuees and just six months later when I would tell strangers what I did, they would look at me confused and say “are there still evacuees?”  

We will move on when our media does or when we hit our own storms in life.  I understand that, But don’t waste the fuel in your heart right now.  While you feel that fire to do something, when you’re talking to your friends about how to help, make a six month plan, a twelve month plan that will remind you to care when your feelings forget.

People deserve help because they’re people

 Almost a year after the Hurricane, I wrote another article.  This one even more embarrassing for me now, although I also remember the feelings I had when I wrote this one.  I remember finding the irritation that lurked beyond the limits of compassion in my own heart, and the embarrassment over that irritation.

As I wrote then:

In the astrodome, there were hurting people everywhere, and it was just easier.  It was just easier to pour compassion and love on them when they clearly needed it, when they received it, and when it was somehow ‘earned’ by the horror they had been forced to endure.  And now, now I guess my clients are using me and irritating me and I guess I expected something different.

When we watch the news, when we see weeping people our hearts break.  But God’s heart breaks when He watches people, hard hearted and rejecting, angry and uninterested.  When people know what they’ve done is wrong, we forgive.  He pleaded forgiveness over people who did not know what they were doing.

We’re going to need to tap into His Spirit to care better than I did those years ago.

No disaster is the same

Disasters aren’t events, they’re the aftermath of events.  The disaster is what happened when Harvey collided with a very specific community in a very specific time and place with very unique strengths and weaknesses. That’s why this will be different from Katrina, and Houston will be different from Shreveport.  That’s why we all, starting with me, will have to check all the things we think we know about what is best to do after these sorts of shit shows, and start over. Learn again. Adapt. Change. Listen.

Emotional wounds are as damaging as physical ones

If you think that’s hyperbole, ask anyone who knows someone who has attempted suicide. Emotional wounds kill.

Right now, we see the visible.  We see the injuries and the physical losses and those are the ones the Red Cross and our fundraising drives can meet, but the other wounds, the emotional ones?  Those can’t be met by a fundraiser or dropping off a donation.  They are going to take time, care, love and mostly, and maybe mainly, a willingness to endure when our emotions run out, when we’re irritated and tired and have our own problems to deal with.

Christians, please don’t be stupid

On Sunday, people came from churches to talk to the evacuees. They wore pristine white suits and skirts and stepped over the mess and the dirt. They walked passed volunteers who were covered in trash and filthy from caring for people’s physical needs. They walked around and handed brilliant white slips of paper out, which proclaimed the need for repentance. They explained to the devastated mothers that they had brought this on themselves. They explained that each child lost in a raging flood from Heaven was in fact, their fault.

They said all this without ever getting a finger dirty.

God. Forbid.

Trauma occurs when something happens to you that feels like it’s in conflict with what you deeply believe.  Telling people things that they might already believe can sometimes increase that conflict.  The process of integrating what happened with what we believe, is a long and slow one that is helped along by healthy grieving and room for wrestling even when the things we’re wrestling with make everyone around us really uncomfortable.

There is a beautiful instinct to want to comfort with what you believe is true, but just please, please don’t shortcut the process of that God designed.  Suffering comes before endurance.  Endurance is the birthing ground for character which THEN gives way to hope that cannot disappoint.


I put together a few resources for a few folks who asked.  Use if they’re helpful.  They’re not v. polished.  Or get resources directly from the real deal at the links below 🙂

  1. RESPONDING – quick cheat sheet on some things to think through with emotional & mental health
  2. Disaster MH resource – this is recap of responses to disasters as well as how to respond (and how to work with kiddos!)
  3. Christians responding – this is more about what I referenced above!


Foa, Edna B., Dan J. Stein, and Alexander C. McFarlane. “Symptomatology and psychopathology of mental health problems after disaster.” J Clin Psychiatry 67.Suppl 2 (2006): 15-25.

**photo cred: Ryan Johnson

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