Eye of the Storm

USFers on the ground in Houston after Hurricane Harvey

By Maura Sullivan Hill, USF News Posted Wed, 09/20/2017 - 08:58

As Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga watched news coverage of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, she felt compelled to do something.

“Seeing the level of loss, all the people displaced, and emotions running high, it came to me that, as a counseling program, we are trained and have a mission to be responsible to the most Marriage and Family Therapy faculty and staff at a shelter in Houston after Hurricane Harveyvulnerable,” says the USF assistant professor of marriage and family therapy. 

Within days of Harvey's Aug. 25 landfall, she was on the ground at NRG Stadium, normally home to the NFL's Houston Texans, but repurposed to house nearly 3,000 people whose homes were destroyed or damaged by the hurricane. With her were two more USF professors, seven graduate students from Marriage and Family Therapy, one graduate student from School Counseling, and a disaster relief communications specialist.

Starting to resettle victims

The team of USFers joined the relief efforts of the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center, offering a sympathetic ear and gathering information about everyone in the shelter, so that the nonprofit could start making resettlement plans for them. 

"Our mission as counselors and social workers was to go beyond the information gathering and advocate to help each individual," says Hernandez-Arriaga, who returned with her team Sept. 10. "We wanted them to feel validated, valued, heard, and cared for.” 

Which is exactly what she did for Jesus, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras she met at the shelter. He arrived in the U.S. only a month ago and the hurricane destroyed the home where he was staying. 

Hernandez-Arriaga found a construction company who would hire him to help with rebuilding the city. She also asked Bay Area friends for money to buy work boots and a mobile phone so that he could start this new job and contact his family in Honduras.

Putting his studies on hold

Mason McMaster MPA '18, a student in the Master of Public Administration program at the Sacramento Campus and a mission assignment manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is also helping with relief efforts. He took a leave from his studies to spend two months in Texas assisting with the disaster response. 

Mason McMaster MPA '18 in the FEMA response center for Hurricane HarveyIn the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, more than 44,000 people were in shelters, according to FEMA. McMaster and his colleagues had managed to resettle about 40,000 of them in transitional housing — mainly apartments and hotels throughout the state — or sent them home with funding to make repairs by Sept. 17.

He says that learning about state and local governments in his public administration classes is an asset when he is deployed to different states to manage disasters. “In California, we work with the governor’s office of emergency management, but here in Texas, the government is quite different and we work with the county judge,” McMaster says. “Understanding how local government operates is key to what we do.”

Back on campus, Entrepreneurship and Innovation student Bobby Singh Basra '19 organized a semi-trailer truck and the USF community filled it with needed supplies that were sent to victims in Houston. 

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