In the days after Hurricane Harvey, Danny Garcia used his Victoria County credit card to buy about $800 worth of mosquito repellant.

The county commissioner said, "I thought, 'If they put me in jail for this, I don't care.'"

Garcia had asked officials at the city and county emergency operations center about bug repellant and other dire needs for residents struggling in Precinct 1 but wasn't getting any answers.

When he asked about getting tarps to prevent further damage to homes, he was told the county couldn't buy tarps for private homes.

"I'm scrambling around saying, 'How could I get help for these people?'" he said.

The community was looking for a clearinghouse or a place that could lead them in the right direction to find resources immediately after the Aug. 25 hurricane.

But the group that emergency officials tasked with this responsibility had been inactive for years. The group, called Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD, was not ready to coordinate relief efforts.

Victoria City Council members at a meeting Tuesday harshly criticized VOAD for its ineffectiveness and lack of coordination after Harvey.

Council members Jeff Bauknight and Josephine Soliz said the Victoria Responds hotline, which was first set up at the Emergency Operations Center, wasn't helpful for residents desperate for help.

Bauknight said organizations were coming to him wanting to serve free, hot meals, but he didn't know where to send them. He was directed to call the VOAD group, but "they had no clue what to do."

Residents would call the hotline, leave messages and never get calls back.

Bauknight said the city should have known the agencies to call when looking for volunteers to distribute water and ice.

Mayor Paul Polasek said it was frustrating not getting a response from the group.

"Even from the fundraising aspect, they were absent; we got a late start, and it cost us a lot of money," he said.

Victoria's GoFundMe account has collected $7,620 of its $1 million goal.

Not prepared

Immediately after Harvey, city and county officials wanted to hand over relief efforts to the local VOAD.

Experts say the goal of VOAD is to establish a network of agencies and organizations before a disaster so the community can quickly come together and share resources. The group should operate in partnership with the area's emergency management officials.

But for years before the storm, the VOAD group did not meet and had no appointed leader.

Johanna Rohan, community service coordinator and disaster coordinator for 211, said the last VOAD meeting she attended was in 2014.

She remembers then that several agencies had signed up to participate and pledged not to wait until a disaster occurred.

Rick McBrayer, Office of Emergency Management coordinator, said he did not know when the VOAD last met but remembers the American Red Cross had ensuring the VOAD was meeting on a regular basis. However, the Victoria chapter of the Red Cross merged in 2015 with the Corpus Christi chapter.

McBrayer said he wasn't sure when the local VOAD officially formed, even though the coalition should be a strong partner with emergency management.

His office's basic emergency management operation plans, which include activating the VOAD, are updated at least every five years.

McBrayer said not having the VOAD ready to stand up after Harvey is a lesson learned for his office and said he plans to help the current group get organized and work with VOAD members so they meet regularly.

"I definitely think this is something we need to solidify," he said.

Best practices

Not having an active VOAD means the community will take years longer to recover, said Greg Forrester, president and CEO of National VOAD. He points to two counties in upstate New York that experienced two storms back to back, which flooded the area.

Broome County took three years to recover, but its neighboring county that did not have a pre-disaster organization in place took almost four times as long.

Forrester said Broome County had formed a new VOAD about 18 months before the storms, had been meeting regularly and established strong relationships with emergency management entities.

"They stood right up and had case management going," he said.

Forrester, who worked that disaster, said because the county's voluntary agencies were so integrated, officials shared resources with those organizations immediately to help residents in need.

"It's always better if everybody knows each other before a disaster happens," Forrester said.

The National VOAD has a handbook that lays out the organizational structure of the group, recommending that members include representatives from faith-based organizations, schools, food banks, emergency management, social service organizations, law enforcement and the health department.

The VOAD should serve as a forum for community stakeholders to share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle.

But because the group consists of volunteers, there's the potential for gaps and many changes in leadership, he said.

"What we realized was we can help build a basic framework, but then it's really up to that community what that looks like," he said.

Confusion in Victoria

The lack of coordination in Victoria resulted in frustration among those trying to help.

The week after Harvey hit, Rick Santiago, a truck driver from Odessa, drove nine hours to Victoria with his 53-foot-long trailer filled with relief supplies. He arrived at a point of distribution but was turned away.

Santiago said he watched as a family pulled up to a gate asking for water and milk, but they were told to come back the next morning.

"It still baffles my mind," he said at the time. "It's the ugliest thing I've ever seen. I started to cry because it broke my heart."

Not wanting to let his community down and already having spent $600 on fuel to get to town, he drove around the next day visiting smaller churches where he said pastors were eager to accept the donations.

For several weeks after Harvey, the small communities of Bloomington, Placedo and DaCosta worked to feed, clothe and provide shelter for people living in desperate situations.

Families slept in cars or in mold-filled homes with no electricity or clean water. Many were unaware of how to navigate the often-confusing Federal Emergency Management Agency process for assistance.

Commissioner Garcia and other residents formed a long-term recovery group with the help of the Mennonite Disaster Service before he learned about the county's VOAD group.

Learning under pressure

In Victoria, the early VOAD meetings after the storm were led by John Johnston, a development engineer and floodplain administrator for the city.

A few days after Harvey, Johnston reached out to Mark Longoria, an outreach pastor at Faith Family Church, to lead the group. A Red Cross volunteer had explained to Johnston that the local chapter lacked enough volunteers to lead the effort.

Johnston made it clear that city and county officials wanted the nonprofits and churches to take over relief efforts.

In his new role, Longoria has worked for weeks to get the group organized while hosting national relief organizations at the church and continuing his pastoral duties such as organizing the annual Toys for Tots drive.

"Right now, it's good-hearted people pulling together to try to meet the needs of our community," Longoria said about VOAD, which has in recent weeks grown smaller but more organized.

Dolly Stokes, executive director of the Victoria County United Way, started making agendas for meetings and compiling a list of members.

Longoria, Stokes and other members said they had never heard of the local VOAD before Harvey.

The Rev. Tim Brewer of First United Methodist Church said that at the beginning everyone in attendance shared what their organization was already doing, which was fairly helpful so member agencies didn't duplicate services and could share resources.

Brewer said there is a need to get organized so the areas that need help, such as Bloomington, won't be left out.

"There are people whose lives are not back to normal," he said. "There are folks still living in tents or in mildew."

Next steps

VOAD members recently organized the Victoria County Long Term Recovery Group with a committee focused on funding the unmet needs of residents affected by the disaster.

The group has formed standing committees with a goal to start compiling a list of residents with unmet needs as soon as possible.

Garcia and Precinct 1 resident Cody Shugart attended the VOAD meeting Oct. 13. Shugart volunteered to represent the Bloomington-area long-term recovery group within the county's group.

Three weeks ago, a nonprofit called Disaster Leadership Team visited with both groups to offer guidance on building an effective long-term recovery organization.

The groups are being advised by Carlene Anders, executive director of a disaster recovery group that formed in response to Washington wildfires.

Anders is a volunteer firefighter and the mayor of Pateros, Wash. She helped change legislation through the long-term recovery group to better aid its residents recovering from the disaster.

She has been advising the Victoria VOAD on its structure and also recommended inviting in key players from different segments of the community and suggested hiring a paid director.

In Victoria, the bulk of the work remains on leaders of local churches, nonprofit agency executives and the national relief organizations that have committed to staying through recovery.

There's still question about what happens to the VOAD as many of its members dedicate more time to the long-term group.

Forrester, who runs the National VOAD, said the two groups have distinctly different roles to play.

The VOAD should start working now to prepare to respond to the next disaster, while the long-term recovery group should be focused on helping residents get back on their feet after Harvey.

Forrester said the difference between a poor response and an excellent response after a disaster really comes down to one person.

"It's that one community leader who has the buy-in of all the rest of the people in the community, who stands up and says this is what I need for my community, and they make it work," he said.

Now, eight weeks since the hurricane, members say they are optimistic about its future.

Glen Dry, pastor at Sportsman's Church, ran a regional distribution center for Harvey relief and continues to host volunteer teams at Son Valley Ranch.

Dry said he learned that his church alone accounted for 7,000 volunteer hours from 900 volunteers.

"The reality is there was an incredibly collaborative effort in our community of caring leaders who came to the table," he said. "Even in an uncoordinated effort, we were able to be effective."

If the VOAD group had been organized before Harvey, he said, relief efforts would have been smoother.

"There's value in keeping a current VOAD active in our county so that we can be concerned about the next catastrophic event or maybe even the not-so-catastrophic event that impacts our community," he said.

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Features Editor

Laura has covered health and nonprofits in the Crossroads since 2014. She's also mom to a toddler, loves journalism conferences and is a big fan of sci-fi and crime TV.

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