HURRICANE HARVEY – How I got swept by the storm and now lead The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services

When Hurricane Harvey hit, I was asked by The Salvation Army to serve as a Community Liaison, due to the relationships I have across the city of Houston. As you can imagine, the response to Hurricane Harvey required very long hours… long, exhilarating hours, but once I got home, all I could think about was Hurricane Harvey.

Immediate response

Right before Harvey hit, I was about to move into my first house. I was The Salvation Army’s Data and Program Evaluation Manager at the time, and my apartment suffered water damage due to water coming in from the ceiling and walls. Thankfully, our new house was not affected by the storm, and we were able to move in without much delay. I am so grateful that my family and I were not badly affected; this only boosted my desire and drive to help others while I was able to fully immerse myself in my role as Community Liaison.

My role in the immediate response was helping to coordinate where our mobile feeding units (canteens) and Emotional and Spiritual care teams needed to go, by relaying information from the City about where people had yet to receive assistance back to our Incident Command teams, which had flown in from all over the country to lead the charge of The Salvation Army response. After several weeks of managing the feeding and distribution efforts, I then shifted to demobilization– getting equipment, trailers, etc. back to where they belonged and making sure contracts and other agreements made amidst the chaos of the storm were upheld. Up to this point, staff and volunteers joined us from across the country, but once the last team left for home in October, it felt like it was all up to me to figure out what was next and how best to take care of my city.

Shift to relief and recovery

With the amazing local team assembled and at the helm, we moved our operations to a new disaster warehouse, where we were receiving donations and sorting them for distribution to more than 30 local community hubs across our four-county service area (Harris, Fort Bend, Waller, and Montgomery counties). We also began offering gift cards to survivors by partnering with nonprofit organizations who were leading the disaster case management efforts for the city. We then shifted our long-term recovery assistance to financial assistance, which pays vendors directly for materials and goods survivors need to get back into their homes. We provide this assistance through disaster case management referral only, to ensure that clients have access to the full range of services available to the community.

Now that the storm has passed, I am working with my incredible team day and night to help Houston through the Harvey recovery, as well as prepare for the next disaster, whether natural or man-made. Our Corps Officers across the Greater Houston Area jumped at the opportunity to help after the Santa Fe shooting, and they will be ready to provide emotional and spiritual care again at the push of a button. I oversee our Volunteer Coordinator, Alexandria Thomas, who equips both our trained and spontaneous volunteers with the information they need to be impactful, as well as our Warehouse Manager Sarah Smith who expertly makes sure that all donations are accounted for and delivered to places where they will make a difference. Our Long-Term Recovery team which is growing consists of Miyuki Cubas and myself who have been managing the disbursement of our long-term recovery funds/financial assistance. Long-term recovery takes up a lot of my focus right now because we have many collaborating partners and thousands of people to serve, but it will take attention in all areas—preparedness, response, and recovery—to protect the well-being of our community, now and in the future.

Lessons learned from Harvey

This position has not been my first rodeo with Salvation Army; I have served in many different roles, from case manager in social services to bagging toys for Christmas; from data quality and grant reporting to now disaster. I’ve seen a lot of this agency, inside and out, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services personnel from all over the country.

What I’ve learned is that there are many things beyond our control; the best we can do is to prepare, take action when you can, and show love no matter what. When a “storm” hits, whether it’s a natural disaster or a personal disaster (losing a job, a loved one, etc.), we have to focus on what’s most important and do the best we can with what we have to show love to our neighbors— I’m proud to say that Texas does this well in disaster.

Reflecting back

I have tremendous respect for our team of staff and volunteers within The Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services, because each person who shows up in a time of need has sacrificed greatly; they have prepared their family, friends, loved ones to be without them for a while so they can spread their love and joy with us in a time of need. I’ve seen everything it takes for an organization to support such a huge region after tremendous loss; the demands are great, and I have a lot of respect and admiration for how much we are able to accomplish together.

I will admit, I am still trying to figure out how I got here. Mentally and spiritually, I feel I got swept up by the storm. I never imagined that I would be managing the disaster services for The Salvation Army in Houston. I have always wanted to make an impact in a meaningful way, so when I was given the opportunity to help the city I love so much, I took it. Today, I feel more confident and empowered than I did a year ago. I have received a lot of support from The Salvation Army, and I know that if another disaster were to strike, there’s an Army of people ready to help.

We are not alone.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melanie Toarmina Pang is The Salvation Army’s Manager of Emergency Disaster Services. Prior to her current role, she was the Data and Program Evaluation Manager.

Throughout her career, Melanie has served in a variety of communities and capacities, aiming to further equity and lived equality — from advocacy efforts to reduce and prevent childhood obesity in food deserts to serving as a case manager to refugee youth and children in foster care and young adults experiencing homelessness.

Melanie has served as an inaugural co-chair of Mayor Turner’s LGBTQ Advisory Board, the first of its kind in the City of Houston. She was named Social Worker of the Year in 2015 by the National Association of Social Workers Houston and received the President’s Award for Distinguished Community Leadership from the Houston GLBT Political Caucus in 2016.

She is a proud alumnus of the University of Houston. In 2012, she earned her master’s degree from the UH Graduate College of Social Work and was invited back to the college as an adjunct professor to teach at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In May of 2018, she was presented the Humanitarian Award by the college of social work’s student association.