As a Category 4 hurricane, Harvey devastated much of the Texas Gulf Coast when it made landfall Friday. As a tropical storm, it has claimed at least five lives and brought historic flooding in the greater Houston area. As the call of the unfolding disaster spreads throughout South Texas, San Antonio has responded: We are here to help.

Officials with the National Weather Service summarize Harvey’s impact throughout the state of Texas as “unknown [and] beyond anything experienced.” As dire need escalates with every day of rain, local officials indicated Sunday that the City was setting resources in motion to assist those most affected, even as San Antonio is still under a tropical storm warning and flash flood watch.

“We have so far been lucky in avoiding the most devastating impact of the rain,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said during a security briefing at the City’s Emergency Operations Center Sunday. “But it is impacting our coastal neighbors in a very significant way … Our neighbors in Houston are hurting, and I let [Mayor Sylvester Turner] know that San Antonio stands ready to support him.”

While the City is standing down its daily emergency service activities locally, they will remain activated to assist relief efforts statewide, he added. San Antonio has sheltered more than 1,000 evacuees to date, with more expected to pour in in the next few days.

The San Antonio Food Bank has been one center of coordinated relief efforts since Harvey’s impact became apparent, accepting and distributing food, new clothes, diapers, pet food, and other supplies for evacuees. As of Sunday morning, the Food Bank had

  • Cooked and delivered nearly 10,000 hot meals to evacuees;
  • Prepared thousands of emergency food boxes for families displaced from the coast, but sheltering in hotels or with family in San Antonio;
  • Helped supply much needed diapers, baby formula, hygiene products, and snacks to evacuee families;
  • Operated the City’s official donation management effort from its warehouse: receiving donations of food, material goods, and more.

All refugees coming to San Antonio were asked to check in at 200 Gembler Rd., where City officials would then dispatch them to one of several shelters that were set up as Harvey’s threat became imminent.

Abraham Kazen Middle School on San Antonio’s Southside served as one City-operated shelter. There, the Fire Department cooperated with local Red Cross workers, doctors, and other volunteers to accommodate evacuees who had left their homes not knowing what would they would find upon return.

When Elmer Perkins, an evacuee from Corpus Christi, was asked about the belongings he left behind, he replied, “I don’t care about that right now. It’s all up in heaven.”

Maria El Reyna Balderas, Leticia Martinez, and Elmer Perkins worship at Kazen Middle School which has transformed into an evacuation shelter for people fleeing tropical storm Harvey.
Evacuees Maria El Reyna Balderas, Leticia Martinez, and Elmer Perkins worship at Kazen Middle School which has transformed into an evacuation shelter for people fleeing tropical storm Harvey. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Gov. Greg Abbott visited with evacuees Thursday, and on Sunday Nirenberg and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) made rounds at the shelters.

“With everyone here volunteering, San Antonio feels like a home to me,” said Salvador Esparza, who left Corpus Christi Saturday to escape the storm. “You have great staff, great officers … I don’t know what to say, this place is so great. There is so much love here. Everyone here made everyone feel like family.”

Corpus Christi evacuee Salvador Esparza thanks Mayor Nirenberg for the city's response to the disaster.
Corpus Christi evacuee Salvador Esparza thanks Mayor Nirenberg for the city’s response to the disaster. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Individuals of all ages attended a bilingual church service in a large assembly hall, and about 30 children’s books were laid out on a table to entertain the youngest evacuees.

“San Antonio has made us proud over the last few days,” Nirenberg said. “You continue to stand up when help is needed, and it has been truly an honor to see y’all working coordinated, from our emergency services to our private citizens.”

Meanwhile, expertise and manpower are being dispatched to the front lines in Houston and Port Aransas.

Extreme Flooding in Houston

The San Antonio Fire Department is providing EMS personnel and additional task forces to assist in disaster relief in Houston, SAFD Charles Hood said, adding that it would be a “bigger rescue effort than [during Hurricane] Katrina, because of the consistent rain.

“It’s very hard to deploy assets and set up bases of operation when you still have to concern yourself with weather, because you’re going to have to look for a hurricane-hardened building. The advantage we had with Katrina is that it didn’t rain a drop after the levees broke, and we had dry operations.”

Houston officials have also sent informal requests for assistance to SAWS, according to President and CEO Robert Puente. While they have yet to receive any formal requests, he said that SAWS is already preparing to assist.

SAWS Sends Crews to Port Aransas

Volunteer crews from the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) traveled to Port Aransas Sunday night to assist in ongoing efforts to restore water services lost during Harvey’s impact.

Puente was at the staging area as the 20-member crew prepared to leave Sunday afternoon. He said that officials in Port Aransas had called to formally request SAWS’ assistance in alleviating some of the infrastructural wreckage left behind by the storm’s landfall.

“We’re sending 10 vehicles with crews to see what they need to have repaired,” Puente said.

Three four-man crews with supervisors will work to repair broken main lines, stop potable water leaks, and disconnect service to any abandoned, damaged, or demolished properties. Gordon Mahan is the SAWS director for collection and distribution, and one of the volunteers who will be helping restore Port Aransas’ water services.

SAWS employees prepare for a trip to Port Aransas to aid major water issues following hurricane Harvey.
SAWS employees prepare for a trip to Port Aransas to help fix major water issues following Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“What we’ve been told is there’s no water in Port Aransas – They cannot maintain any water pressure,” Mahan told the Rivard Report in a Friday phone interview.

The mains distribute the city’s potable water, and while repairing those seems to be the crews’ primary task, Mahan said its difficult to discern exactly how bad the damage is throughout the city. Apart from a point of contact whom crew members are meeting when they arrive, they haven’t received much information regarding the extent of the damage.

“There’s really no news coming out of that area,” Mahan said. “We’re not sure what we’re going to find. My understanding is that there’s no power, there’s no cellphone reception, there’s nothing.”

The crews also don’t know how long their aide mission will last, but Puente said SAWS is prepared to remain in Port Aransas as long as it takes to restore the city’s services. If they can find adequate lodging, the group of volunteers will spend one or two days there. Others may follow them to support the effort in the days to come.

The SAWS team’s arrival will afford Port Aransas service crews the opportunity to rest and recover before continuing down the road to restoration.

“They’re our neighbors, so we just want to show a helping hand,” Mahan said. “I’m sure they’d do the same for us.”

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.

Before moving to San Antonio in 2004, Hanna was a competitive rhythmic gymnast in her native Austria. She earned degrees from St. Mary’s University and the Texas State Graduate College before joining...