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Texas Reflections

Professor Mark Brenner discusses his time as a post-Harvey volunteer

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Thinking back on what he’d been through over the past few weeks, Dr. Mark Brenner shook his head and said, “They don’t call it a ‘disaster’ for nothing.”

The professor of social work volunteered to travel to Texas with the Red Cross to be part of its disaster mental health team, in order to help victims of hurricane Harvey. He arrived in Dallas on Sept. 7, was eventually shifted to Beaumont, a six-hour drive south, and arrived home on the 19th.

During that nearly two-week span, Dr. Brenner saw neighborhood after neighborhood destroyed, each lined with streets full of gutted homes. He met a man whose two sons had been electrocuted to death in the floodwaters, worked with victims in an underground shelter (actually a converted parking garage) crammed with 2,500 beds, delivered cleaning supplies and more from the back of a van, and lived in a shelter himself, surviving on snacks and sleeping on an army cot “surrounded by 200 of my new best friends (fellow Red Cross volunteers).”

In addition to providing traditional social work services and handing out supplies, Professor Brenner was also part of what was called a hotshot team. This involved going into communities and meeting people to find out where the most need existed.

“We’d drive around and speak to the mailman, visit fire stations and churches in order to get a handle on where help was needed,” he said. “We’d talk to neighbors to get referrals, and then we’d go and find these people.”

Dr. Brenner sometimes encountered what’s known as “the Katrina stare”: “A vacant look, where it’s similar to a profound-grief reaction, as when someone loses a loved one.” He also met people who’d now been through three hurricanes and the resulting floods whose attitude was “We’ll make a go of it.”

Sitting in his office in the Burrill Office Complex on a recent morning, Dr. Brenner flipped through a series of photos, each one more troubling than the next. There were houses with an “X” marked just below the eaves, demonstrating for FEMA inspectors how high the floodwater had risen. There were shelter signs indicating the food was all gone, and many images of people’s belongings and home interiors piled street side.

“Once the floodwaters receded the mold set in,” Dr. Brenner said.

He knew before flying west that this volunteer work would mean putting himself in less-than-ideal circumstances. Indeed, the comforts of his own home seemed a world away.

“I arrived in Beaumont and the curfew for looting had been lifted, but there were still signs saying, ‘Don’t use the water.’ Everyone had to use bottled water to wash. But eventually they flushed the lines and then the restaurants began to open again.” 

Professor Brenner’s post-Harvey service puts him in good company: Other BSU faculty have done similar volunteer work, especially after Katrina. Current faculty members Drs Louise Graham (counselor education) and Jeffrey Steen (social work) have both previously answered the call.

Serving on the front lines of such a disaster, allowed Dr. Brenner to see the full spectrum of human behavior.

“I saw the best and worst of people,” he said.

Forty-one counties in Texas and millions of people were affected by Harvey. Just the number of cars alone that were ruined in the storm reached one million. It’s a situation that can easily become overwhelming, and Dr. Brenner gives kudos to the Red Cross, of which 90 percent of its staff are volunteers.

It was quite an experience, and Dr. Brenner was glad he was able to help.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll do this again, but not this week,” he said, with a small smile. He added: “I learned a lot – what to do and what not to do. And I have a lot to bring back to my students.” (Story by John Winters, G ’11, University News & Media)

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