Las Vegas, N.M. – New Mexico Highlands University is sending a 40-member team of faculty, students and staff to Texas to provide aid to the survivors of Hurricane Harvey, which experts are calling the largest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall in south-central Texas late Aug. 25 as a category-four hurricane, the highest ranking, with winds topping 130 miles per hour. The hurricane brought heavy rains of up to 50 inches in some areas. A massive storm surge swamped Houston and coastal areas with historic flooding.
An estimated 6.8 million Texans were still out of their homes as of Sept. 6, according to CBS News.
“There’s been a tremendous response from the Highlands University family wanting to help Hurricane Harvey survivors,” said Beth Massaro, a Highlands social work professor who is leading the university’s Hurricane Harvey relief effort. “We’re finalizing plans for the Highlands team that will travel to Rockport, Texas Sept. 27 through Oct. 1. We will be volunteering at donation centers, with cleanup efforts, and with other support services.”
Massaro said the university chose to focus its efforts upon Rockport because it was hit so hard by Hurricane Harvey and has a high level of need. Rockport is a small coastal community on the Gulf of Mexico that was in the eye of the storm.
“The destruction in Rockport is staggering, with so many people’s homes and businesses destroyed. They are dealing with massive flooding, and there are still areas without power,” Massaro said.
The Highlands’ contingent will drive to Rockport, where Massaro said they are fortunate to be able to camp at the five-acre property and home of Ben Nelson, a Highlands biology professor.
“The devastation from Hurricane Harvey was huge in Rockport, and it looks like a war zone,” said Nelson, who visited Rockport after the storm. “You can see a high number of buildings without roofs or any walls at all, and travel trailers are piled up like fire wood. A large number of the utility poles are snapped off at ground level. Trees are down everywhere and live oaks that normally have green leaves year-round are stripped. There is standing water everywhere of varying depths. Our house was built to sustain hurricanes and we’re lucky it’s standing. Many of our neighbors lost their homes. It’s really sad. Hurricane Harvey was like a severe tornado measuring 50 to 60 miles across.”
Ashlee Bradley, a 19-year-old chemistry major from Tucumcari, New Mexico, is one of the Highlands students volunteering for the Hurricane Harvey effort. The students are undergraduate and graduate students representing a wide variety of academic disciplines.
“Even before I heard about what Highlands was planning, I really wanted to help people impacted by Hurricane Harvey,” said Bradley, who wants to be a doctor someday. “I was a child when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and I remember how devastating it was. This is an amazing opportunity that Highlands is giving me and other students who want to provide services to a community in need.”
Bradley said it’s exciting to see Highlands mobilize to help Hurricane Harvey survivors.
“I’m glad to see our small university doing this kind of outreach work,” Bradley said.
Massaro said Highlands University President Sam Minner initiated the university’s Hurricane Harvey project, asking her to lead the effort in her capacity as the President’s Leadership Fellow. The project is being funded through the President’s Office.
“I think the outpouring of interest in this Hurricane Harvey project exemplifies the passion our Highlands community has to help others,” said Massaro, who is a Highlands Master of Social Work alumna who earned a doctorate in interdisciplinary leadership from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. “We are hoping that Highlands can continue to help Rockport and its residents after this initial outreach project.”
Massaro said there is a “Highlands Helps!” group on the university’s main Facebook page where ongoing Hurricane Harvey relief efforts will be shared.