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Western Pennsylvanians helping Harvey victims through American Red Cross

Michael DiVittorio
| Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, 5:39 p.m.
Sandy Stein of McCandless is a shelter manager stationed at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. She runs a large room with people and pets displaced by the hurricane.
Sandy Stein of McCandless is a shelter manager stationed at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. She runs a large room with people and pets displaced by the hurricane.

Greg Matoka of McCandless volunteered with the American Red Cross for five years and has been deployed to various parts of the country for disaster relief efforts.

Yet even he was not prepared for the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey — or the support of people who came to help its victims.

“You come down a street and it won't be touched,” Matoka told the Tribune-Review on Saturday from Texas, where he is serving a two-week stint. “Then you go down another street and it's all sorts of devastation. Some people are trying to restore their houses. They're never going to get it back, but their trying. There are a lot of places like that.”

Hurricane Harvey dropped more than 50 inches of rain on Houston and surrounding areas, causing extreme flooding, killing around 40 people and leaving thousands more in need of help.

Matoka, 68, is stationed in Pflugerville, Texas, northeast of Austin. He travels to La Grande between Houston and Austin, nearly 200 miles a day, to deliver approximately 150 meals in what he called “search and feed operations.”

He's seen an outpouring of assistance from all walks of life during those trips.

“It's overwhelming,” Matoka said. “It's all ages, races, genders, every social economic level out in the street helping each other. It gives you a sense of what community's all about.”

He is one of 39 American Red Cross Western Pennsylvania Region volunteers deployed to Texas and Louisiana. They represent 15 different counties. Additional volunteers from Allegheny, McKean and Westmoreland counties are scheduled to deploy next week.

Red Cross spokesman Dan Tobin said more than 2,300 Red Cross volunteers and staff are assisting with the disaster relief operation.

“The Red Cross continues to work closely with government agencies and community partners to ensure the basic needs of those impacted by this storm are being met,” Tobin said.

More than 43,000 people stayed in approximately 260 Red Cross and community shelters across Texas, and more than 1,500 people stayed in one of six shelters in Louisiana. Tobin said those numbers shifted as of Friday to 37,000 people in Texas and 2,000 in Louisiana.

Sandy Stein of McCandless is a shelter manager stationed at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. She arrived Monday.

“I did not see a lot of damage because I'm on the major highways,” Stein said. “This is the largest shelter that I've ever worked in. It's almost a fully functioning hospital. It's going very well.”

She runs a large room with people and pets displaced by the hurricane.

The center held 10,000 people at one time. It was down to around 2,000 as of Saturday.

“The water is receding,” Stein said. “People are starting to return home or are getting assistance from (Federal Emergency Management Agency) or other housing. This shelter is not closing for awhile.”

Stein's area had at most 500 people and 200 pets. There were goats, chickens, dogs, cats and rabbits all around during the shelter's busiest times.

“It's a little hard to wrap your brain around,” Stein said. “I have great volunteers working for me from all over the country.”

There were mental health, emotional and spiritual specialists available for people, and veterinarians gave pets vaccinations.

“This is the worst moment of these people's lives, and I think they're being very well cared for considering they're at their worst moment right now,” Stein said. “This is a long-term recovery for them, and the Red Cross will continue to support them with client casework and support as it goes along. Financially, this will probably be a Red Cross issue for six months to a year. I don't have anybody complaining.”

Catherine Morgan, 60, of North Strabane Township, has been with the Red Cross since November. She's a damage assessment team member and shelter volunteer.

Morgan was deployed for two weeks in Louisiana and met up with other volunteers in Baton Rouge on Aug. 26. They gathered cots, blankets, food and other supplies and headed to Alexandria on Tuesday.

“It had rained, but nothing like in Texas,” she said. “As we were loading, we were watching the path of the storm to see where we wanted to set up shelters.”

They established a shelter in a Baptist church and had 150 to 200 people at one time. About 35 to 40 people were still there Saturday.

“You never know how many to expect,” Morgan said. “It's a fluid situation. People are coming in their cars. Physically, it's tough. You don't normally do this type of work. Emotionally, it's really rewarding.”

She said volunteers worked 12- to 16-hour days and really connected with the victims.

“You get so much back from the people you're helping,” Morgan said. “Kids are holding on to my legs wanting me to play with them. I get more from them than I can give really. They come in and they've lost everything. They come in with the clothes on their back. The community has really responded here.”

Morgan also volunteered with the Humane Society to help Hurricane Katrina victims. She said both experiences put life into perspective.

“People are just happy to be with their families and alive,” Morgan said. “It really humbles you. It would help to get more volunteers because I don't think these disasters are going away.”

More information on how to volunteer and donate to the relief effort is available at .

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2367, or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.

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