Two Minutes with Justin Sáenz: Texas AgriLife Responder to Hurricane Harvey

Justin Sáenz (’11 public service and administration in ag)

Texas AgriLife Extension County Agent, 4-H Youth Development
Iowa State University CALS Curtiss League member

How did you provide initial support in the days following Hurricane Harvey?
Being the only extension agent who was able to safely make it to the fairgrounds the Monday following Harvey, I was appointed the contact between the State and Fort Bend County for our Agriculture Relief efforts.  Within hours of arriving, the Fort Bend County Fairgrounds quickly became Central Command for the 500 member search and rescue response teams for the efforts west of Houston. As Harvey continued to slowly move across our region, my first priority was to create more pen space to accommodate up to 130 horses. The second priority was creating an organized system to check-in horses to ensure they correctly matched their owners. This involved having a copy of their coggins test results which provided owner contact, horse color, breed, sex and identifying markings. Each owner was then assigned a herd number and each horse was given an individual identification. I coordinated the horse shelter with the help of ten volunteers who also had their horses at the shelter. We took in more than 100 horses that would have been impacted by the flooding in our area.

Through the Texas Department of Agriculture’s State of Texas Agriculture Relief (STAR) fund, which provided the search and rescue teams, the presence of the Texas A&M University Veterinary Emergency Team (TAMU-V.E.T.) was on site to provide medical attention to the animals directly affected by the flood waters. The county extension offices remained closed due to the dangerous flooding as did the county animal shelter. Working closely with the TAMU-VET leadership, our next priority turned to the needs of the abandoned companion animals. We devised a plan to have the Fort Bend County Fairgrounds serve as a process point where rescued dogs and cats would be admitted, given an ID, decontaminated from tainted flood water, treated by TAMU-VET and held for a short period of time. The end-goal was to move them to a shelter or foster location.

Many states from east to west sent help in the form of people to aid in the rescue effort. As I was driving and seeing the various states represented, I noticed the Iowa flag flying proudly! It was nice to see that the fine folks of Iowa were on site to lend a helping hand to the people of southeast Texas!

By midweek, John Gordy, county extension agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources, and I worked to set up a livestock supply point where donations in the form of feed and hay could be dropped off to distribute to area producers impacted by the flood waters. This involved coordinating donations from across Texas and other states. After a week of operation, we received a strike team of extension agents from South Texas to relieve us for a few days. It was nice to get a day off. As things began to dry up most of the horses were able to return to their pastures and stables. We had a bit of good news — a baby calf was born in our shelter — the volunteers appropriately named him Harvey!

How does your support and involvement continue as Texans rebuild?
We have moved out of emergency mode and transitioned to rebuilding mode!
Texas Governor Gregg Abbott has been committed to rebuilding Texas ahead of schedule, under budget and with a friendly smile. He appointed Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp as Commissioner of the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas. As part of this initiative, AgriLife Extension has been given the task of being a liaison between the needs of local communities and the state agencies that will assist in filling those needs. We will be in regular contact with mayors, city managers, county judges and commissioners, emergency managers and school superintendents in order to stay abreast of the infrastructure needs and rebuilding progress. We plan to send daily reports to the Chancellor as he serves in his new role.

We are now Rebuild Texas Agents. Texas AgriLife Extension Service was the obvious choice to lead the efforts as we have an office in every impacted county, an established relationship with the local communities and a connected network. As we learned our new role in the Rebuild Texas process, it was a bit hectic the first week. Thankfully we have seen a “slow down,” which is much-needed as our county fair kicks off at the end of September. As the 4-H and Youth Development agent, I chair the ag awareness area at the fair called “AG’tivity Barn.” During the weekdays of the fair we invite 1,000 third, fourth and fifth graders to learn about the various Texas agricultural commodities.  We start the process of setting up this week to be ready for the opening day of the Fort Bend County Fair on September 29, 2017.