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Front Page September 5, 2017  RSS feed

Representative Ashby contacts State Health Department about volunteers feeding evacuees

By Mac Shadix

With a mind blowing act of situational unawareness a Texas Dept. of State Health Services TDSHS inspector shut down a community effort to feed refugees from hurricane Harvey on Thursday night at the Hampton Inn in Buffalo Tx. The volunteers led by Trey Daniel of Marquez, Texas had fed the refugees for free in the Hampton Inn’s great room on Tuesday and Wednesday. This group started when Daniel and Wife, Dana began to ask for donations to make toiletry bags to send to the Rockport area after this area was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. While calling hotels in Leon County, they were informed the Hampton Inn and Suites was 100% occupied with approximately 97% of those being evacuees. They decided to offer help in any way possible. The motel was cooperating with the effort and opening the facilities to displaced persons in the area no matter where they were staying. As word spread of the humanitarian efforts more people in the community became involved.

The volunteers fed about 175 people on Tuesday and another 100 on Wednesday and were on track to feed about that many more on Wednesday until the TDSHS inspector showed up to shut them down. Evacuees have filled the Buffalo motels but the cost of lodging and eating out is straining many of them financially.

No information has been received by the Buffalo Press at this time of any efforts by the state or FEMA to feed these evacuees in Leon County. One wonders if the next step for the state will be to ticket the Cajun Navy for not having Texas boat registration.

A spokesman for State Representative Trent Ashby stated that they became aware of the situation Thursday night. First thing Friday morning, they placed a call over to TDSHS to express their extreme outrage and displeasure with the way that a number of their constituents felt the situation was handled. They questioned what happened and why TDSHS would impede people from helping fellow Texans in need. They received a quick response from the agency, who immediately ran this up to the executive level. The folks at TDSHS seem to agree that the state shouldn’t stand in the way of the great service that folks are trying to provide.

Representative Ashby spoke with Dr. John Hellerstedt (Commissioner at Texas DSHS) today who apologized for the mishandled situation and any rudeness that his employees conveyed at the hotel. Dr. Hellerstedt has put Associate Commissioner Jon Huss in charge of this specific complaint and he will communicate with the employee. Dr. Hellerstedt basically said that the situation, and the circumstances caused by Harvey are a gray area when it comes to the rules and regulations of DSHS, and that he plans to propose an exception for volunteers preparing food at events like this in the future. Specifically, when food is prepared off-site at an unlicensed/ unpermitted facility, the volunteers would need to make folks aware with a sign saying just that - could be as simple as a piece of copy paper and a ball point pen. Though the concern with food borne illness is extremely high at the agency, Dr. Hellerstedt made clear that he and TDSHS have no interest in discouraging one citizen from helping another, or being overly bureaucratic to the point that people would just not participate in relief efforts. Ashby’s office believes an exception like this provides a reasonable answer that is not overly burdensome The spokesman concluded.

Leon County Judge Byron Ryder issued the following statement on the incident. “I believe that the people that came to the Hampton Inn were only trying to help the displaced people from Hurricane Harvey by delivering a meal and the Texas Health Department intervened and would not let them feed the meal saying that it was illegal to do so. This may be true in a normal times, but these are not normal times for these people, All that was going on was to help these displaced people any way possible. During times like these, we must have some compassion for the situation and the people involved. The Texas Health Department showed none in this case.”

Buffalo Police Chief Lance Pavelak responded to a question about the situation by saying that if he had been called he would have arrested the Health Services Officer for trespassing.

Responding to an inquiry from the Buffalo Press, Chris Zan Deusen, a representative of the TDSHS in Austin returned the call. He stated that the department did not stop the feeding of the evacuees. The feeding was not an illegality, Zan Deusen said, and the intervention merely an attempt to communicate and to teach. The TDSHS agent was not an investigator but a sanitationist. He responded to a question about how often commercial restaurants are checked in Leon Couty and although he said that he did not have the exact times that it was about once every six months to two years.

Despite those assertions, when this reporter arrived on the scene at the Hampton Inn Buffalo there were very unhappy volunteers loading their vehicles with food and saying that they were not being allowed to feed the evacuees. The YDSHS teaching sanitationist who was sent to communicate and teach would not speak to the press.

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