Daniel Geraci had a vision. A complete vision. "The entire idea popped into my head," he says.
The idea was for Austin to have a network of churches with trained volunteers ready to help out in a crisis such as a flood or a wildfire.
In a notebook, Geraci, 54, wrote a pretty complete plan of what Austin Disaster Relief Network would become.
Ten years since it formed, Austin Disaster Relief Network has 190 Central Texas churches in a five-county area in its network. A church could have one volunteer or thousands of volunteers.
Austin Disaster Relief Network trains about 1,500 to 3,000 people a year to be leaders in the network, but it can mobilize tens of thousands more volunteers when it needs to. Since 2009, it has helped 41,000 people in some capacity and donated about $15 million to recovery and rebuilding efforts.
Geraci’s vision came out of the experiences Austin churches had after hurricanes Katrina and Rita happened in 2005, sending evacuees into Austin by busloads.
At the time of Hurricane Katrina, Geraci was working in the oil and gas industry, and he had taken the entire month of September off. He was ready to help.
Geraci estimates there were 35 to 40 churches that had volunteers who wanted to help, but they couldn’t get into the Austin Convention Center or schools where the evacuees were being housed.
The church volunteers weren’t trained in disaster relief or credentialed with background checks, but they were frustrated when they were turned away.
"We were caught unprepared," says Doug James, a pastor at Hill Country Bible Church. Volunteers were showing up at the back doors of schools with donations, just trying to help, James says.
Some church-based volunteers who were allowed into some of the evacuee sites started proselytizing to evacuees and all church-based volunteers were then kicked out, which didn’t help the cause, either.
"I didn’t want to have that issue again," Geraci says. The churches, he said, "felt so left out."
Geraci had some experience mobilizing the church community after planning Celebration 2000 at the Frank Erwin Center during the new millennium, but he was pursuing a different vision with the idea of a church network.
Geraci has always been an entrepreneur, first in sales for a software company. Then he had an idea for what he calls a fit-food concept restaurant. Everything was set to roll out on Healthy’s, which even had a test kitchen, but the funding collapsed with the stock market in October 2008.
He did whatever he had to do to make it. He drove a school bus. He sold insurance for a year. He hunted deer and hog to feed his family. "I put that in God’s hands. His thoughts are higher than my thoughts," he says. "His ways are higher than my ways."
Geraci, who grew up in Austin and went to Westwood High School, left the church as a young adult during his days as a bass player in a band.
In 1998, he came back to the church.
"The Lord got ahold of my head," he says. He started reading the Bible. "I was filled with the Holy Spirit," he says. "I never knew it was real.
"I gave my whole life to Jesus."
That path led to meeting his wife, Allison, while carpooling to a church retreat. They now have two daughters, Abby, 15, and Anna, 8.
When Healthy’s collapsed, Geraci gave it to the Lord, he says. He took the fully mapped out vision for Austin Disaster Relief Network and started meeting with churches to get started.
James remembers having sandwiches with Geraci at a church member’s house and Geraci going over the plan. "We said, ’We’re in,’" James says; his was one of the first churches to do so. "We needed to be ready in times of disaster."
Those first few years while building the network were not always easy.
"We would try to respond, and you get an emergency situation, and lots of times they are overwhelmed with how large it is," he says. The first Bastrop fires are a great example of this. Many different groups were flooding in to help. "A lot of them didn't have relationships with civil authorities," James says. "Sometimes it can feel like, ’We can't handle you.’
"That’s where we've learned how to develop relationships," James says, and those relationships get built during nondisaster times.
"We only go if they call us," Geraci says, adding that the goal is to be "perfectly set up" for a disaster. That means having relationships established with emergency management services and other disaster relief agencies such as the American Red Cross.
"They work so well with us," says Mike Wadino, client casework manager and recovery lead for the Central and South Texas Region of the American Red Cross. "They put clients first also."
Not every organization plays well with others and local governments, but Austin Disaster Relief Network does, says Mike Jones, emergency preparedness coordinator for Hays County. Jones first approached the network about working together in 2013, when the network was still primarily in Travis County.
Then the 2015 Memorial Day flood happened. All of the volunteer organizations started showing up.
Jones says he needs all groups when a disaster happens. "It’s nice having a network where I can pick up the phone and say, ’This is what I need.’"
The difference between Austin Disaster Relief Network and other groups, though, is the length of the help.
The Red Cross is typically the first one in and does immediate crisis management, but it isn’t going to stay with survivors during the cleanup and rebuilding process. "That’s not what the Red Cross does," Geraci says.
After Hurricane Harvey, Austin Disaster Relief Network spent weeks sending volunteers to Port Arthur, which wasn’t getting the same attention as other places, to muck out houses and start the cleanup.
"They take it beyond," Jones says. "They continue with that family through recovery."
That’s good for the county because it means that those survivors will stay in the county, Jones says.
The network also helped Hays County by donating the money for an executive director to manage the recovery effort, Jones says.
Being "perfectly set up" for disaster also means having trained volunteers ready to go and ready to lead other volunteers.
"It also gives our people a means that they can serve other people, which they really love," James says. "It's a blessing to help people. Our people get to grow, and the church gets to grow."
Volunteers are trained in all kinds of things, from manning phones to spiritual care on the ground.
They team up with businesses that are looking for places to volunteer when disasters happen. There’s a mutual benefit that comes from developing the relationships before the disaster happens.
Special volunteers are trained to be shepherds, which means they are the one-on-one contact with a family throughout the disaster and beyond. They point them to resources and walk them through how to return to normal life. "If we can walk with a family until they are back on their feet, that’s a home run," Geraci says. "We love on them."
David Hoffman, a disabled veteran, met such a shepherd when he was in an apartment fire in August. His attendant grabbed him and his wheelchair and a box of photos, and they escaped the fire with nothing else.
Hoffman is on a fixed income and didn’t have any money for another place to live or to replace what he had.
Austin Disaster Relief Network helped with hotel stays and gift cards for food, as well as clothing.
"I got to look like a normal person," Hoffman says. "They really saved my life."
His shepherd would call every couple of days to check on him, Hoffman says, and thought of things he wouldn’t have, such as a shower chair for the hotel room.
"They were hands-on, very empathetic and professional, too," Hoffman says. "You could tell it was not their first rodeo, too; they knew what they were doing."
That’s what distinguishes Austin Disaster Relief Network from other groups, says volunteer Christie Whittington. "It is a longtime recovery," she says. "They don't just say goodbye to them. They bring the hope of Jesus to them."
When she meets with survivors, she says, "every survivor is different. I find that I just need to listen, just be a calming person. I just want to sit down with them to assess where they are at."
While Austin Disaster Relief Network has become known for big disasters such as the Memorial Day and Halloween floods and Hurricane Harvey, most of the day-to-day work is for displacements from house or apartment fires.
"It’s actually about 90% fire; the rest is floods," Geraci says.
With each year, the network’s capacity grows. During Hurricane Harvey, Austin Disaster Relief Network’s call center was set up to handle 10,000 to 20,000 inbound and outbound calls, through the 211 system.
During Harvey, Austin Disaster Relief Network and its Hope Family Thrift Store became the place to drop off donations, including survivor donation kits. The network sent donated truckload after donated truckload to Southeast Texas.
"Harvey was the Super Bowl of disasters," Geraci says.
Geraci says that somehow God has always put things in place right before a disaster. Austin Disaster Relief Network will get a series of donations they don’t think they need, and then weeks later it becomes obvious why they needed those donations.
Right before a wildfire in Bastrop, an anonymous donor gave 20,000 fire masks.
Right before Harvey, they got another big donation of supplies and volunteers. Right before recent flooding in Beaumont, they got another bunch of supplies.
When they moved to 51st Street and opened Hope Family Thrift Store in April 2015, Geraci says he was worried about whether the space was too big for what the organization was doing. The next month began a year of tests, which included a second fire in Bastrop, a May flood and an October flood, along with apartment fires.
Now Austin Disaster Relief Network is looking to open three more thrift stores throughout Central Texas to be even closer to local disasters. The thrift store makes about $300,000 a year that gets put back into disaster relief. It is also a place where survivors of disasters can come for five sets of clean clothes, everything from socks and underwear to pants and shirts and coats and shoes, at no charge. In a big disaster, each person is given a wristband that they can show at the thrift store, no questions asked.
In that same building are the offices, training center, call center and the Hope Prayer Room, which is open continuously. Different groups come to offer worship there or Austin Disaster Relief Network plays recorded services.
Austin Disaster Relief Network doesn’t try to hide its Christianity.
Geraci says he felt a mandate that it be Christian-based. He sees it as taking care of the church, and fulfilling John 17:21 — "That they all would be one."
"It’s like a tribe that has come together," he says. "Now it’s seen as a family reunion."
They will serve people who are not Christian. "Everyone is treated the same," Geraci says. They always ask, "Would you like me to pray with you?" and the answer can be no.
Often, he says, survivors will cry. They will tell stories. If they say, "We lost our Bible," the network will give them another one.
Anyone can volunteer, but there are roles that are only for the faithful, such as shepherding. Another volunteer job is "praying away disaster." When they hear a big storm is coming our way, these volunteers pray it won’t so Austin Disaster Relief Network volunteers can help where it does land.
In the early stages, Jones says, they had to watch for proselytizing from Austin Disaster Relief Network members, but that’s not the case anymore. The network retrained volunteers to prevent that, Geraci says.
It is a Christian organization still. "They always start with a prayer and end with a prayer," Jones says. "That’s how they work. If you don’t like how they work, you don’t have to accept their help."
The power of prayer works, says Whittington. "I want to be the hands and feet of Jesus and love them where they are at."
"It's really the Church of Jesus Christ that has provided tens of thousands of volunteers and tens of millions in assistance and help," James says. "That's the way it should be."
The work has spread outside of the original Central Texas region. The network will now help anywhere it is asked to come within a day’s drive, and it will try to mobilize local churches there to create the area’s own network if it can.
When the West chemical fire happened in 2013, Austin Disaster Relief Network organized churches in Waco to create a disaster network there. They’re working on creating a disaster network in the Beaumont area as well, and they’ve united churches in the Marble Falls area and up near the Highland Lakes to help there.
Another goal is to set up an expanded training center for more volunteers, and to expand the network of Central Texas churches to 400, Geraci says.
Wadino, who met Geraci years before he worked for the Red Cross and Geraci created Austin Disaster Relief Network, says Geraci is a smart businessman. "To have created this from nothing. ... He felt so strongly about it, so compassionate about it. Some people sit back and wish," Wadino says. "He did it.
"He’s compassionate, caring, giving. He listens. He’s out to help. He’s an amazing, amazing human being."