Our Harvey Hero - Maria De La Cruz

This profile of Maria De La Cruz, a Bonner alum from Middlesex County College '04 and The  College of New Jersey '06, appeared in the Fall 2017 MCC Alumni magazine (page 21).

To most New Jerseyans, the wreckage of Hurricane Harvey is mostly sorrowful images on TV and sad stories in the newspaper. 

For Maria De La Cruz ’04, it is her reality. 

Ms. De La Cruz is the special assistant to the director of the Houston Health Department. Not only was she a witness to the devastation there, she is also part of the response team that is helping the city recover, which will likely take three to five years. 

“It was very, very massive,” she said of the hurricane. “It covered all of Houston. When I went to Middlesex, I lived in Carteret, and it took me 20 minutes to get to school. In Houston it can take an hour-and-a-half to get from one side of the city to another. Houston is huge.” 

Ms. De La Cruz said the Health Department was prepared for the disaster but the size and intensity of the hurricane was unexpected. 

“Just a month earlier, we practiced setting up a fake shelter, not thinking it
would happen,” she said. “We knew the week of the storm that it was brewing and we were notified to be ready. Then it hit. But no one realized how hard it was going to be.” 

The Red Cross established a shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Saturday, August 26; she was at the shelter the next day. 

The Health Department had food inspectors making sure what they were serving was safe; epidemiologists were preventing the spread of disease; officials set up hospital units, saw clients with emergency medical needs, secured wheelchairs for patients who needed them, and made sure patients who needed dialysis were able to get to their appointments. 

“Two days in we knew were going to have to be there for a while, so we set up a social service area where people could apply for FEMA aid,” she said. “The city got free taxi rides for those who had a safe and dry place to go to, and FEMA offered hotel vouchers.” 

Moving people out of the shelter was a priority because the convention center had 5,500 cots but on the first and second day saw over 10,000 people come in. 

Ms. De La Cruz was the operations lead and coordinated health department personnel as they responded. 

Make no mistake, it was a tragedy. But the community pulled together. 

“The spirit of the people was incredible,” she said. “Men would give up their cot for a pregnant woman. One group was waiting for transportation for dialysis late at night, but were told they’d have to come back the next morning. My people arranged transportation for them home. They all left together and I assumed they were all family.” 

Nope. One woman just offered her house to several strangers. 

“It was an amazing experience,” Ms. De La Cruz said almost exactly one month after Harvey hit. “I’m still trying to recover and get some sleep. But it was incredible how everyone was working together. It was so amazing to see the health department come together. Many of them had their own problems because of Harvey, but they were all there helping other people. They were doing whatever they could to help others.” 

For the first five days, she worked 17-hour shifts. 

“I feel like Harvey’s been my life,” she said. “But you’d be surprised at how able you can be,” she said. “The need was so great. You just had to respond.” 

And there’s still much to do. Trash is everywhere; some of the homes still have water in them a month later, which is a concern because of mold growth. 

“Our biggest issue is housing,” she said. “Our priority is senior citizens, individuals with disabilities and the medically fragile.” 

Ms. De La Cruz graduated from MCC, transferred to The College of New Jersey and then went to Baruch College as a National Urban Fellow. Part of her 14-month Master’s program was full-time work at a nonprofit or government site around the country. She was placed in Houston. 

And she fell in love with the city and remains so. “I love the people and I love what I do,” she said.