In late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast, affecting 13 million people, killing 88, and causing $125 billion in damage. My husband and I had the privilege to go with a volunteer group to help our Houston neighbors with the disaster clean up. I later wrote in a Facebook post about the incredibly moving experience. Below is an excerpt:
“We were assigned to work Saturday in one home, where we could easily see the water line had been up to the level of my waist. Our job was to pull out sheet rock, insulation, trim, flooring, etc. down to bare concrete and studs, from floor to ceiling. Furniture and other belongings had already been removed from the house, and what we were doing would facilitate the drying process so that everything could eventually be treated to kill bacteria and mold and then be remodeled.
Home with water line halfway up the first floor
Partially gutted home
The first thing I noticed was the smell. Even through our respirator masks, we could smell mold and mildew, and occasionally there was even a hint of sewage smell. Men were busy knocking holes in the walls and pulling down sheet rock that already had black spots of mold growing on the back. The insulation was so wet, it was heavy and would disintegrate as we pulled it out.
Volunteer worker carrying debris out
I had a large shovel and was filling up wheelbarrows with small debris from the floor while those that were tearing down the walls threw in big chunks of sheet rock. I ran wheelbarrow load after load out to a large construction debris pile in the front yard. Others were carrying trim pieces and eventually flooring out. That floor! The glue was good and strong, and pretty much every man in the house chipped away at it for most of the afternoon.
Volunteer worker prying flooring up
Strangers Working as a Team
What really impressed me was that their teenage son had several friends that had come to help. And they worked hard! I loved that everyone–volunteers, friends, neighbors, and family–all worked together cheerfully and seemed to even be having fun.
By the time the day was through, the pile of rubble was above my head and probably 10 feet wide and 20 feet long. There was another pile on the other side of the yard of furniture and other household items that were being photographed and cataloged for insurance purposes.
Debris pile in the yard
While we worked, I had a few minutes to speak with the homeowner, and she told me they had only moved to Texas about a year ago from another state. She said they had been given a place to stay by friends, family, and even one of her son’s teachers. They were so thankful for how good everyone had been to them. They couldn’t believe how wonderful Texans were to each other, she said.
Neighbors Caring for Neighbors
The neighborhood we worked in had probably half to two-thirds of the homes that had been flooded. It was amazing how those with little to no damage were taking care of the others. Many homes had signs out front with “Phone Charging Station” or “Dish Washing Station” and supplies for anyone to use free of charge. At the front of the neighborhood was a community pool, which had become a supply depot. The pavilion was full of every kind of donation they might need–from first aid supplies, masks, and gloves to bottled water, baby wipes, and car seats. Neighbors and workers were free to come and take what they needed for the day.
Supply station at neighborhood pool
As lunch time approached, word spread that there was food being served at a home up the street. We walked up there to find a huge sign spray painted on a piece of debris that said, “Everyone Harvey-Q”. They had several smokers and tables set up, and food that didn’t stop. As we sat and ate, we watched a continual line of neighbors show up with food to add to the tables. It touched me to see neighbors caring for one another like this.
A Feel-Good Moment
We left that evening to head to a local high school, where we were being housed for the night. As you can imagine, lines for the showers ran for several hours. A local volunteer group served us dinner, and we all crashed very early.
Sunday morning, we had a short worship service in the school cafeteria. Everyone was in work clothes, and we sang along to hymns played on an iPad held up to the microphone. I don’t remember much of what was said during the meeting, but I can’t deny what I felt. A spirit of charity filled the room. Several times I was brought to tears with confirmation of the good we were doing.
Volunteer workers getting ready to head out
We headed out again with renewed strength and were assigned to a second house, which had been buried under chest-high water and still had a couple inches of it standing on the floors. We got to work tearing out wet debris, and the stench in the home was awful. It was obvious this house had a sewage back up.
Standing water still in the home
Volunteer workers tearing out cabinetry
I met the homeowner and said, “Ma’am, your home was beautiful. I’m so sorry.” She looked up and smiled and said, “Yes it was! I decorated it like that 40 years ago and have loved it every day. And now I’ll have fun decorating again.” I was amazed at the attitude and good spirits she was in, considering her loss. Her husband seemed more shell-shocked, walking in and out of the house, throwing away a life-time of belongings, without much comment. I couldn’t imagine what that must feel like.
A once beautiful home, destroyed by flood
Gratitude from Strangers
Later in the morning, we needed a break. We started to walk up towards the pool restrooms. As we traveled through the neighborhood, we were wearing our yellow volunteer vests. People treated us like superheroes. I can’t count how many times people stopped us to say “Thank you” or “God bless you” and shake our hands. We didn’t really feel like superheroes but were just happy to help.
On the way, a man in a pickup stopped us. “You headed to the pool? Hop on!” We appreciated the ride on his tailgate to rest our aching legs and feet. It’s funny how this person we’d never met before wasn’t a stranger under these conditions.
While at the pool, we were again offered lunch and took a closer look at a nail puncture my husband had gotten in his hand. It had broken the skin. Having not had a tetanus shot in many years, we decided he should have one. Someone told us we could get one at the Walgreens across the street. As we walked in there, we realized both of us had left our wallets locked in the car, maybe a mile away. Well, we would ask about the shots anyway and maybe come back. The man at the pharmacy counter said no need–they would take care of him free of charge, as a thank you for our service. While waiting in line, we had another couple stop and thank us for our help. I’ve never been so humbled as by the many expressions of gratitude by total strangers.
As we got back to the neighborhood, we passed by a home that some from our group had just completed work on. The homeowner said she had missed the workers before they left and asked us to pass along her thanks. She said, “You don’t know the stress you guys have lifted off me today. This morning I walked in here overwhelmed at the amount of work we had to do, and now, thanks to you, all this is done. I’m just so, so thankful.”
A Worthwhile Experience
We made it back to our assigned home and spent the afternoon gutting the kitchen and shuttling salvaged nick-naps and other items outside. Again, there was an emotional farewell with the homeowners, as we had the first day. We left feeling like we had new friends and family members. And we were so much richer for the experience we had.
Gutting the kitchen
Volunteer workers with kitchen debris
We are looking forward to the next weekend we can go and help, though I will need a rest first. I am so deep down bone tired. But it feels so amazing, too. If you ever get the chance to do something like this, don’t pass up the opportunity. It is so, so worth it.”
This memory popped up on my feed yesterday, on the anniversary of 9/11. My timeline was also filled with stories of people helping one another that day in New York, and I couldn’t help but remember what it was like following that horrific event. I had recently moved and couldn’t locate my US flag. I wanted to put it out but couldn’t find one in any store. They were all sold out and being displayed on almost every house and business in town.
I remember the way we all treated each other in those days, similar to my experience in Houston. We weren’t Lefts or Rights, Blacks or Whites. We were Americans. And we were neighbors. We spoke kindly to one another and offered helping hands where we could.
I had to ask myself, why is it we seem to only have compassion in times of tragedy? Why can we only act like neighbors when times are tough? Why can’t we be proud to be Americans all the time?
Right now we are a house divided. We fight against each other, when we should be standing together. If you really want to see change in our world, get out there and make it happen–not by PROTESTING what you hate, but by PROMOTING love. Reach out a hand and help someone. Give a kind word. Volunteer. Make a difference! If we all give a little of ourselves volunteering or serving others, I believe we will see a lot of problems just disappear.
Quote by Ritu Ghatourey
Everyone can do something! For a list of volunteer opportunities near you, visit www.justserve.org.