Houston Strong: Hope in the Midst of Harvey's Misery
Saturday, August 26th is a day I’ll never forget. I moved to Texas in 2014 from a small town in Minnesota where my only exposure to a hurricane was the devastation I’d seen on TV. On August 25th, the day before Hurricane Harvey hit my area, the news predicted that the rainfall would rise from 29 in to 51 inches! As you can imagine, I was extremely concerned for my friends, family, and my VLK team. At that point, the media was urging people to stay indoors and off the roads. Later I regretted not evacuating with my family.
Late that evening, the rain started to fall and by the following evening, I became restless as I listened to the high winds and heavy rainfall. My wife and I stayed glued to the television, watching predictions of continued rain. There were also dozens of local tornadoes, power outages, overflowing reservoirs, and flooding surrounding the city. The news highlighted families frantically leaving their homes or climbing to their roofs to escape the rising waters. Many homes were quickly swallowed by the water which in some cases, rose to 16 feet high! The Buffalo Bayou peaked and spilled into downtown Houston. Cars were getting washed away on major freeways, leaving people stranded. For the next two days, every half hour, my phone received tornado and extreme weather alerts. My backyard looked like a lake and at 11:15 p.m., I was only one inch away from water entering through my back door. We dug trenches to prevent it from entering our home. The Mayor announced that starting at 2:00 a.m., engineers were going to start a “slow release” at the Barker Cypress and Addicks Reservoirs. Many residents were scared after hearing this news as it meant neighborhoods nearby would take on more water than they already had. Neighborhoods along the release path were guaranteed to flood.
On the third day, August 27th around 4:00 a.m., the rain significantly subsided in our area, and fortunately, my home was dry. I was so grateful we did not take on any water or lose power, so I decided to do whatever I could to help those who were less fortunate. Many people lost their homes, cars, and all their belongings. A good friend and I cleared out my van, attached my trailer, gathered our kayaks, and went out into the community to help. Before we left, I went on my social media platforms and announced that I was in the Katy area with a van to haul people and their belongings to the closest shelters. Many friends shared my message to get the word out. As we continued with our plan, we didn’t know what roadblocks we would encounter as all of the major roads were flooded. My buddy and I ended up in a zone where Barker Cypress Reservoir had been “slow released,” which added to already devastatingly flooded neighborhoods.
I felt helpless as the National Guard, and Cajun Navy showed up with military vehicles and swamp boats. All I had was a minivan and two, one man kayaks. As the day progressed, we saw frustration rising with the people manning the larger boats. These volunteers went door to door asking people to leave their homes due to mandatory evacuation. Many families were unprepared to leave, or in some cases, were unwilling to come out. The National Guard had to maneuver their large boats and move on to other homes with residents ready to evacuate. My friend went to the volunteers with the larger boats and suggested that we go out ahead of them in our kayaks and let the residents know that boats will be there in 15 minutes. This would prepare families who, if not notified, may have resisted evacuation. They agreed and we went door to door yelling “Large boats are on their way, pack what you need and be waiting at your front door in 20 minutes. They will pick you up!” Within an hour, our newly formed team was able to get almost 40 people to safety. Due to the amount of people being rescued, a small shelter with food, water, towels, and military taxi service was established at a small park just outside the development. Once everyone was evacuated, I took people to the local high schools where long term shelters had been set up.
After the fourth day of serving, after some much needed rest, my daughter and I went to an area near the Addicks Reservoir in the afternoon. When we arrived, we joined the Cajun Navy. The local law enforcement and military established a central meetup point at the Memorial City Mall, and we caravanned to that location. Much like the day before, we felt helpless with our small man-powered boats and van. Then we heard one of the National Guard leaders yell “Anyone with a man-powered boat, we need you at I-10 and Dairy Ashford Road, there is a gas leak, and we cannot use motorized boats.” Once again, our kayaks came in handy. We arrived at the launch site, and an estimated 200 other volunteers were there with canoes, kayaks, and paddle boats! Because there were already so many assisting in this area, we headed towards another affected area near the Barker Cypress Reservoir. When we arrived, we quickly noticed that there was no military drop point established and it didn’t appear to have an organized plan to rescue residents. We noticed an apartment complex that was about two feet under water and yelled to provide help. Thankfully, most people were already evacuated; however, many people were walking back through the waist high infested water to grab their pets, documents, and valuables. We placed the pets and belongings into our boat and carried them to shore. Each time we returned to our entry point, more and more people asked us to help with the same task. As the sun began to set, we let the residents know that we would return the following day. Later that evening, I reached out to several friends to help the next day.
The next morning, five friends and I went back to the same location. Unlike the day before, a drop-point was already established. The National Guard, the Cajun Navy, and CNN were already there. Similar to day three, we took the kayaks into the neighborhoods and notified stranded citizens that help was coming in 15 minutes. By the end of the day, the entire area was cleared, and National Guard advised civilians not to reenter. Due to a leaking water treatment facility, the water was now heavily contaminated and deemed unsafe.
On August 30th, my entire family helped by providing food and water. We reached out to some friends and headed up to a development in north Houston where every home was affected. Once there, half of us removed drywall and insulation from homes and the other half set up a food stand in the park. While at the park, a group of volunteers from Oklahoma brought grills, donated water, tons of food, and clothing, and used their tents and chairs for people to rest. For the next two days, we continued to help in this area.
I am so grateful that throughout the entirety of this storm, my network of friends and neighbors continually stepped in and helped out one another. At work, my team checked on each other almost hourly and grew stronger together. This event, though tragic, was such a testament to humanity. It brought my community, friends, and co-workers together in a way I never thought possible. Watching everyone put aside politics, race, religion, and any other barriers to just come together and help out our neighbors was such an amazing experience that I am forever grateful to have witnessed. We are Houston Strong.
Please view the following YouTube video highlighting the awesome power of love and compassion that I witnessed in during Hurricane Harvey. https://youtu.be/WtzYYoeH--0