The Things I Learned After Hurricane Harvey

After the rains from Hurricane Harvey became floodwaters that ran through living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and home offices of the Houston suburbs, my two teenagers and I volunteered to spend a weekend helping to save flood-damaged homes in the area.

Once the waters recede, there is a 30-day window to remove all the black mold-infested sheetrock and insulation from a house. After that period, the mold begins to take hold in the studs, blocking, and joists. Once the structure is affected, the house may as well be razed, with only the value of the land remaining. It’s literally a race against the clock to muck out as many houses and save as many structures as possible.

As part of a local crew of Mormon Helping Hands, my two teenagers and I left Dallas at 5:00 am on Saturday morning, and arrived at our assignment near Beaumont, about 100 miles east of Houston. The area was a panoramic apocalypse: the entire contents of homes pulled outside and piled onto the streets like barricades in the French Revolution. Street by street. Block by block. We spent Saturday mucking out two homes, spent the night with about 500 other volunteers on cots and inflatable mattresses in the local junior high, woke Sunday morning, held an abbreviated worship service, and returned to work for the rest of the morning and afternoon.

Here are the things I learned from Hurricane Harvey:

People want to help.

Despite the kind of day you may have had, or the articles that populate most of our newsfeeds, there’s no shortage of good will in the world. When there’s a disaster, decent human beings — of which there are more than not — want to help.

Most people don’t know where to begin.

Fortunately, most of civilization isn’t well versed in responding to disasters. The downside to this is when we do need to act, we’re paralyzed with ignorance. How does a single well-intentioned person even begin to help clean up after a flood, a tornado, or an earthquake? Who do we feed? Who do we take in? No wonder it’s just easier to donate to the Red Cross.

On the other end of the spectrum, some may be so eager to help, their enthusiasm only gets in the way of people who know what they’re really doing. Anticipating the desire to act as soon as possible, our local congregations were told early on to resist driving to Houston until teams could be organized. As it turns out, organization is the key. And if you can belong to one, or align with one, helping out becomes a reality much quicker. (If you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend JustServe.org — a Craigslist for service projects.)

Disasters happen frequently enough there are established guidelines.

Before heading to Beaumont, every volunteer in our Plano-based group (3791 from North Texas) received a list of procedures for mucking out homes and dealing with mold. Safety gear and practices were clearly outlined. Necessary and helpful tools were listed. There were PDFs with bullet points and key words underlined. Clearly, we were about to help in ways that had been tested, vetted, and proved. All because disasters happen more often than we care to think. So there are guidelines. And fortunately, there are always volunteers willing to read through and use them.

Anything can happen.

None of the homes we worked on were in flood zones. But the waterline on the first house was nine feet high. All but the gables were submerged. The waterline on the second was a mere five feet; still high enough to submerge the reclining chair the owner probably watched Astros games in, and the desktop computer he used to track his mortgage payments.

Not being in a flood zone, none of these owners had flood insurance. It would be like people in Pittsburgh being insured against tornados. It’s possible, I guess. But who wants to pay for the absurd? Until, the absurd happens. Because actual floods don’t adhere to zoning.

Stuff is just stuff.

Hours after mucking out a house, the curbside is littered with water-damaged book cases, flood-soaked couch cushions, mold-infested mattresses, rolls of soggy carpet, cookware and framed art from Bed, Bath & Beyond, lawnmowers and computers and microwaves and vacuum cleaners that will never work again. A lifetime of accumulating stuff, and when your family’s life is not only spared, it’s all that remains, conspicuous consumption is no longer a priority. Most of the volunteers I know returned home with a sincere desire to purge their own material collections.

Except when it isn’t.

I saw so many water-ravaged photo albums. Pictures of kids from the 70s and wedding parties from the 90s. There were canvased paintings by adults and 8x11 drawings signed by children. I saw a couple family Bibles, and a couple manila folders marked “legal papers.” No one is sure how many pets went missing. We saved what we could. And didn’t want to think about all that we couldn’t.

Letting go is incredibly difficult.

One of the homes we helped muck out was owned by a gentleman in his 80s. Imagine that: You’re 80 years old, and everything in your house is out on the street. This man asked us to save his mattress. We had to show him the black mold on it and insist the health department would never let him keep it. He asked us to save the carpet. He said it was installed with a water-proof underlay and might just need to be dried out. We had to convince him antediluvian guarantees did not apply. He just stood back and watch well-meaning strangers walk out of his house with his belongings and pile them on a rising garbage heap.

I can understand why it’s better to have a team of strangers mucking out your house. We unceremoniously threw everything we could into sleds and carts, hauling load after load to an indifferent curb. Emotion doesn’t lend itself to efficiency.

Not all service is giving.

I’m accustomed to service as a form of giving. Money, clothing, blankets, blood. If we’re serving, we’re usually giving. But this was destruction. Reciprocating saws and sledgehammers. Technically, yes, we were giving time and labor, combating the more destructive forces of black mold. But taking a razor blade to mercilessly rip out carpet? Lobbing waterlogged electronics onto a trash heap and hearing them crack on impact? Literally sawing through walls? It’s not exactly a soup kitchen.

People with even a little training, being unified, can accomplish great things.

No one on our team had any professional training. Few of us had done this kind of work before. Even those of us who owned our own demo bars and rotary hammers hadn’t spent this kind of time with them. But knowing what our purpose was, understanding how we were going to remove the infected parts of the home, and having a sense of urgency, we went to work. That’s something I hope my own kids realize doesn’t just apply to flood-damaged homes.

This was really about my kids.

While I’m eager to help others, I’m far more eager to help my kids see the value in helping others. Garrison Keillor famously said, “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted.” Neither of my kids really wanted to spend the weekend working with neoprene gloves and N95 protective breathing masks. But neither of them will ever forget our weekend in Beaumont. Or the things they learned about themselves.

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