On the mornings of August 29 and 30, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s major flooding in Houston, I joined hundreds of volunteering doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, social workers, and chaplains to tend to some of 10, 000 flooded, homeless refugees sheltered in George R. Brown Convention Center. The Center’s capacity is for 5000 people, and the Red Cross ran out of cots, so many families slept on the floor. After being body searched by security guards and signing up to volunteer as a chaplain, I listened for hours to heart-wrenching stories of loss and trauma, and I witnessed countless acts of kindness and caring from volunteers. My training as a therapist and chaplain has been invaluable, and my fluency in Spanish has come in very handy. What follows are stories from some of the flood victims:
Dawn is in tears trying to soothe her traumatized 3-year-old autistic son, “Kash-with-a-K.” She tells me about being evacuated by helicopter from her quickly flooding home. In his stroller, Kash has stopped screaming and is fixated on a cartoon character in a video on his mother’s cell phone. Dawn explains that although he does not talk, he is very bright and can identify all the letters of the alphabet and numbers up to twenty. She uses a bag of crystals to calm him down enough to go to sleep at night. She is happy to hear that I worked for 20 years as a music therapist with people who have autism, and that I recognize their gifts. Dawn complains of vertigo and asks if I can find her a bottle of Gator Aid from the mountains of donations at one end of the huge hall. Because my hand is stamped with the letters “RC” (I assume for “Religious Counselor”), the policemen manning the gate to the metal barricade that protects donated supplies allow me to pass through. I search for a section where there are piles of bottled drinks, and a volunteer gives me a bottle of red Gator Aid.
Dawn receives the bottle gratefully and then requests a Dramamine pill to alleviate waves of dizziness. Even though I offer to watch her son, she doesn’t want to leave Kash to walk towards the far end of the building to the medical services area for an assessment. Amidst the seemingly endless rows of cots, I spot a medic in his white coat tending to a patient. I offer to ask him about Dawn’s condition. The medic listens kindly to my description of her symptoms and says that Dramamine is not indicated for dizzy spells associated with angst. Dawn accepts his assessment. As a meditation teacher, I suggest that Dawn try to calm herself by focusing on breathing deeply into her belly and by sensing the contact of her feet on the ground.
Just then, I notice a young woman holding a sign that reads, “Sensory deprivation area for special education children.” I hail her as she walks by, and explain that Kash has autism and is over-stimulated in the vast, brightly lit hall full of noisy people. “Sarah” nods with understanding and introduces herself as special education intern. She invites Dawn to bring Kash to a quiet, darkened corner at one end of the Convention Center. As Dawn sips her Gator Aid, I push Kash in his stroller, and the three of us venture out into the long wide hallway lined with Red Cross workers training groups of volunteers and tending to newly arriving, bedraggled refugees. Following Sarah’s instructions, we go to a fenced-in area guarded by police. When I explain our mission, a friendly volunteer approaches to stamp Kash’s small hand with a smiley face logo and to ask Dawn to sign in as the mother of a special needs child. We roll Kash’s stroller past tables piled with children’s books and games and past some Physical Education volunteers playing a ball game with a bunch of restless adolescent refugees. We come to another barricaded area guarded by police. They acknowledge the smiley face logo and allow us to pass through to a quieter, darkened area where Sarah and her colleagues have set up low-lying tables with drawing materials and simple educational games. Kash seems content to engage in artwork, and after a farewell hug, I leave Dawn with a kindly special ed. intern.
Christine is an 83-year-old black woman who is sitting on her cot next to her only daughter, Kathy. While Kathy tends to urgent calls on her cell phone, I listen to Christine; she has a need to tell me not only about their rescue from a flooding home but also about her whole life story. She describes growing up in Houston’s poor black Fifth Ward, where she was a tomboy with three unruly brothers and a goody goody sister, who tattled to their single, working mom about their naughtiness. After participating in desegregation sit-ins at Woolworth cafeteria, Christine went on to be the first black person hired at the Houston’s Bell Telephone Company. There, people spat at her and called her “nigger.” Despite being so anxious that her hair fell out in clumps and her skin broke out in hives, Christine says, “I believe in what Martin Luther King, Junior, said about all human beings being created equal regardless of the color of our skin. I was determined to stay at that job, and I retired after 27 years of service. I joined the workers’ union at the phone company and invited women to participate. When I had a heart attack and had to stop working, my co-workers gave me a huge retirement party.” By the time that Christine finishes reminiscing, she and I are friends. She invites me to write my name and website in her notebook so that we can stay connected. Christine agrees with another elderly black female refugee: “The good Lord is using this hurricane to teach us all to care for one another.”
Agnes is a 93-year-old Caucasian, wheelchair-bound woman with wispy white hair. When I approach her, she smiles sweetly and asks me to sit on her nearby cot to visit. She tells me about waiting alone in her apartment for her caregiver to arrive, while floodwater was rising halfway up the wheels of her chair. An Iraqi family in the neighboring apartment broke down her door to save her life and to drive her to the Convention Center for assistance. Agnes says, “I am so grateful for the kindness of my neighbors and all the volunteers here. I have been given food, water, dry clothes, and a doctor has checked my medical needs. I just want to call my nephew to let him know where I am.” I ask if she has a cell phone. She rummages through her purse and hands me something. I exclaim, “This is your T.V. remote control!” Agnes looks confused and rummages some more, finally emptying her purse. There is no cell phone in sight, and she admits, “I must have lost it during the evacuation.” When she cannot recall her nephew’s phone number, I reassure her that there is a list of all flood refugees so that relatives and friends can locate them. Agnes seems content to chat with a refugee in the adjacent cot, a feisty woman named Constance, whose son died of AIDS at Omega House hospice, where I do my chaplaincy internship. What a small world it is… (The following day when I go to check on Agnes, Constance reports that a family member arrived to give her safe housing.)
Edwin is a young, single father who fled from violent gangs in Honduras with three small children. In Spanish, he tells me that he has lost all his possessions in the flooding. His Mexican friend Silvestre tries to console him. I recommend that they talk to the volunteering social workers about signing up to receive FEMA funds to recover from this natural disaster. Although Silvestre has legal citizenship and a social security number, Edwin is undocumented. He has lost his job, his rented apartment and all his furniture. I assure him that Houstonians are giving generously to charities to help ALL victims of the hurricane. Silvestre confides that he returned from visiting his ill mother in San Luis Potosí just before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. This is the second time that he has lost everything in a major storm. He is delighted to hear that while I lived in Mexico for 15 years, I drove through his hometown of San Luis Potosí. I recommend that he visit Real de Catorce, an abandoned silver mining town near that city. When Silvestre confesses, “I’m afraid to go through the long miners’ tunnel to Real de Catorce,” I joke, “You’ve just been up to your neck in flood waters and evacuated by a boat and a helicopter, so you are brave enough to go through that tunnel!” Silvestre bursts out laughing, and Edwin gives me un abrazo goodbye.
Alvin, a short, skinny, five-year-old black boy is alone, bouncing a big rubber ball that a volunteer lent him to relieve his boredom. He looks up and catches my eye. I put down my backpack, hold up my arms, and he grins, tossing me the ball. We have a great time throwing the bouncy ball back and forth, until eight or nine of his young siblings and cousins surround us, yelling, “Lady, can we play too?” I nod and try to get the swarms of children to spread out and take turns throwing and catching the ball. Alvin clings to my leg and pouts, “What about me?” A bigger kid in a football tunic arrives and snatches the ball, bouncing it like a basketball player and evading all attempts at interception. I holler at him to “Share the ball!” He tosses it to me, and I do my best to give each yelling child equal opportunities to participate. From time to time, the parents look up from checking their cell phones to scream, “Boys, be nice to the Lady!” I am relieved when a volunteer teacher, wearing a ridiculous balloon hat approaches our gang to announce that a “balloon man” is in the children’s play area. All they need is one adult to come along to supervise while the balloon man creates hats for each of them. To my dismay, none of the children’s mothers are willing to leave the cots where they are lounging to accompany the children. Finally one of the uncles begrudgingly agrees to escort them. And I am off the hook! Alvin hugs me farewell, and his two sisters invite me to visit at their grandma’s house, “when the water is gone.”
Rick is a coal black, surly looking young adult with a diamond stud in one ear. He appears isolated and tough. I ask, “Is it OK if I sit with you for a bit?” He nods hesitantly. I say, “This looks really uncomfortable for you.” He nods, but doesn’t make eye contact. I ask, “How long have you been here?” He mutters, “Two days.” After a pause, he states, “I’ve got nowhere to go because I was staying in someone’s apartment when it flooded—don’t own anything myself.” I respond, “How hard.” Finally Rick looks me in the eye and admits softly, “I’m from a broken home and have nobody to help me.” I reassure him, “People here care about you. Give the volunteers social workers a chance to find you somewhere to live and support until you can get a job.” Rick eyes me skeptically, but says, “Thanks for caring.”
On September 2, I return to the Convention Center. At the volunteer check-in desk, I receive a piece of masking tape that reads “Ginger-Hablo español.” Nearby, a minister is dispensing waterproof mini-editions of the New Testament for chaplains and spiritual interns like me to distribute to Christian flood refugees who have lost their Bibles.
The vast room that was crammed with cots three days ago is now less densely populated, and pets that were in a separate area are now in cages close by the cots of their loved ones. Some of the smaller dogs are cuddling with their owners. I meet a hospice volunteer making the rounds with two small, placid Shetland dogs, Emiliana and Oliver, dressed in miniature Texan football garb. Emiliana has cheerleader pompoms on her front paws and seems unfazed by hoards of children lining up to pet her.
Cruz Roja volunteers from Monterrey and Saltillo, Mexico circulate to interact with Spanish-speaking refugees. When I welcome them in their native tongue, they are pleased to hear how much I love their homeland. After a Cruz Roja official lectures Evelyn for allowing one of her six children to wander unaccompanied into an adjacent hallway, I comfort her. Although she arrived in Texas twelve years ago from a warzone in Guatemala, she still does not speak English. She looks overwhelmed amidst her bevy of children and their four dogs. Jorge, the Mexican father of her youngest daughter, tells me, “Los ricos tienen drenaje.” (“The wealthy have drainage.”) When he departs for his part-time construction job, Evelyn tearfully reaches out for me to hug her. I inform her that in the hall near the volunteer desk some adults in Star Wars costumes are entertaining restless children. She perks up and prepares to escort her brood there for some welcome diversion.
In a semi-private niche beneath some beams, I see a handsome young black teenager sitting on a cot next to his sleeping girlfriend. I comment, “You found the best spot in the shelter!” He nods grinning, and introduces himself as “Dexter from New Orleans.” A refugee from Hurricane Katrina, he has learned to be resourceful.
I catch the eye of a friendly black woman with half of her hair died bright blue. Across her upper chest is a tattoo with her nickname, “Juicy.” She waves me over to confide, “I’m used to helping homeless people, not being one!” Spontaneously, Juicy shows me photos on her cell phone of her flooded house and complains that she had to stop working due to painful foot surgery. I commiserate as a fellow foot surgery survivor. Upset that Livingston Baptist Church is inundated, Juicy is planning to convene a prayer service for her neighbors in the church parking lot.
I see an overweight white woman sitting alone amidst messy sheets and blankets on her cot. Beside her, a damp Bible is drying out. I ask if she would like one of the waterproof copies of the New Testament that I am carrying in my backpack. Cathy introduces herself and accepts the gift gratefully, but she admits that due to her poor eyesight she needs a magnifying glass to read the small print. Suddenly I remember that in my purse I have a tiny plastic magnifying lens. As I hand it to her, Cathy exclaims, “This is one of God’s daily miracles!”
Jessica is sitting with her 24-year-old, wheelchair bound son Bryan, when I ask to join them for a while. She tells me that her obstetrician’s prognosis was that her dwarfed, retarded child would not survive three days of life, but that “Jesus Christ wants Bryan to be here.” I congratulate Bryan, and he smiles at me beatifically. When I offer her one of my waterproof editions of the New Testament, Jessica declares, “My favorite passage is John, chapter 3, verse 16.” Since she has lost her reading glasses, I read the verse aloud. Just then, a social worker named Mary approaches us to let Jessica know that, “John, from FEMA will be visiting you today to help you find a hotel room for tonight.” Jessica exchanges a meaningful glance with me and points heavenward: “Of course the FEMA official is named John!”
Ensconced in a wheelchair, Stacy introduces herself and adds, “I have lupus and OCD, and I’m caring for three cats: Baby Doll, Mickey Mouse, and Isis. They’re freaked out from being flooded. My brain-injured husband is in our daughter’s home because he can’t handle the stress of being here with so many people.” When a volunteer informs her that a hot lunch is being served in a hall at the other end of the Convention Center, Stacy replies, “It’s too far away.” She is touched when I offer to fetch her some lunch. I walk about a half mile through hall after hall filled with refugees, volunteers and cots. In a long lunch line, I meet John, a 40-year-old dancer with Biblical scripture tattooed on his face. We agree that we are learning spiritual lessons from Hurricane Harvey.
The authors of this post have spent the last 8 years associated with the Central Texas VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster). Please wait to donate/help until you know what is needed.
“Dear friends and family,
I know that many of you want to help the in the wake of the disaster going on in Texas. I’ve already seen posts where people want to gather items to donate from their homes to the recovery efforts. But please DON’T!
Having spent the last 2 plus years serving as chair of the Long Term Recovery Committee from the Memorial Day floods of 2015 in our county, I can tell you first hand that clothing, toys, and misc. household items only create more problems. Managing these items distracts from the major work of cleaning up, repairing, and rebuilding.
To truly help, please consider donating funds to a reputable organization that supports the rebuilding efforts. If you have “stuff” you feel you want to donate, do so through organizations like Goodwill or Caring Place. Food banks can also use help. But please do not think that donating clothing, toys, etc. will be the best way to help. Our Long Term Recovery Committee was able to address the needs of 95 families because of the money given to help buy materials for repairs and rebuilding. The mountains of clothes and household goods required storage and valuable volunteer time, which took away from actual rebuilding and repairs.
Also – Volunteers are the lifeblood of long-term recovery efforts. I can attest to the fact that people forget there was a disaster as soon as the media stops reporting about it. How many times did I hear, “Really? You are still working on that flood?” That was just three or four months after the flood! We are still rebuilding after over two years! Plan to volunteer and to gather teams from your church and neighborhood to volunteer too. Aside from money, that is the best thing you can give.
Thank you for wanting to help!
“Having lived through several disasters and managed emergency situations, a few suggestions:
1) This crisis is a long term thing. There are lots of people who want to help in the first few days. People disappear after a few weeks. If you want to be helpful, rest now. Show up in a month and again in six months when everyone else has forgotten and moved on.
2) Do not just show up. Not at a shelter, not in a disaster, not at a non-profit and expect someone trying to manage a crisis to find something for you to do. If you are untrained, make your availability known and wait until called. Otherwise, you may become another problem to be solved. And if you really are moved by this stuff, get trained. Learn a skill and sign up before the next crisis.
3) Donate to the small local organizations that are busting butt right now for their neighbors. Donate to churches and social service orgs, not the Red Cross or giant national orgs. They fly in and fly out. The church and org around the corner will still be there after the media has gone.
4) Don’t donate clothes. Donate money. Money to buy exactly what is needed is what orgs need. They don’t need to sort through mountains of unwashed pants and used purses.
5) Listen. We all care. But people needing to feel helpful is not more important than actually getting help to people who need it. If people running the show aren’t nice to you or turn you away, realize it is not about you. If you are safe and dry, ask how you can help and wait for an answer.
6) The people managing this stuff know what they are doing. Learn their systems and try to be helpful. Don’t walk into to a thing for the first time and start telling people how to do their jobs. This has happened to me in every single crisis I’ve ever managed or worked at. Someone who has literally been in the place for an hour comes and tells us how they’ve ignored our system and are doing it better. Not. Helpful. I now have to spend several hours fixing something.
7) And please. Don’t take pictures of yourself volunteering with people in crisis and post to social media. I guarantee you that the people in the shelter or busted house or whatever do not want to be blasted all over social media. A true kindness is to allow people privacy when they are in communal living. Privacy and dignity do not include being photographed in one of the worst moments of your life.
We all see suffering and want to do something. But please take a deep breath and make sure that something is actually going to be helpful. Unfortunately, there is time because this will be with us for a long time. Your neighbors need you. And they need you to listen to what they need.”