Volunteering to help others for disaster relief is as life fulfilling as anything else we can do. Here are a few personal thoughts about helping out with hurricane relief efforts in Houston after Harvey.
How I came to Houston was a combination of an unexpected opening in my schedule and a memorable experience years ago in Louisiana after Katrina. My wife was away on a trip with her sisters, and everyone knew that there was extensive pain and devastation in Houston. Timing, opportunity, and need turned a whim into a fulfilling life experience.
Volunteering after a catastrophe is easy. While there are travel expenses – the flight, and I like to have a car - the logistics of organizing and mobilizing volunteers is often well handled by local churches. Churches are dialed in to the local needs at a more personal level than larger organizations. The impact may not be as broad, but goes deeper to people often unable to navigate government or large non-profit services, which are more organizationally rigid.
I discovered Parkway Fellowship through an easy online search and arrived on Wednesday afternoon. The place emanated energy, had more racial and ethnic diversity than I expected in Texas, and the staff was well organized. Churches draw a higher percentage of overall residents in the South than in New England, and this seems to contribute to heterogeneity in programs and membership, as well as skills contribution. By 8PM I had met the team (also from out of town) that I'd spend most of my time with, and a place to sleep.
Houston has an urban infrastructure problem. The city has been one of the country's fastest growing for several years (now third or fourth largest in the country), and while freedom from zoning regulation contributed to that growth, the lack of urban planning is reflected in – among other things - bad rainwater runoff management that exacerbated Harvey's effect, into vast neighborhoods across the socio-economic spectrum.
The human element
This failure contributed to some of the human tragedy we see today in Houston. I met a fellow who lives in a "500-year' flood plain, meaning FEMA believes the chance of a flood is 1 in 500 years. Federal mortgage requirements require insurance on homes in the "100-year" floodplain, but not in the 500-year plain. This guy has spent the last three years making his home his palace. After a few days of torrential rains, reservoirs were opened to save downtown: but the flow spread into thousands of homes (I heard the number 100,000, but can't confirm) within the 500-year plain. This guy's home stood in five feet of water by the end of the rains. Neither he nor thousands of others thought flood insurance was needed. How can you plan for that?
Harvey is the third 500-year storm in Houston in the past 50 years.
The work after a major flood involves removing everything that got wet: if there was a foot of water in the house, all flooring, three feet of drywall and insulation have to go... Not to mention dishwashers, AC compressors and other mechanicals, and of course, most of the furniture. For remaining studs and exterior walls an anti-mold agent needs to be applied. This is labor intensive, dirty, work that needs
The cleanup by neighborhoods
Houston's sidewalks are being cleared by specialty, large volume, refuse haulers hired by the counties. The word on the street is that the county will make three runs down every affected street (in the worst neighborhoods), picking up what's on the sidewalk each time. After each pickup, the remaining refuse pile has to be moved back out onto the sidewalk. Since some refuse covers entire lawns, people may need to hire their own roll-off dumpsters at their own expense if three trips isn't enough. (A roll-off costs about $2,500 these days)
The Future for Houston
There is talk in the neighborhoods and at city hall about how the infrastructure needs to be better designed to move water. Sitting on the eastern edge of the warm Gulf of Mexico, future storms with this much water aren't expected to take another 500 years to appear again. This is a clear need: watch how Houston addresses it.
A few final thoughts about Texas.
I heard from several people, "Texas is more than a state; Texas is a State of Mind." Texans don't wait; they do. Everyone I met was incredibly kind, and gracious, and appreciative. The picture of my clothes is an example. One day I'm working at the pastor's neighbor's house, cleaning off at a garden hose. The pastor's wife says, "Let me wash your clothes." She
doesn't even have a home to go to; she's staying with friends. And yet she returns these clean clothes to me (they were really dirty) at the end of the day, plus this cool phone charger than someone had donated to the church. Plus the awesome note, 'Texas Loves Boston'.
When the work was done, Texas music plays. Houston has a lot of work to do, but I'm looking forward to another visit there, next time, to play.