THEY WOULD PERISH TRYING TO SAVE CHILDREN, or be crushed by a tree while they slept. They would step on live wires hidden in murky waters and be electrocuted, drown in cars swept off roads or trapped in flooded underpasses, suffocate when oxygen tanks lost power. They would die in SUVs, swollen lakes, bayous, ditches and alleyways. Their bodies would be discovered everywhere—in a tree, against a fence in Galena Park, on the grass along the Eastex Freeway, a clock repair shop, a Walmart parking lot. By the time rescue crews arrived, there would be dead in Memorial, dead in Meyerland, in Dickinson and LaMarque, in Katy and the Houston Ship Channel.
On Friday, August 25, when the wind kicked up and the first raindrops began to fall, no one had any idea what tragedies would swiftly befall our city. Few could have predicted we’d soon be climbing into attics or huddling together on rooftops or clutching tree trunks to keep rivers from washing us away. It seemed unthinkable then that women, Houstonians, might ever go into labor in waist-deep torrents, that floodwaters would threaten to swallow up the elderly in nursing homes, patients in hospitals, cattle on farms. Areas of town that hadn’t flooded during Allison, the Tax Day floods, or the Memorial Day floods found themselves inundated.
Just a few days later, thousands would lose everything they owned—houses, cars, objects of value both great and sentimental—and thousands more would consider themselves lucky to have lost half as much. By the time it was over, every Houstonian would be touched by Hurricane Harvey in some way, all 6 million of us, yet on August 25 not one in a million knew what catastrophes lay in store.
Indeed, the only thing less expected than the storm itself was what it gave rise to. Even as the whole terrible drama was still unfolding and the waters were just ankle-deep—something began to happen, something as unforeseeable as a city underwater and more remarkable than 51 inches of rain. Something mighty, miraculous and quick. Men fighting losing battles with raging currents looked up and found, to their astonishment, that boats had appeared out of nowhere. Women had hardly been trapped when human chains formed out of thin air to rescue them. Mere minutes after desperate pleas were posted to social media, help arrived at doors all over town.
As the rain worsened and the debris piled up, so did the miracles. In an instant, teams of Houstonians converged on the bumpers of stranded, frightened drivers, heaving them to safety. Doctors canoed to boys in need of surgery. Policemen and SWAT officers and firefighters pulled the marooned from car roofs, capsized boats, and second-story windows, while unbadged Houstonians commandeered 18-wheelers and garbage trucks and jet-skis and rafts and air mattresses, all so they might save people they’d never met, strangers they invited into their homes without a second thought, or carted to furniture stores and churches, synagogues and mosques, whose doors had opened like magic.
And wonders didn’t cease when the soaked and shaken were brought to safety. Hundreds of volunteers greeted them at shelters, as did plenteous doctors and nurses. There were great piles of food and blankets and every conceivable necessity. Money too began to appear out of nowhere, Houstonians near and far having emptied their pockets so that others might have something, anything to put in theirs. The generosity overflowed, far faster than the dams and levees, kept coming long after the rivers crested, and continues unchecked to this day. That is a very good thing, as the road back to normalcy will doubtless be long for Harvey’s victims and our city, which has lost too many and too much.
Even as its skies darkened and waters rose, however, Houston seemed to gain things too—glimpses of its unique and beautiful soul, glimpses of what it truly is, what it truly might be. Perhaps such insights are by definition fleeting. Perhaps a city’s secret strength can be summoned only under the most awful of circumstances, when necessity forces its people to think beyond their own concerns, their own homes and families, their own races, religions and pocketbooks. And yet, that is exactly how most Houstonians think and live, not just on their blackest days but every day. In the end, all Harvey did was remind us of that. The storm’s only gift was a compass we already possessed. —Scott Vogel
As you read, you’ll find just a few of the countless stories born out of Harvey, of heroes from Houston and elsewhere doing amazing deeds. You'll also see many ways you can contribute to the rebuilding and recovery effort.
The Dynamic Duo
A tale of flooding, friendship, and neighbors helping neighbors
NORMA PORTER & BARB HANKINS
Friends to Those in Need, and Each Other, from Memphis and Manville
Photo: Jeff Balke
YOU WOULD THINK the two women had known each other forever. They had an easy way with one another and completed each other’s sentences. But they’d met only days before, on Sunday, August 27, at 4 a.m.—in the thick of Harvey’s havoc—at the sprawling Brompton Court Apartments, located right on Brays Bayou near the Medical Center.
Worried about the rain, Barb Hankins, who was staying in her daughter Meghan’s second-floor apartment, stepped into the hallway with the thought of checking on her car. It was pitch-black, the power off. She promptly bumped into Norma and David Porter, a couple from Memphis who were staying in the same building—number five—but on the first floor, while David underwent radiation for throat cancer at MD Anderson. Their apartment was starting to fill with water.
The Porters had heard that all the cancer patients were gathering in apartment 647—Brompton Court is full of students, patients, and medical professionals of every stripe—but, given the darkness and the size of the building, they couldn’t find it.
“There was this nice lady who said, ‘Hey, do y’all need something?’” Norma recalled, speaking with a reporter five days after the storm, sitting at a table in Meghan’s tidy, unflooded apartment, elevated a level above a chaotic scene: rooms being stripped, bombed-out cars, and piles of trash everywhere, with the line where the water reached tracing its way around the entire complex. “It was this lady,” she added, pointing at Barb, whom she’s since nicknamed the Team Captain of All Captains.
The women stayed together while David searched for number 647. He returned dejected. “There’s a bunch of families up there,” he told his wife. “You could just see his face like, ‘Oh my god,’” remembered Barb. “I said, ‘Well you got an LSU hat on, my daughter went to LSU, you’re family. You can camp here.’” The women started carrying baskets of the Porters’ things up to the second floor. They were on their last trip—and David was telling the group in 647 the couple had made other arrangements—when a woman came running down the hallway.
“She’s screaming,” Barb recalled. “She sees me … she goes, ‘Help me, help me, my friend’s having a baby.’ I get goosebumps right now telling you. And I turned to her I said, ‘Yes! I’ll help you.’ And I said, ‘My friend can help you.’”
Barb, an office manager for an oil-and-gas management company who lives in Manville, south of Houston, had no idea that Norma worked as a nurse in Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, the two didn’t yet know each other’s names. It would be hours before they thought to introduce themselves. Both were wearing the clothes they’d slept in. Barb wasn’t wearing a bra. Norma wasn’t wearing shoes. They didn’t think to tell David before setting off, didn’t hesitate for even a second.
They were in building five; the pregnant woman was in building one. The water was now chest-deep and cold, and darkness enshrouded everything. Barb and Norma walked straight into it and set out to find the other building—no easy task in a complex spanning blocks.
When they got there, the two found several members of a Chinese family (who declined to be interviewed for this story). Mom’s water had broken; she was lying in bed; her contractions were four minutes apart. The family had been dialing 911 over and over again.
“Everybody was afraid but her,” recalled Barb. “She was the calmest person I ever met.” Mom only spoke Mandarin, but her husband spoke some English. “I introduced myself and what my profession was,” remembered Norma. “I said, ‘Are you okay with me being here?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’”
“I left her with the patient,” remembered Barb. “I said, ‘We gotta find doctors. This whole complex is full of them.’”
“Barb said, ‘What do you need?’” Norma recalled. “I said, ‘I need towels, I need blankets, I need bowls, I need clamps.’” Barb set off through the complex, wandering the hallways, also asking for alcohol, peroxide, hemostats, sutures. “People started swinging me things,” she said. Others fanned out with the same purpose.
Eventually, two residents—a Mandarin-speaking internal medicine doctor from Baylor and an OBGYN at Memorial Hermann—showed up and began to prepare for delivery. The assembled group, which added and subtracted members as the minutes ticked past and Mom’s contractions got shorter, stayed on their phones, trying to get help.
Eventually, someone got through. Barb waded back across the water and made everyone PB&J sandwiches. Contractions continued to shorten, and the group waited, Barb and Norma still in their wet, itchy clothes.
As they did, they came across residents performing good deeds large and small. There was the man who ran through the complex waking up first-floor neighbors, coaxing the elderly to higher ground and breaking windows to save dogs whose owners hadn’t been able to get back to them. There were the man who’d picked up and carried a medical professional across the water to building one.
And there was the young man who took his red shirt off and gave it to Barb, no questions asked, so she could stand in the water, on the hood of a flooded Mercedes SUV, and wave it in the air as a Coast Guard helicopter descended—first for what turned out to be 15 trapped people, then for Mom and Dad, somewhere around 10 hours after that frantic woman had run through the hallways looking for help. (“We never saw her again,” said Norma. “No, I did,” corrected Barb. “Her son later gave me a croissant.”)
The helicopter hovered above the roof of building one, where a floaty Norma had bought for David, hoping he could relax in the apartment pool, was hanging out the window; multiple people stood on the roof, wildly waving. Mom’s contractions were 45 seconds apart, but she had no choice but to climb a narrow fire escape on the side of the building. Norma followed close behind, ready to catch her if she fell.
Mom and Dad were airlifted into the helicopter and carried to Children’s Memorial Hermann, and good thing. As it turned out, she needed an emergency C-section.
As for Norma, Barb and David, their journey was just beginning. Barb told her own husband she couldn’t come back to Manville yet. Instead, she stayed with the Porters at Brompton Court, then at her nearby office after it regained power; days after the storm, someone handed the couple a hotel voucher and everyone finally got a hot shower. When businesses began to reopen, Barb took the Porters for groceries and to Ragin’ Cajun, and also ferried David to radiology appointments. She even braved high water to do everyone’s laundry.
“This is what I want to say, after all this, and I’ll try to say it without crying,” said Norma, nodding to Barb. “She said, ‘I’ve been told to try to find one thing to do for one person,’ and she said, ‘You’re that person.’” But there was more than just one thing, or just one person.
David, who stayed quiet during most of Barb and Norma’s interview with Houstonia, spoke up. “I will tell you, if you ever heard in your lifetime, what goes around comes around, you do good things, good things come back to you? Well, I’ll get emotional for this, because I’m an emotional guy, especially after doing radiation, but when Katrina hit …”—he paused as his voice broke— "…my wife and I were fortunate enough that I was able to take my truck … and I think I had about 600 gallons of diesel and gas, and I was able to take it and distribute it. And I honestly feel that by us doing that, that’s why she picked me up”—he pointed to Barb—"and brought me to a clean environment with my cancer. I believe that.”
David had completed his radiology treatments, and the next day he and Norma were heading back to Memphis. The couple and the Team Captain of All Captains were finally going their separate ways but planned to keep in touch. And they were happy to report that they’d heard from the family they’d befriended.
Mom was doing great, as was Harvey, the new baby. —Catherine Matusow
Risking it all to save others
GLEN & ALEX MAYO
HPD Divers from Westchase
Photo: Jeff Balke
THE FLOOD WATERS WERE RAGING through South Lake Houston Parkway. What was typically a quiet suburban street had become a treacherous river, thanks to Harvey’s rains. Alex and Glen Mayo pulled up in their boat. A short distance away, three men—members of the Cajun Navy whose boat had capsized during their own rescue efforts—clung to a tree, now in danger themselves. Without looking back, Alex leapt straight into the water.
Both father and son are members of the Houston Police Department’s Dive Team, trained for exactly this type of high-risk situation. But Glen was afraid for Alex not as a colleague, but as a father. His eyes betrayed terror as, days later, he recalled the moment. “My son went into the water, into the current,” he said, his voice cracking. “As a parent, that was one of the toughest things for me.”
Soon, everyone was safe onboard the boat, thanks to some careful maneuvering by Glen, some rope, help from a few other officers, and Alex’s bravery getting to the men in the first place. The Mayos took a moment to snap a selfie to send to worried loved ones. “Don’t worry,” texted Glen. “We’re okay.”
Alex and his father have been diving together since he was a boy. “I knew this is what I was going to do since I was 12,” said Alex. Glen himself has been hooked—and served on the HPD Dive Team—for decades. After a seven-year stint in the Army, Alex joined his father in 2014.
The Mayos take rotating on-call shifts with the Dive Team. The rest of the time, Alex serves with the South Gessner Tactical Unit, while Glen is a K9 officer at the airport. Most dive operations, they say, are relatively routine: drownings, evidence retrieval, car accidents that end up in the bayou or Houston Ship Channel. But Glen has seen his share of floods, including 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison. And Harvey, he explained, was a completely different animal.
“In Allison, I was in a confined area,” he said. “But in Harvey, we’ve been all over the city and outlying parts of the county.” The storm presented unique challenges, including the need to maneuver through city streets not knowing what lurked beneath the water, from submerged cars to street signs to fire hydrants.
Often, evacuees were panicked, their pets frightened. “One lady had a small kitten wrapped in a blanket,” Glen recalled. “I said, ‘Give it to me.’ I’m holding this kitten with one arm and trying to fight swift currents with the other.”
Both worked for more than 35 hours straight without sleep and little food. In the end, they rescued well over 3,000 people, they estimate, between the 16 officers assigned to the dive team. One of the scariest scenes was an apartment complex on Woodforest Drive in northeast Houston. Greens Bayou had swollen, surrounding the three-story building with what was essentially a fast-moving river.
“The currents were just ripping,” said Glen. “There were people on the roof screaming, water in the building like you wouldn’t believe.” With help from the military, other officers from around the country, and quite a few civilians, they managed to get every single person out of the complex safely.
And despite having to save a few of the volunteer helpers, Glen said he’s incredibly thankful for everyone who assisted in rescue efforts. “There’s no way we could have pulled everyone off the roofs by ourselves,” Glen said. “Thank God for the Cajun Navy.”
Father and son said they won’t forget experiencing, firsthand, the outpouring of help on display on TV and through social media. Alex recalled people running up to him during the storm. “They saw the police patches and said, ‘Where do you need me? What can I do?’ It was really touching.” —Jeff Balke
Picking up the pieces again, and again, and again, and again
Rescuer, Church Volunteer from Greenspoint
Photo: Daniel Kramer
AS HARVEY STALLED OVER HOUSTON, Keshia Thomas decided to start conducting search and rescue around her northside Greenspoint neighborhood. But her car, a low-to-the-ground Toyota Solara convertible, decided to join the half-million other vehicles ruined by floodwaters. So, as we all do, she put out a call to Facebook: Who has a truck?
“This is what it takes, this is what community looks like, this is what love looks like, this is what America looks like,” she said into her camera from the cab of a semi-truck bouncing down Beltway 8. “I did ask for a big truck,” the Facebook Live caption read.
Some might know Thomas from 1996, when she—an 18-year-old black woman—served as a human shield for a Klansman at an Ann Arbor, Michigan, protest that turned violent. A photographer captured that moment, and it was named one of the LIFE photos of the year. “It was the right thing to do,” she told Oprah Winfrey about that day.
In the years that followed, she volunteered at Ground Zero (arriving from Michigan, of course, with a semi-truck of supplies). She served with the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. In 2013, she moved to Houston, and during Harvey, carried others to safety in that semi, including an epileptic boy. And in its aftermath, she’s helping lead relief efforts out of her church on West Greens Road.
Green House International Church occupies the hollowed-out space of a former Kroger in Greenspoint. A liquor store is the next-door neighbor, the marquee a temporary vinyl banner tied to the building (the church moved to this location in January). When we visited the church days after the storm, its interior was divided into two halves: on one side, rows of tables covered with donations of food and clothing and supplies, and on the other, rows of chairs in front of a stage—the church. They were giving out free haircuts, free clothes, free meals—whatever was needed.
“The only time we’ll stop is for church service on Sunday for a few hours,” said Pastor E.A. Deckard. “We’ll praise God, and soon as we catch our wind, we’ll go right back to doing this.”
Strangely, the vibe of the whole space was that of a block party, which was maybe half attributable to the shamrock-green curtains—part of the normal décor—and half to people like Thomas. “When we did a kickoff with the volunteers,” she recounted, “I said, ‘The most important tool that you have in your toolbox is your smile and your attitude, because that travels.’”
For days, Thomas had been broadcasting live via Facebook, soliciting donations of food, money, and good vibes, which were coming from near and far through the church’s automatic doors. She’d been playing with children, going on Target runs, connecting locals with resources.
Late one afternoon, taking a break in a back room for a slice of cold Little Caesars, she marveled at the spectacle of it all through a galley window looking out on the church. “Take a look around,” she said. “Nobody here is getting paid. Not a single person. But they’re here. And they’ll be here. Doesn’t that make you feel some type of way?”
The answer was yes. But did the repetitiveness of it all ever get to her? Katrina was 12 years ago, Ike was 9 years ago, and then Harvey came along. Green House had just had a backpack drive, but needed school supplies more than ever. The church, like so many others, had to start all over again.
But no, Thomas said, she wasn’t discouraged. Instead, she pointed to the eternal wisdom of Fraggle Rock, in which the doozers—the building Muppets—are forced to rebuild over and over again. It’s a plot point that never really made sense to her until recently.
“Things are going to come and eat your structures and your things up, your backpack drive up,” she said. “But you just keep going. You keep building. What other option do you have? I refuse to surrender.” —Morgan Kinney
JUST DO IT
Making a difference without asking permission
GRB Volunteer from Montrose
Photo: Todd Spoth
ON AUGUST 30, RONNIE DeVRIES PUT OUT A VIDEO for the Houston Chronicle website, calling for volunteers to work the graveyard shift at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the city’s makeshift downtown shelter for hurricane evacuees. He did it because there was a desperate need—well, that, and because he happened to run into his neighbor, Chron reporter Brian Rogers, who recorded his plea.
DeVries made the 60-second video on his way out to the convention center for the third night in a row. “We need people for the night crews,” he said, wearing an H-Town Navy shirt, blinking away sleep, and, at one point, accidentally referring to the GRB as NRG Stadium. “I ran out of people last night on the graveyard shift.”
The man isn’t the type to wait for instruction, or for permission to act; he just does what needs to be done. Which explains both that spur-of-the moment video, and how he ended up coordinating a team of volunteers through the chaos at the GRB in the hours after Harvey hit Houston.
A lifelong Houstonian, DeVries also assisted with volunteer efforts when evacuees were moved to Houston after Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. “I knew from experience that people wanted to help, but it takes a while to get mobilized,” he said. He didn’t want to deal with any red tape. “I decided to just go in and act authoritative.”
He had a good idea of the layout of the GRB thanks to his job as manager for TXRX Labs, Houston’s “hackerspace,” which offers everything from jewelry-making classes to machine-shop instruction, in addition to assisting with events at the center, including Comicpalooza.
When DeVries arrived there Monday morning during a lull in the rain, “the number of people coming in was insane,” he said. “Not just evacuees but volunteers.” He skipped the line of helpers, instead entering the building through a loading dock. He then registered with the Red Cross. Another volunteer introduced him to Annise Parker, whom he shadowed for a few hours.
“That opened some doors for me,” he said.
Particularly as relief efforts kicked off, things were disjointed at the GRB, DeVries said, and scattershot. So, he and some other people decided to form a spontaneous leadership group to help get things organized, designating point-people for various tasks.
Soon, he and his cohorts started calling themselves the H-Town Navy, and the inevitable T-shirts, donated by a local print shop, followed. They weren’t just for show, though: The group used them to indicate their main coordinators.
According to other volunteers Houstonia spoke with, DeVries was instrumental in avoiding overlap in efforts, as well as miscommunication among the thousands of volunteers who showed up. Several people commented on his ability to recognize a need and fill it, as groups that would be providing support for the long haul, like FEMA and the Red Cross, established order.
As for his opinion on those groups, DeVries said it was complicated. The Red Cross was already on the ground registering volunteers when he first arrived at the GRB; they just needed some help. “I’m just some jackass off the street,” he said. “In my opinion, the ball wasn’t dropped. Because no one schedules a hurricane.”
A week after the storm first made landfall, DeVries had handed off his duties and decided to take a much-needed rest. He was brainstorming ways that TXRX Labs might serve the needs of Houstonians post-flood by, for example, offering free construction classes.
But a few days later, he was already back at the GRB, helping to provide necessary resources to people whose homes had flooded. “Apparently,” he said, “I just can’t keep my nose out of stuff.” —Brittanie Shey
“Are you looking at the hurricane again?” My wife was glaring at me across our grocery cart inside H-E-B. “Because, if you are, I’m going to have you declared mentally insane.”
It was nearly a week after Hurricane Harvey had ravaged the city, and I was still obsessed, now with Hurricane Irma. I’d checked my phone three times since we’d pulled into the parking lot, and we were only at the produce section. I’d long been fascinated with weather, but rarely had I been able to follow a storm with such precision and detail.
During Harvey, I created what my wife referred to as a “command center” in our kitchen. All the outlets were in use, connected to computers, tablets and phones, but also portable chargers and UPS battery backups, in case of a power outage that, for us, fortunately never came. That first night of ceaseless rain, sleep was impossible. I stood there, transfixed by the tragedy unfolding on the screens in front of me. Harvey, I realized, was America’s first major natural disaster of the modern tech era.
I made liberal use of weather websites and resources like Eric Berger and Matt Lanza’s Space City Weather, the National Hurricane Center, and Tropical Tidbits, a remarkably advanced weather-tracking website complete with the kind of computerized weather modeling typically found only in labs (and the page I kept looking at a week later at H-E-B). These sites, along with apps like Weather Underground and NOAA Hi-Def Radar, made it possible to track Harvey and monitor incoming rain bands throughout that first sleepless night and the days that followed.
I also spent plenty of time on the Harris County Flood Warning System. While it occasionally struggled to handle the load of requests, it was invaluable to Houstonians, allowing us to monitor water levels along area bayous and creeks. Cole Creek, behind our neighborhood, got within three feet of the top. Then, as the water rose, traffic websites and apps helped to guide what few people remained on the roads around treacherous conditions, while traffic cameras gave a glimpse of the worsening crisis and played host to dramatic rescue efforts.
Even after the rain finally ended, technology became the bridge between those needing help and those offering it. Local hackers Sketch City created ShelterBot, which helped volunteers and donors find nearby shelters in need, while fundraising sites like YouCaring helped JJ Watt raise over $33 million for Harvey relief efforts. And websites like I Have Food I Need Food popped up seemingly overnight.
Meanwhile, friends sent money to my wife and me via PayPal and Venmo, cutting out the middleman and allowing us to purchase socks for first responders, baby items for evacuees, and kennels for displaced pets.
But there was no more powerful resource throughout the ordeal than social media. Much maligned, sometimes with good reason, Twitter and Facebook literally saved lives during Harvey. Even with power outages across the region, phones connected to cellular networks kept people connected. Rescuers like the Cajun Navy, coordinating efforts with apps like Zello, used social media to find those in need of rescue. And the tens of thousands of people posting during the storm served as their own lifeline, both to those in real need and those who stayed dry but still needed support.
As the storm wound down, Instagram and YouTube filled with footage of both devastation and heroism, and provided us with a digital record of what we faced and how we overcame.
My little command center has been retired for now. And for the record, I did turn off my phone before my wife had me committed at the H-E-B. But of course, soon I was back at it, tracking Irma, and I’ll do it all over again the next time a hurricane forms over the Atlantic. Distracting as it may be, technology has become more than games and texts and selfies. It’s now a lifesaver. —Jeff Balke
A Cup of Comfort
Opening doors, and unleashing something amazing
CAT HUYNH & ANGIE DANG
Restaurateurs, Emergency Meal Suppliers from Katy
Photo: Todd Spoth
The day before Harvey attacked the Bayou City in earnest, Cat Huynh and Angie Dang made a judgment call to close their modern Vietnamese restaurant, Les Ba’Get in Montrose, indefinitely. As the couple’s Facebook post explained, they made the decision to ensure the safety of their employees. And employees were safe. “Luckily, this whole Montrose area, nothing really happened to it,” Angie later told Houstonia. The restaurant was untouched.
But when water was released from the Addicks Reservoir on September 1, Cat and Angie found themselves trapped in their Katy neighborhood. As the couple watched Facebook, they saw that their friends, chef Richard Knight (most recently of the now-closed Hunky Dory) and his wife Carrie Jean Knight, were trying to assemble chefs to gather and prepare food for first responders. “They were feeling helpless,” said Carrie Jean. Though they couldn’t leave Katy, they could offer their restaurant and its supplies. “The fact that they trusted us with their baby, that’s like handing somebody the keys to your Porsche,” she added.
On the night of Monday, August 28, Les Ba’Get manager Jen Su was able to get to the restaurant and let the Knights into the kitchen. The couple had spent the day rescuing people from flooded homes, but they were looking forward to helping within their own milieu. “Whatever we had, they were more than welcome to use,” said Angie, “for all the first responders and all the law enforcement.”
As was the situation at many restaurants after the flood, the walk-in cooler at Les Ba’Get was low on produce. But there was plenty of protein. That night, volunteers began folding Vietnamese spring rolls. Cat and Angie shared their recipes, so the rolls would be just right. The crew boiled pots of pho, too.
They brought both to the Police Officers’ Union on State Street. “The cops were so thrilled. Being from Houston, that’s comfort food,” said Richard of the emergency pho. “Houston being so multicultural, to have that warm soup and that crunchy spring roll when they couldn’t go home—they were shoving spring rolls in their faces like they were hot dogs.”
From the first night’s skeleton crew of 20, the group ballooned to 50 volunteers, all bustling in and out of Les Ba’Get’s kitchen. Carrie Jean created the Facebook group Houston Service Industry for Harvey Relief, to gather not only the people but the supplies necessary to feed about 1,000 people each day, including evacuees at George R. Brown Convention Center.
That Wednesday, the restaurateurs were finally able to escape Katy, though it took two hours to navigate around blocked roads and reach Montrose. And that night, they poured beers for everyone present to thank them, and gifted the Knights with a bottle of double-cask Macallan Scotch.
But it was all just beginning. Soon, the volunteer effort merged with a few similar initiatives already underway and moved into a larger space in the former SEARCH Homeless Services building at 2505 Fannin Street, now known as the Midtown Kitchen Collective. There, service-industry veterans and other volunteers crafted hot food and sandwiches all day from goods donated by restaurants, distributors and the public. One day, the crew produced 1,865 sandwiches in an hour. Organizers estimated that they’d made more than 200,000 meals before handing the effort off to charity Second Servings, which shares prepared food from restaurants and events with those who need it.
As for Les Ba’Get, it quickly reopened—albeit with an abbreviated post-Harvey menu at first. Not that its owners stopped giving during those tumultuous early days, as they continued to arrange drop-offs in Midtown via Facebook. “They are that smile, that warm food hug that comforts people,” said Carrie Jean. “They are that personified.” —Alice Levitt
Winging it to save the animals
Bat Rescuer from Weatherford, TX
Photo: Daniel Kramer
AT THE HOTTEST PART of a cloudless day, inside a dim, vacant parking structure overlooking Buffalo Bayou, Erica Quinzel’s worst fear came to pass.
“I’m inside the garage now,” she texted a Houstonia reporter that afternoon, the Friday after the storm. “They are all dead.”
The 29-year-old bat-care specialist had been battling for days to get back inside that garage, where, after the rain let up, a security guard had found her collecting bats either too wet or too weak to fly back to their colony. Quinzel explained that she was only there to rescue the animals, which would die without her help. The guard explained that he was going to call the police. “Literally, as he was kicking me out,” Quinzel said, “I’m grabbing and hooking bats to my shirt just to get them on me.”
She trespassed for a reason. Before Harvey, a famed colony of at least 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats wedged themselves into the nooks and crannies of the Waugh Drive bridge that spans the bayou near the parking garage. But bats require a vertical drop to take flight, and by the time Harvey’s floodwaters swelled to meet the bridge, it was too late for many to escape.
Quinzel’s T-shirt announced her affiliation with Bat World Sanctuary, which is in Weatherford, half an hour west of Fort Worth. After innoculation against rabies and an apprenticeship, that’s where she’s spent mornings and evenings for the last five years, caring for animals for no salary, although onsite housing is provided.
Monday, when the worst of Harvey’s rain had passed, she and her Bat World team gathered some life vests, bought a boat, and headed toward a historic flooding event. Her day job—a store manager gig at mall staple Spencer’s—would have to wait.
After putting out a call on Bat World social media, Quinzel zipped about Montrose collecting displaced bats in mesh carriers before spending hours injecting the dehydrated bats with electrolytes and feeding them hydrolyzed protein, a hand-mixed slurry of ingredients to fill their sunken stomachs with nutrition. She hardly slept.
At sunset that Thursday, Quinzel crouched on the slope of the bayou, her black combat boots partially covering a large, photorealistic leg tattoo of a lesser longnose bat spreading its wings. The survivors of the Waugh Bridge colony were starting to emerge for the night, and her restored bats were about to rejoin the group. One by one, the palm-sized, wrinkled flying mammals emerged from the carriers, unfurled their wings, and flew off into the chirping mass.
The next day, when Quinzel finally got back into the parking garage and sent that text, she was dismayed as she surveyed the dehydrated, caved-in bat carcasses littering the six-level structure. She had, however, saved close to 400 bats, almost singlehandedly, not to mention a few squirrels and a bullfrog with a missing leg. Despite the casualties, two popped truck tires, and nothing but half a slice of cheese pizza in her stomach, she felt some satisfaction. “Even if I save just five bats,” she said, “that’s what I do.” —Morgan Kinney
The 82 deaths that occurred throughout the region during Harvey were 82 too many. But compare that to Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,833. Certainly, the efforts of regular citizens helped save lives here. But we should also be grateful for the steady leadership of local government officials. As we move forward, Houston can and should ask questions about what could have been done better. But we could have done a lot worse. —Sarah Rufca Nielsen
When Governor Greg Abbott advised Houstonians to evacuate, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county’s de facto CEO, contradicted him forcefully and in unison—and calmly defended and explained the decision for days in the face of national scrutiny. Their public updates were frequent, matter-of-fact and live-streamed on Facebook throughout the days-long disaster, with rumors addressed and usually debunked in real time.
Meanwhile, Turner made tough decisions about mandating evacuations in Memorial and imposing a curfew in a timely fashion, based on conditions on the ground, not pressure, optics or politics. The mayor also responded to community feedback on the curfew by being flexible and adjusting its hours.
HPD Chief Art Acevedo, a relatively recent arrival from Austin, showed Houston how he’d earned the respect of his officers, jumping into action alongside other first responders, working impossibly long hours during the height of the crisis, taking a hard line against looting, and speaking movingly of 34-year HPD veteran Sgt. Steve Perez, who tragically drowned on his way to work.
The storm made a hero of Harris County Flood Control District Meteorologist Jeff Lindner, whose calm, composed, near-constant presence in the media and on Twitter made him a trusted and valuable resource for Houstonians. As the days passed, Linder became more and more popular. His new fans even started a GoFundMe to buy him a vacation (he opted to donate it to flood victims instead).
When it came to housing and feeding evacuees, it was Houston Director of Housing and Community Development Tom McCasland who stepped up to handle the massive logistical challenge, scaling up from the planned 5,000 cots to house 9,000, virtually overnight. He also pulled together a team to handle the overwhelming donations and pivoted mid-storm to find a way to keep evacuees with their pets.
Paddling into action and saving lives
THE FINLEY FAMILY
Rescuers, Kayakers from Maplewood
Photo: Daniel Kramer
HELENA AND DAVID FINLEY GAVE UP TRYING TO STOP THE WATER from getting into their home around four in the morning on Sunday, in the thick of Harvey’s never-ending downpour. They live in Maplewood, near Meyerland, two streets back from Brays Bayou, and they would come to feel lucky, because their home sits on the high end of their street. “We only got about seven inches,” Helena said. “Our neighbors down the street, the water was chest-high.”
At first light, the two began knocking on doors, checking on people. Their elderly neighbors said they needed help, that they wanted to get to their daughter, who was nearby in a home that had remained dry. “So we got the boats out,” Helena said.
The Finleys were uniquely situated to perform what Helena estimated grew to 60 water rescues that day. A native of South Africa, Helena is a former kayak coach who’s completed the Colorado River 100, a 100-mile canoe race from Columbus to Bastrop, six times; she came to Houston more than 30 years ago on a swimming scholarship to UH. David also kayaks, and the couple’s son, James, was packing for college the weekend Harvey hit—he’s attending the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, on his own swimming scholarship, this fall.
The Finleys pulled out two double kayaks and a canoe from their garage, and for the next 14 hours, worked to get those stranded in their severely flooded neighborhood to safety. There was a woman who had four dogs with her. There were two families of four. There was a mother walking through the water with three small children balanced on an inflatable raft. There was an elderly woman who didn’t want to leave. “Her son-in-law told us, ‘You just have to go in and tell her she’s going,’” Helena remembered.
There was the man who spoke little English and had abandoned his car in the floods trying to get home from his job; he’d been walking for hours. “His home was on the other side of Brays Bayou; we had to tell him, ‘There’s no way you’re going home tonight.’” They set up a camping mattress in their home for him to stay the night, along with an elderly couple who had nowhere else to go; the Finleys’ daughter Catherine looked after the guests during the ordeal.
At one point, a City of Houston dump truck pulled up and began loading evacuees; the Finleys brought out a ladder and used their kayaks to ferry people from their homes to the truck. As Helena was loading up a family, she noticed a woman waving a towel to get her attention. “She told me she needed help—her husband was on oxygen, and she was worried it was running out,” Helena said. She dispatched her son, James, to get them with the canoe.
The towel-waving woman had helped her husband, with his sensitive medical equipment, to the attic. The water was approaching their kitchen countertops. The man, who is immune-compromised, had open sores on his body and couldn’t touch the flood waters. So James picked him up like a baby and carefully set him, his medical supplies, and the couple’s two dogs into the kayak, before carrying them to dry land and helping them get to a safe place with family.
Helena stressed that what her family did wasn’t unique. “We are just one of thousands of people that were doing exactly the same thing. We, as a family, physically are relatively strong, and we’re lucky that we could do that for people,” she said. “The greatest thing Harvey has given us is the spirit of kindness and giving; we live in a fantastic city, and it’s the people that make it great. You have to look at the silver lining, and that’s it.” —Roxanna Asgarian
Using Facebook to feed babies
Breastfeeding-equipment-donation coordinator, from First Ward
Photo: Todd Spoth
CELINE BENAVIDES' 2-YEAR-OLD'S BIRTHDAY PARTY was supposed to take place on August 28. Needless to say, Benavides canceled it, and when she did, she decided to make a request of friends and family: that they send her breastfeeding equipment, bottles, formula, diapers, bags, pumps and other supplies she knew nursing mothers were going to need in the days ahead.
“All that stuff is so expensive,” said Benavides, an L.A. transplant who rode out her first hurricane unscathed in her First Ward home with her family. “These people have lost their homes,” she said. “They already have extra expenses.” Soon, donations were arriving from her network of friends back home in California, as well as her mommy-group Facebook buddies.
“They were coming from people I’ve hardly ever talked to. I’m getting donations from complete strangers,” she said, adding, “I probably shouldn’t be putting my address out there, but I wanted to cut out the middle man.”
With each delivery of donated supplies, she steamed, sanitized and packaged the equipment, then delivered it to local shelters and other community centers. Facebook friends also sent her money, which she used to purchase other much-needed items for displaced Houston parents. (She even got in touch with the manager of her local Target via Facebook, who gave her his employee discount to use.)
“A very large percentage of Americans go to Facebook for their news,” said Benavides, who moved to Houston in 2010 for a job at the Texas Medical Center. “I think there’s a lot of power in sharing a story or sharing an experience. It helps to project a level of empathy, especially for those who aren’t here and don’t see what’s going on.”
Benavides never let the idea that she’s just one person keep her from helping displaced Houston moms get what they need. “A lot of people don’t really want to donate through a website because it feels so impersonal,” she said. “I wanted to be that bridge between the people I could reach in L.A., to make their donations feel more personal. They have an emotional tie to whatever breast pump or bottle they’re donating.” —Katharine Shilcutt
Embarking on an expedition that was nobody's dream
Co-Founder, Veteran Outdoors, Rescuer, from Georgetown, TX
Photo: Robert G Gomez
CODY HIRT DIDN'T HAVE TO SAY YES when his brother-in-law called to report he was driving in from West Texas, with a boat, to rescue people in Houston, and asked him to come along. Hirt could have stayed in his Georgetown home with his young family—a wife, 5-year-old boy, 8-year-old daughter—and wished his brother-in-law good luck.
But Hirt, co-founder of Mesquite Outdoor Outfitters, said yes. He then hung up the phone and rallied his troops: his fellow members of Veteran Outdoors, the service organization he co-founded, which surprises veterans with the outdoor expeditions of their dreams. Within 10 minutes, he had 20 committed men and half a dozen more boats ready to hit the road the next day, August 28. But this was no one’s dream expedition. The group was heading into rapidly rising floodwaters in a city located hours away, unsure of how to even find people in need of help once they got there.
Born and raised in West Texas, Hirt was a Houstonian for a short amount of time, between 2002 and 2004, when he worked at the Wildcat Golf Club, the official course of the Houston Texans, among other local teams. “I formed amazing relationships with the Texans players,” he explained, something that led to a role he continued to play even after moving to Georgetown, driving in for every Texans home game.
Have you ever seen Toro, the Texans mascot, beating up the opposing team’s mascot in those cartoon-like skits before the games? For years, the guy suited up as the other team’s mascot was Cody Hirt—a man happy to get roughed up for a team and a city he loves.
By 4:30 a.m., Hirt was on the ground—or, rather, the water—in Friendswood. “At that point,” he later recalled, “the police department and fire in Friendswood were helping us and directing us where to go.”
Soon, more calls for rescues started coming in from Katy, so the team loaded up the boats and headed west. Over the next four days, they would conduct hundreds of water rescues in Friendswood, Katy and Cypress, with the help of social media platforms that broadcasted addresses and locations of those in need, as well as massive networks of friends who funneled information to Hirt’s team.
“My entire life, my mom has taught me to network and love on people, and that some day, that’ll bless me,” Hirt said. “What I’ve seen throughout this disaster is that all these people I’ve been blessed to meet and know have stepped up and been an integral part of this.”
Each night, Hirt and his volunteers found their generosity returned by Houstonians who opened their doors to the team. “At the end of the day, we found a warm, wonderful place to stay where people cooked for us and washed our clothes.”
After day four, the men, exhausted, headed home. But Hirt’s work wasn’t done: The Veteran Outdoors team quickly regrouped and began to help organize airlifts of supplies to Houston, Beaumont and other areas through their contacts in the aviation industry. By the first week of September, they’d already dispatched over 50 airplanes full of hot meals and other supplies.
Why do all this for a city that’s not his own? Why say yes?
“I’ve thought about that quite a bit,” said Hirt. “About the state of Texas. It’s almost like when your little sister or brother gets punched by a bully and you come running to help them. Through disasters, people’s true colors come through. Texans have dropped everything they’ve been arguing about to help a brother or sister. It’s been a beautiful thing, to know that the world can still be saved by the people that are on it.” —Katharine Shilcutt
The Cleanup Crew
Finding a path through destruction
Muckraker, Hype Man from Meyerland
Photo: Marco Torres
AS SOON AS HER MEYERLAND STREET WAS DRY, real estate broker Susan Brock’s first task was to check on the home of her neighbor and best friend, an 86-year-old who had evacuated to Sugar Land.
“I walked in, and the couch was in the kitchen,” she recalled. “Every part of her life had been desecrated. It was like it had been in a fight. Just from seeing that, a light went on in my head: So many people—my friends, my fellow church members, everyone I see on a regular basis—are going to be devastated.”
She got to work right away—on Sunday, August 27—drawing on the experience she’d gained mobilizing for Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago and making the most of her extensive local network as well as that of Braes Interfaith Ministries, comprised of 13 churches and a synagogue. She put out the call for volunteers and supplies, managing logistics and figuring out what was needed where, including her octogenarian friend’s house.
Every morning, people would show up at her church, Willow Meadows Baptist, at 8 a.m. ready for hard work. Jeff Peters, a disaster-recovery expert Brock knew from the Katrina days, taught them which tools to use, how to rip out wet carpet, how to protect themselves from mold. But before he took the floor, it was Brock’s job to act as “hype man,” motivating volunteers. It must have worked. In six days, they trained over 1,500 people, who cleared out 300 homes.
When Houstonia spoke to her, on Labor Day, Brock was helping organize a cookout in her church parking lot featuring barbecue and burgers for anyone who was hungry. But word of local residents in dire need of help continued to come in. That day, she’d sent 40 volunteers to help clean out flooded first-floor apartments in Bellaire, most of them housing seniors. One resident in her eighties wanted to salvage her mattress, which had not been touched by floodwaters but was ridden with bugs.
“She’s not going to let us throw it out, but if we show up with a new mattress she’ll take it. So we put a call out, and within two hours people from a local Facebook group brought one, and people from the church set it up,” Brock said. “What I’ve noticed is these micro-communities, whether it’s the Westbury Garden Club or a Crossfit, they rally around a need and get it done. I’ve not seen one Red Cross truck or one FEMA employee. Everyone is just stepping up.”
Though the work in Meyerland and beyond is far from done, Brock said she’s already looking toward the future. Her next goal is to form an organization that she’s calling the Disaster Relief Coalition, designed to teach other local networks how to mobilize resources quickly, when the next flood or other crisis comes along.
“The best time to come up with a disaster plan is not in the middle of a disaster. When we rolled out, other churches were asking, ‘How do you do that? We haven’t even started, and it’s day seven,’” Brock says. “When it’s sunny and life is good, being a leader in your own life is sufficient. It works. But in times like these, it’s not enough.” —Sarah Rufca Nielsen
Filling cracks before neighbors fall through them
Reverend, Neighbor from Westbury
Photo: Marco Torres
ON SUNDAY, AUGUST 27, Westbury United Methodist Church was—like many Houston churches—unable to hold services, its sanctuary inaccessible due to floodwaters surrounding it on all sides. But by the next day, the waters had receded enough for senior pastor Rev. Danny Yang to open the church as a Wait Station, or temporary shelter, for those in need. Though its own roof was leaking, its own plumbing system strained, Westbury UMC took in evacuees by the dozen, while its staff began preparations for what lay ahead.
“We’ve done this before,” said Rev. Hannah Terry, taking a quick break from coordinating volunteers. “We were a resource center for nine months, dedicated to recovery work from the Memorial Day floods.”
By the first weekend in September, Westbury UMC had used its past experience to pivot from serving as a Wait Station to a volunteer-training-and-coordination center for United Methodist Churches and other groups—including those from Rice, UH, Sharpstown High School, nearby Westbury Baptist, and a Muslim youth group from Sugar Land—looking to send in teams and donations to help out.
And in the church gym, a free childcare camp had been set up a few days prior. “We wanted to love our neighborhood,” explained Terry, “by providing a place for parents who are making calls and cleaning and doing repair work to bring their kids.”
Finding reliable childcare was just one immediate concern, however, for the thousands of low-income families in the area who’d suddenly lost their housing, jobs, vehicles, and crucial access to state services like SNAP.
Through Westbury UMC, Terry also helps run Fondren Assistance Ministries (FAM Houston), which has long worked with the immigrant and refugee population who make up many of the residents living at the apartment complexes along Fondren Road in southwest Houston. And working with apartment complexes after a massive flooding event, said Terry, is “very tricky.”
For one, after Harvey moved east, residents couldn’t just start ripping out damaged sheetrock or carpet from units they didn’t own. In other parts of town, some residents received eviction notices from apartment complexes who claimed their leases were voided, as their flooded apartments were a total loss. Another issue, Terry said, “is that many complexes have not contracted with the city for garbage pickup. So people just start pulling trash out of their apartments, and the city can’t pick it up. As every day goes on, it’s more and more unsafe.”
That wasn’t the only cause for concern. “There’s a lot of elderly people and immigrants—people who are scared, and who don’t have family around.” The seniors, she said, couldn’t move furniture or bags of trash. And so Westbury UMC had been sending out crews daily to see to those who could very easily fall through the cracks, communicating with apartment complex managers to see what cleaning work could be accomplished, assisting residents with obtaining SNAP and WIC benefits, finding reliable transportation, and providing a lifeline to those who were already isolated before Hurricane Harvey came along.
“I visited a refugee family the first day I could leave my apartment complex,” said Terry. “They don’t have any internet, and their phones don’t have any data. They don’t have a TV.” All they knew of the devastation across Houston, at that point, was that it had rained really hard.
For those people and many others in the area, Terry explained, Westbury UMC and FAM plan to operate as a neighborhood relief center, for as long as it might take to achieve some semblance of normalcy. “We’re committed to this for the long haul,” she said. “We’re still trying to articulate the long-term effects and needs … but we love Houston and our neighbors so much. This is our city.” —Katharine Shilcutt