What it’s like to clean up from a hurricane.

If you told me this was image was from an HGTV show I would have thought, well, Joanna’s got her work cut out for her! But driving into a neighborhood where every home on the block had this same disastrous mound of Harvey fury… is Fixer Upper on steroids, with a really bad smell.  Oh.  The smell.

This past Saturday and Sunday Casey and I were able to join up with other volunteers in Houston, to help with Hurricane Harvey cleanup. Driving into this neighborhood was heartbreaking.

I’ve never lived close to disaster before, so the experience was eye-opening, humbling, and something I will never forget.  Being there for the two-week aftermath was sort of like helping a friend after the funeral, when condolences and floral arrangements are gone.  And reality sets in.

We were in the city of Katy, TX—right outside of Houston—where there was still some standing water…

Mounds of water-logged carpet, with water-logged stench.

Drywall being removed.

Homes where water had only receded two-days prior, and home owners were returning to assess the damage.

I-spy adventures of papers, books, and postage stamps, now glued and dried to tile floors.

Wooden floors that looked like a shipwreck.
Camera equipment rolling around on the shipwreck.
Damaged computers, battered woodwork, lost heirlooms, and moldy cars.

And thankfully, thousands of volunteers! from many surrounding communities.

We joined the sweaty masses (from various organizations and churches. We were with Mormon Helping Hands) to help home owners gut out their houses.  Removing drywall was the top priority, since mold had already started growing in all the homes.  I mean, look at these chairs.  Wow.

The mold in this garage was the worst I had seen.
In the photo below you can see where the waterline stood from flooding, and then the crazy amount of mold growth—which at first glance was actually kind of pretty.  Can I say that?

The design and science of it all is just, amazing…and disgusting, and harmful (which is why we were diligent about wearing our masks).

To give you another perspective of the water line, look at this side-by-side.
These are not the same house, but they could be—they’re from the same neighborhood.  You’ve got floodwater on the left; and a group of us having lunch on those same front lawns on the right…sitting on trash for chairs.

So. The goal for these volunteer groups, was to remove drywall before black mold climbed any higher in the home, or got into the studs and framework underneath.  Once the drywall was gone, FEMA could come in to assess the home and go from there.  To accomplish this, everything in the bottom floor had to be removed—furniture, carpet, flooring, pictures, cabinets, woodwork, all of it.

Our team had about 20 people.  I was amazed at how the room went from this:

to this, in about 30 minutes.

Adults removed furniture, drywall, and heavy items; while teenagers came through with sleds and wagons and hauled debris out to the front lawn.  It was recommended that children under 12 not come—which was good. It was hard labor.  Casey and I left our kids with my brother and sister-in-law who were able to come out the weekend before to help.

It was remarkable how much work was accomplished with large groups of volunteers. I really don’t know how a homeowner could have done this alone (other than hiring the work out). It would be mentally and physically overwhelming.

On Saturday I spent most of the time using a hammer, pulling out nails and carpet tacking boards. While on Sunday, my best tool was my pair of rain boots!…because the home we gutted had never been entered since the flood waters came and went.

So water was stuck in the funniest places….pouring out of drawers and cups, stuck in the silverware drawer container, in an old coffee maker in the back of the cupboard, soaked into towels in the powder room closet, and from places I hadn’t even thought of—like the groove of a tape dispenser! (I’ll never look at my tape dispenser the same way). In the laundry room closet I found a carefully stacked set of drinking glasses, that were perfectly full to the brim with dirty water, in a way that I could never replicate.  It was comical, and sad.   I spent most of the day emptying cabinets in the kitchen, pantry, laundry room, and bathroom, so the group could come in and rip all the cabinets out. It was like helping someone move, without having to box it all up.

And of course there were times when I spotted a Pyrex diamond in the pile of “stuff” and wondered what stories this dish could tell. Or those amazing green floral chair seats?? Ahh! I need those!

And this awesome wallpaper, with another hidden wallpaper underneath.

Or the gorgeous shutters that were tossed out like Wednesday’s trash.

At the “water house”, we also found binders of photographs and wedding albums that were likely beyond repair.  But one of the volunteers laid them out to dry, so the homeowner could look them over.

And in some of the homes there were signs of interrupted life….parties that had been happening when floodwaters came, homes that were for sale, high school band signs in the front yard.

(a pool full of live fish)

But throughout the weekend I realized two things.
(and if you’re still with me, sorry. I know this is long. I hope some of you find this interesting, to see the aftermath process. I’ve always been curious about that myself).
What I realized is…

WE’RE ALL DIFFERENT.

I think we all wonder how we would react in a disaster, or in a survival situation.  Of course we won’t know until it happens. So it was very interesting to see how different each home owner, and each home was, as we showed up on their front porch.

Some people were still in a haze of what was happening.  They looked around the room in a surreal moment, as if this wasn’t really their home, or their stuff.  Some homeowners were the “take charge” type who were able to direct the group through the house, “keep this”, “throw that out”, “this can go”, etc.  At this particular house, the homeowner told us “it all goes.  Get rid of it all.  We’re moving to a temporary apartment for months and don’t want to box up anything that might contain mold”.

While at this other home, the homeowner sifted methodically through piles of belongings…almost frozen by the state of being.  And I don’t share this as a judgement on others, but simply to understand how different we all are.  And how we all process things in different ways.  One homeowner simply looked at us and said, “Um, I can’t…till Wednesday.”
I just wondered inside, “what’s happening on Wednesday?”  But it was the only way she could wrap her brain around the pile of craziness that had become her life.  Just saying the word “Wednesday” gave her some parameters to work around.

Just like any situation of loss, we all have to grieve in different ways.

But on the flip side of that,
WE ARE ALL THE SAME.

We all appreciate help!  We all need a hug.  We all want to share our story and have someone remind us that we’re doing better than we think.

I walked past one home that had already been cleaned and stopped to talk to the homeowner….who then proceeded to show me 100 pictures from her phone of moldy walls and floors.  We talked for about 15 minutes, without me saying much and when we were done she just smiled and said, “thanks for being a listening ear!”
To put the cherry on that, she had JUST closed on the purchase of her home the day before the hurricane hit.  Oy.  Thankfully she hadn’t moved her belongings in yet….which reminds me that….

We all have stuff. And at the end of the day, it’s just stuff…..and it’s stuff that we need, and stuff that makes each of our lives unique, and fun, and we love it.  I don’t want to minimize that.  But when it comes down to it, we tend to focus on what’s important.

It’s an intimate moment to stand with a complete stranger, in her bedroom closet, looking at damaged dresses, bras, and belongings…and to see that bewildered look on her face as she says, “So much money here. So much.  Okay, just throw it all out. I mean, half of it doesn’t fit me anyway….”

Which is why I’m happy we all have a sense of humor.

And at times, we like to one-up each other….(though I never stumbled on the Yard of the Century).  And holy cow, in just a few hours, that yard of the decade sign was totally covered by more debris.

Over the weekend on Instagram some of you asked what you can do to help (after having been there first-hand) and I’m clearly not an expert on this, but here are some ideas:

• Give time. If you live in driving distance, get an organization together to gut houses.  The mold grows worse each week, so this is a timely thing.  The groups have to go through a site called Crisis Cleanup –but you have to be an organization to “claim” a project once a homeowner has listed their home on the site.

• Give money to a reputable charity.  I won’t endorse a specific one here, since there are varied opinions on this.  But I think money would be more helpful right now than sending “stuff”.  I think people are overwhelmed with stuff.

• Join with various groups who–down the road—will be sending items to people that were affected.  I know Art Gallery fabrics is working with Quilts of Compassion to send donated quilts. You can read about that here. And Craft Hope is doing a similar quilt drive as well.

I have to say it was a long weekend.  We all smelled.  The whole neighborhood smells!
And it was hard to wake up Monday morning and realize that the weekend was gone. But it was also enriching, fun (at times) and just touching to see how giving humans can be…and how effective we are as a group, than on our own!

It was also crazy as we drove home Sunday afternoon to see this street, DIRECTLY across from where we were working that was completely unaffected.  Just 4 feet higher in elevation made all the difference.  But this view gave me hope that Houston, Rockport, Florida, Puerto Rico, Mexico and so many other places can build back up again.

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  1. 1) Jade

    Thanks for sharing pictures, Dana! Way to be a helper. Thanks for the Craft Hope mention! 🙂

  2. 2) erinmalia

    This is just so heartbreaking. And then at the same time, it’s hopeful. I simply cannot even imagine what this has been like for people, victims (are we not supposed to call them that? I can’t think of a better term! Oooh, how about survivors? Rebuilders? Something has to be better.) and volunteers both.

    • 3) Dana

      I love all those terms! Rebuilders…that’s a good one 🙂 🙂

  3. 4) Ruth

    Wow, thank you for posting this Dana. Seeing your first hand account of what’s involved in the cleanup was really enlightening to me. You just can’t imagine the level of devastation unless you’re there in the thick of it, and you took us right there. My thoughts and prayers go out to all those involved.

  4. 5) Brenda

    Wow….so overwhelming. I can’t imagine the physical and emotional turmoil those homeowners are going through. I’m emotional just reading all of your words, despite the fact that I’m so removed from the situation, living in Phoenix. Thank you for volunteering your time to those who need it – so amazing and inspiring to see all of the volunteers hard at work! I’m grateful the church has groups out there lending such a big hand. Many prayers sent to Texas and all the areas recently affected by hurricanes and earthquakes. Thanks for the update, Dana!

  5. 6) Mindy

    Beautifully captured and written, Dana!

  6. 7) Jane

    Despite being completely not religious, the only thing that comes immediately to mind seeing all this is “bless you” – bless you and all the other generous souls who are giving their time, compassion and effort to the cleanup. Humanity at its best. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. 8) Amy

    Thank you for sharing this. I too, always wonder what happens after, as I have never experienced this devastation. I would be so overwhelmed by emotion to gut out my own home. So good to hear there are lots of people helping people with their homes. 💕

  8. 9) Little Quiltsong

    Thank you so very much for sharing!! My heart just hurts for everyone affected. Love how so many turned out to help and keep helping. What a blessing!

  9. 10) Nikki

    We live in Katy. I can honestly say we have felt everyone’s prayers as our community and other surrounding areas have started the recovery process. It has been a true blessing to see how everyone pulls together to help serve and give of their time. My husband has been gutting houses the last couple weekends and meanwhile the kids and I have been collecting much needed items for a local charity. Harvey was destructive, but also provided a reminder of how we all truly do care for and take care of each other and I’ve been grateful for the opportunity for my little family to see that firsthand. Thanks for making the trip down to help! ♥️

    • 11) Dana

      Oh wow. Thank you for sharing your town with us! It was really eye-opening to see the destruction in person—really put it all in perspective. I know you guys will make it great again!
      I’ll have to come visit in another 6 months and see how it’s changed 🙂

  10. 12) Lisa // Cucicucicoo: Eco Sewing and Crafting

    Wow, that is incredible. It’s a shame that TV and newspapers generally only show the destruction and end there, because most people (myself included) have no idea what happens afterwards in these situations and how people deal with it. It is so sad, but also very heartening to see how people come together and everything else that isn’t so important just falls off to the side. Thank you so much for donating your time and for sharing, Dana!

    • 13) Dana

      I totally agree! I had no idea how the rebuilding process worked either. I would have loved to see how New Orleans was brought back to life. Who knows…maybe there’s a documentary out there about it. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about it 🙂

  11. 14) Carla

    Great caring spirit shown by all there. I have not done relief work, but my husband and son have. My husband went to do Katrina relief work three times. He shared the stories, the devastation and the hope with me. You also shared the stories with your readers. It’s heartbreaking to see yet the poignant differences of the people are amazing. I agree, we are different yet the same. Thank you so much for your beautiful explanation of what’s happening.

  12. 15) June Spuur

    Hello
    I am sitting here in Denmark watching how you are all affected by this hurricane… and observing that another one is on the way. So they say on our tv. I pray for you all. I can´t even imagine what you are all going through. We have had some issues with the rain here in Denmark, but not even close to what you all have been.
    I pray for you, I send my love and hopes and wish you all the best. I know that you will get the help you need, and that you all stand united.
    love from Denmark
    June

  13. 16) Linda Nelson

    Thank you so much for documenting this. Incredible! And good work!

  14. 17) Ann

    Oh what a heartbreak ! I’m so grateful for giving people like you group. God bless all of you.

  15. 18) Melissa A Berry

    Wow, those picture are heartbreaking. I’m thankful for volunteers who can be there to help…I’m sure those homeowners are, too,

  16. 19) April

    Wow, thank you! Very sad yet inspiring. I love America !

  17. 20) Malea

    I appreciate this so much! Thank you for posting about everything.

  18. 21) Denise

    I was mesmerized through your entire story. I am very thankful that you shared your weekend of inspiring and spreading hope to the families who lost their stuff but not their spirit. I would love to be there to help, but I live 100’s of miles away. I will continue to pray.

  19. 22) Patti

    Thank you for showing us the reality, so sad.

  20. 23) Becky

    My husband, daughter and son-in-law went to New Orleans a year after Katrina. We encountered what you did only it was a year later. I was amazed how much we were able to accomplish as a group along with fellow church members. I will never forget the owners bringing us lunch. Most of them had moved away but still wanted to be there to thank us. Thank you for what you and your group did. Your suggestion of helping if you are able to get there is so important. It will change your life. You will never look at your things the same way again.

  21. 24) Jen

    Thank you for helping. I keep looking for my friend Cameron in the background of your pictures because he was there volunteering too. Seeing your personal photos of the cleanup really makes it more real for those of us in states where disasters rarely happen, like Oregon. (Altho we have had our share of wildfires this year). Thank you for sharing.

  22. 25) Karen

    Thanks so much for helping these people, and sharing it with us here. We were fortunate to be able to help people In Baton Rouge last year, and it was my first time to experience a disaster also. I will Always remember the smell. This brought back those memories. Makes you really thankful for all
    Your blessings.

  23. 26) Tara

    It’s so horrifying to see these pictures. It’s like seeing the damage from “Super Storm” Sandy all over again. Be ready for the long haul and the people who take advantage of those who lost almost everything. The insurance companies, the contractors… the best and the worst will come out. Tell people to read everything and sign nothing without consulting a reputable lawyer. There are still people in the NY/NJ area trying to rebuild.

    Our prayers are with you all and everyone in the hurricanes paths.

  24. 27) Petra

    Hi from Melbourne. Thanks for sharing these photos of all the amazing work being done for these poor people and their homes. Damaged photos would be the hardest to take for me personally. All I can say is “far out!”.

  25. 28) Susan

    Thank you so much for sharing not only the pictures, but the back story of the owners and homes you worked in. The homes are the lives of the people, the shelter they depended on and it is now damaged and may be gone. Home can be rebuilt, possessions reacquired, but memories and hope remain. You all gave people hope and friendship, what a gift to Houston!

  26. 29) Maureen

    Thank you for this post Dana – so much heartbreak there. Lots of it is just stuff but it is also people’s homes and their “safe” space. I am in UK so not close to this much devastation but still pray for all those affected. I just hope that they can get everything sorted out as soon as possible. Well done to all volunteers helping. In the words of the song …”there but for fortune go you or I”

  27. 30) Sara

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. We are about an hour and a half north of Naples, Florida where Irma just made land fall a few weeks ago. We were projected to be in the direct path of the eye of the storm and it turned at the last minute. We were spared. We are very blessed to not be dealing with the damage and destruction but we know fellow associates and friends who are dealing with a similar situation as Houston. It is heartbreaking. These pictures helped to show me what these homeowners in Houston and south Florida are going though. It’s going to be a process to put their lives back together and have some sense of normalcy. Thank You for being amazing and helping this community clean up in the aftermath of Harvey. The generosity we experience during tragedy is amazing and gives me hope for our country and our neighbors.

  28. 31) Jill

    What a wonderful story. Thank you for documenting your experiences for those of us not able to help. Your pictures of their photographs and memories literally brought tears to my eyes. I hope they were able to be saved. What a blessing all the volunteers are to these cities and towns.

  29. 32) Janelle Thietje-Dunn

    I’ve followed your blog for a lot of years. This may be my favorite post. Thanks for sharing.

  30. 33) Celine Reid

    This is why I love Instagram/Blogs so much because you get in insight that the TV news can’t. I am in the UK following your great work. And I am still amazed that there didn’t seem to be any warning of the flooding happening giving a chance to the owners to move things upstairs. I have even seen horrible pictures of elderly people in a home waiting to be rescued in waist deep waters…..

  31. 34) Caroline Greenwell

    I’ve often wondered what happens next when I see disasters like this on the TV. I’m in the UK so thankfully we don’t get hurricanes.

    You did great work that weekend, but I’m left wondering what happens to the piles of debris left out on the side of the road. Do the local authorities automatically collect it, or do people have to pay for it to be removed. And where is it taken, that is a huge pile of rubbish to dispose of.

  32. 35) Rebecca

    Thanks for sharing this. Sending good wishes over the Atlantic to all those affected. x

  33. 36) Judy

    Wow, I just happened upon this via your youtube videos and I’m so glad I did.
    You bring out such poignant points about humanity and I love how you don’t judge. It’s so very important that we all realize that we are all different and appreciate those differences instead of judging them.
    You did this masterfully! Thanks for sharing the backstory is SO very interesting and empathy building.
    Blessings to you and your family and all involved.

  34. 37) Tifani

    I cleaned up Louisiana last year and Texas this year. The thing that surprised me the most was diapers and feminine products exploded with disgusting water. Looking at your pictures I can still smell it. That stink stays for months. Pretty soon the animals will be there, too.

  35. 38) Jane Stickley-Woods

    Well done to you all for helping clear up. I visited your site today to find a sewing video and was blown away by the generosity of you and the rest of the team. I’m in tears here. Well done. Big Hugs

  36. 39) j

    I went through the Bastrop TX fire of 2011. I have one quibble with your post… It’s not just stuff. I mean, it IS but… it’s not. And in my recovery process (which spans years by the way) it took me a long time to figure it out. There’s a great radio show called Two Guys on Your Head, based in Austin, who explained this brilliantly. It’s worth a listen, especially for anyone going down to help. It might be a bit early to share with the Harvey people, but it’s nice to have to share when the time comes.

    And for those of you fortunate enough to not have gone through a disaster – take this as a learning opportunity. Check and update your insurance. Be sure to get separate policies for antiques and jewelry – you’ll be amazed at how quickly you max out your content insurance portion on your homeowners policy. Ask your insurer what sorts of information you will need to file a claim should something like a flood or fire happen (receipts, serial numbers…) – and then get the documentation together. Have it in a safe place, backed up on your computer. Get the best insurance that you can afford – price is important but so is how they respond after your sky falls.

    Take a few weeks to digitally scan your important documents and pictures. Store them on your computer. Back up your computer onto an external drive or two. Keep one in your purse and another at your parents or a trusted place a distance away. The biggest loss is loosing those pictures and memories. Having the back up in your house when it floods or burns doesn’t help – it needs to be with you or in a different location.

    Finally, please don’t judge those going through this. We make decisions during a crisis and after… it might not be the best or right decision (pets abandoned during the storm for example) but you really don’t understand until you’ve gone through it yourself. Disaster folks are on line, they see your comments, both the supportive and the tactless. Imagine how you’d feel if you read the stuff posted on line in comments about the storms. It will take time, lots more time than you can ever appreciate, for these folks to get through this. Long after the house is fixed and the things replaced… it’s still there. And in many ways that’s all to the good. I learned a lot and grew as a person thanks to my wildfire. It’s not the way that I suggest for personal growth but I’ll take all the silver linings I can get.

    • 40) Dana

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and yes, I agree. In fact I had that same conversation with someone yesterday about “stuff”…how it is stuff, but that stuff is also what makes each of our lives our own. And we do need stuff. And how it’s personal to each of us. And I hope my post didn’t come across as judgemental. That was not my intention, and I tried to state that in my words. I found it very eye-opening to see how each person goes through the experience differently….and I tried to internalize that and wonder how I would have reacted in my own home. We each experience loss and disaster and stress and organization in different ways. The overall beauty that I saw in it all, was that people wanted to help people…and people gave space for others who weren’t ready to move to the next step, to take their time. We didn’t push any homeowners into something they weren’t comfortable with. I know that not everyone out there has good motives and it’s sad to see moments when people take advantage of the situation. But it was a humbling experience for me to be there and help people in this small moment, of yes….a very long-term situation for them. I hope my post can bring light to something that the news doesn’t really cover, and I wish they did! I wish they followed up more on Katrina and so many other disasters that have happened, and shared the rebuilding process. Perhaps they did, and I missed it. But it seems that they tend to show the flooded streets, the burning homes, the more catastrophic images…but then we don’t get to learn how rebuilding and helping others works. I was happy I could share part of that here, so we can bring more awareness, and internalize and learn from it.

  37. Pingback: How to help hurricane disaster relief

  38. 41) Laura

    Didsaster doesn’t discriminate. Aside from the devastation and trauma it brings it also brings togetherness and cooperation in society. To see the coming together of people in a day and age where helping one another in some communities is now an uncommon occurrence, is just amazing. It shows that we can do it though. We can live together in more cooperative communities and look out for one another and help one another and not leave people behind.

    Thank you for sharing. Miles and miles away across the pond I don’t think I really fully appreciated the full magnitude of the aftermath. Boy I do now! You guys are all so amazing!

  39. 42) Dorothy

    Thanks for sharing this, it is such an eye opener. There is no words but that we just don’t know until we know.

  40. 43) Charity

    This is beautiful. We are all God’s children. Thanks for helping out–a drop in the bucket but a world of difference for the individuals you volunteered for!

  41. 44) Kim

    This is incredible to see. Things that you don’t see on t.v. God bless you guys for helping out. It is remarkable how families can get through this without much support so it is so important that we play a role in helping our neighbour. It is a humbling post and even though I cannot appreciate such devastation like this I can certainly realise that any type of charity work is definately a good thing. Also, that I need to clear out all the junk at my house (ha ha).

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