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.