Cleaning Up After Harvey

As you probably know, I live in Texas. I am in Austin and when Hurricane Harvey hit, aside from people creating a ridiculous gas shortage that was of their own devising, nothing much happened. There were copious amounts of rain and wind all weekend, and my brother–who was supposed to fly in for a visit–had his flight cancelled straight out. But that’s about it.

Houston is two or three hours east of us and you all know what happened there. Since the flood waters have receded, we have been spending weekends over there helping people muck out their homes, ripping out everything down to the studs.

We are Mormons and pitching in is what we do (officially we are Mormon Helping Hands and you can find us wearing bright yellow). Each weekend we have been grouped into a team of people from our congregation (usually around 10-15 people per team) and assigned an address of people who have requested our help. So as not to be a burden on the area, we have been asked to bring our own tools, supplies and food.  We head up on Saturday morning, sleep at a high school outside of Houston and have a short church meeting on Sunday mornings before we get back to work. This is our second weekend doing this and we’ve been asked to continue for the next couple of weeks at least.

Because everything has been soaking wet, we brought along rubber boots. At least that was the plan. The girls already had some but York and Mister didn’t. And every pair of rubber boots in Austin had been shipped to Houston already. Seriously. There were no rubber boots in Austin. Even waders from the sporting goods stores had been sent to Houston. So we were left with very slim pickings. Fortunately we found some “shrimper boots” (shrimp catchers wear special boots? Who knew?) on clearance at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Luckily York likes them. I mean, who doesn’t want to look like they own a hazmat suit?

We got to Houston early on Saturday morning, donned our yellow pinnies* and got to work. The first weekend I took York, Arabella and Ada and we worked entirely in Katy. Last weekend Mister took the kids.

This has been heart-breaking work. Not being in the floodplain, nobody in this area had flood insurance. Person after person told us how they had nothing left. One older couple had used every penny they had saved up to buy a new house and furnish it from scratch when they arrived in Texas in April.

In some of the houses we worked in, the residents had just been back for the first time that morning. I can’t imagine the trauma of seeing so many things you’ve owned, lying in dripping wet, ruined heaps around the house. Many things weren’t directly touched by flood waters, but had to be thrown out anyway because of all the mold growing everywhere.  Here’s a section of wall about three feet long, covered in mold. Imagine this in every room in your entire house. We wore N-95 face masks to keep the mold out of our lungs. I’m not sure how well it worked, but we tried.

As is normally the case in America, trash goes out to the corner to be picked up. Only the trash here wasn’t just a few bags; it was entire houses. Not just furniture but insulation, sheetrock, mouldings and appliances. Street after street, house after house had piles as tall as a person out front.

Many houses we cleaned had had flood water sitting in them for two weeks when we arrived. Carpet was soaked and smelled horrifying.

The floor in this house was white tile with a white bathmat. You can’t even tell.

Some other people on our team were down the street attempting to clean out this house. Remember that everything in this picture is soaked and moldy.

Load after load we pulled out floors, ripped walls down to the studs and gutted kitchens.

One thing that is impossible to explain is how awful the smell is while you’re mucking out a house. Everything is moldy and rotten. But none of that compares to the horror of the fridge. Imagine a fridge or freezer, full of food, sitting in several feel of water for weeks with no electricity.  It smelled worse than death. We would tape the doors shut so they didn’t accidentally swing open, but a rush of water would always come out as soon as the fridge was tilted up and put on a dolly.  More than one person actually ran outside and threw up (Someone in my family, who shall remain nameless, threw up in her mask when the fridge went by).  There was so much stench that even going outside wouldn’t provide a breath of fresh air.

You would think that we would have been depressed all day after doing this for more than one weekend, but that just hasn’t been so. As we cleaned along side the owners of the houses, neighbors would stop by to offer a hug or a word of advice.  People pulled wagons up the street offering free bottles of icy cold water or Gatorade. One woman made sandwiches and loaded them up in a tote bag, making sure everyone had something to eat. We found ourselves recipients of hot Chinese food, delivered by the owners of an Asian restaurant who lived on the street.

As we drove out of the neighborhood in Katy last Sunday to go home, we found children at one corner who were giving away homemade cookies and brownies.

At another corner was a sweet husband and wife who were offering pizza or vegetarian Indian food to anyone who wanted it, free of charge. We were so happy to have a hot meal after working hard all day.

We were all touched with the care that these people showed for each other and for us. The neighborhoods we’ve worked in have residents of every color. As our family has worked in Houston we’ve been so impressed by how people’s skin color or country they were born in doesn’t make any difference. Everyone has been willing to offer a hug or a kind word or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to their neighbor.

These are my fellow Texans and I love them.


*I had a long and drawn out discussion of the word “pinnies” with my husband. He insisted that he had never heard this word before and that I made it up. But what else do you call a mesh vest?


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