Harvey and Me
The call went out from the American Red Cross to help manage shelters in and around Houston, TX, after Hurricane Harvey. I had a break from my medical studies at the University of Iowa and decided to use it to help. However, the Red Cross was unable to process volunteers fast enough, and so I turned to JustServe.org, where I found opportunities to serve with Mormon Helping Hands instead. Knowing that meant I would be on my own for lodging and food, I packed what I could and headed to Texas, arriving on September 13, 2017. When I woke up in a field where I had pitched my tent, I found another 50 or so Mormons also camped and ready to serve. We drove to a makeshift command center to get our work assignments, at first not noticing very much damage. I began to wonder if I had wasted my time. Maybe everything was already done. That couldn't have been further from reality. As we turned into our assigned neighborhood, I got my first glance at the devastation.
It was hard to describe just how bad it was in this neighborhood that had become completely submerged in six feet of water in a matter of minutes after a floodgates had unexpectedly been opened in the middle of the night. Yet, despite the impact of what I saw, it was the smell that had the greatest affect on me. Mold levels climbed by the day, and within a week volunteers were unable to work indoors in many areas due to the risks. The smell was simply toxic, and the work was exhausting to remove everything from houses down to the frame. You get a very haunting and strangely intimate connection with a person by going through everything they own, most of it now unsalvageable. It was a daunting and challenging task, but there I was with a ragtag bunch and feeling totally satisfied to be immersed in a work that had a clear goal and desperately needed to be done. Through it all, I met many people reaching out to serve each other, from ministers to business owners to neighbors.
I couldn't help but think about how Houston after Harvey is just like each one of us. We are constantly picking up the pieces from the disaster, turmoil, and storms of our lives. We start by maintaining the big roads and store fronts. We put on a good face so the untrained eye can't see the devastation lurking behind the social media facade. But once you dig a little deeper and explore the side streets, you are finally able to see the pain, sorrow, challenges and heartaches that remain just out of view. It is easy to forget and easy to overlook, but all of us have broken things. The only way they can be made whole is through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
I arrived in Houston just a couple of days before about 11,000 other Mormons were descending on the city to provide help. On Sunday, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (one of the main leaders in the LDS Church) spoke to thousands of those volunteers, and I was privileged to be in the chapel where he spoke. You can see my face just over the shoulder of the man on the far right. Elder Ballard encouraged us by thanking us for "getting something done" for God's children.
Even with thousands of Mormon Helping Hands in Houston and many other volunteer groups working to help, some neighborhoods seemed forgotten for days. One older couple we served told us they had been at a loss about what to do for weeks. They sat in their flooded home frozen like deer in the headlights just "praying to God that somebody would come." They had less than a foot of water but no where to go and no ideas. We got the mold out, even though the house needed more work than we could give, and they were so grateful.
One day earlier in my week, we started on a project where a woman seemed a little ungrateful for our service. She was maybe better off than other victims, and I was surprised by her reaction. The next day I learned a bit more. This woman had just spent more than a year updating her townhouse to sell it before moving to New Mexico. It had been on the market only three weeks when the hurricane hit. She had offers pending. Now there is nothing. The woman told me that at night she goes home and just cries because she has no idea what to do next. I spent some time trying to comfort her with my new perspective on her plight. In reality she had been immensely grateful but was too traumatized to know how to show it.
That experience and a few others in the following days led me to ponder a bit more about the various lives brought together in a post-disaster setting. There were the storm victims: some clinging to ruined belongings like we cling to things in life that are temporary, some unable to process why they could not have power or water, but others ready to move forward with gratitude and hope. And there were the volunteers, some assigned by local LDS leaders to work crews, and some traveling as I had from other states to help, but many as much out of a need for healing as for serving. This work gives us all meaning and healing in a way that is simply beautiful--despite the surrounding and ongoing tragedy--because it is what the Savior would have done in this case. We are drawn together by His love for victim and volunteer alike.
Upon finishing, I was totally exhausted, bruised, and battered. I said my goodbyes and shed my clothing and work gear before heading home to reflect on this priceless experience. It helped me recenter and refocus on the importance of always being ready and willing to help others, regardless of their need. Thanks to a supportive wife, I had the strength to go and someone strong to come home to. I'll never forget my week cleaning up after Harvey.