The rain started on Saturday, August 26th and continued throughout the day. By late Saturday evening, the unrelenting torrential rains and its puddles quickly morphed into flooded streets in just a matter of minutes. By 5:00 am Sunday morning the houses on my block in Bellaire, an inner-loop Houston neighborhood, began to flood and I found myself helping several neighbors evacuate to our house.
We built our dream house this spring, a two-story New Orleans style house. At the last-minute, we decided to build it an extra 18 inches above the city requirement. Our neighborhood had flooded in prior years but our lot never had. At the time, I thought our decision may have been overkill but turned out to be home-saving.
With the help of a couple of neighbors, I used a kayak to rescue a 90-year-old neighbor whose daughter and first responders were unable to reach. She was by herself and unable to get out of bed as water filled her bedroom. It was a scary and surreal experience. By Sunday afternoon the water had risen to within one foot of our front door. The water rose and eventually receded 24 hours later, though the rains would not stop for another 48 hours. After the water receded, we breathed a sigh of relief and began to take stock.
Our garage and cars flooded and we lost power and plumbing for 36 hours, but thankfully our house did not flood. Twenty-one neighbors sought refuge at our house on Sunday evening, all of whom had lost their houses and most everything in them. The mood was somber; all of us were in a state of shock and disbelief. We gave up our sons’ rooms, and every other room in our house was filled with people on couches and air mattresses. Sadly, for unexplained reasons, no rescue boats or helicopters found their way to our street.
On Monday morning we discovered that our house was one of the few in our neighborhood that did not flood. In the last week, my wife and I have been doing everything we can to help our neighbors begin the arduous process of rebuilding their homes. We, along with a cadre of volunteers, have removed furniture, sheetrock, insulation, and flooring.
After a home has flooded, it is imperative to remove sheetrock and flooring as soon as possible to inhibit mold growth and allow the house to dry out. Our street, like so many others around Houston, is lined with huge debris piles. The rancid stench of mold is overwhelming. The cleanup alone will take weeks, if not months, and will be a reminder of the catastrophic devastation.
I, like many others, donated money in years past when tragedies struck other areas of the country and world. I would text a donation, give money, supplies, attend a fundraiser, and would feel good that I was contributing. However, I never understood how my donations were distributed or the exact impact my donation would have. Over the last week, I have received numerous inquiries from clients, friends and family members who wanted to help. I also learned what to do and not to do when offering to help:
1) Volunteer your time, not your religion or politics. Many of my neighbors and I went house-to-house to assist families with whatever they needed. We asked them if we could help and quickly got to work photographing and documenting destroyed furniture and belongings, as required by insurance companies, and removing furniture and sheetrock and boxing salvageable belongings. We offered to wash clothes, towels, and linens and with each house, we became more adept at identifying other opportunities to lighten the homeowner’s tremendous burden.
We did this as efficiently and quickly as we could and without a thought or care to the family’s political beliefs, religious affiliation or ethnicity. We just wanted to help our neighbors. Unfortunately, I noticed a few organizations that appeared to have ulterior motives of espousing their religious or political beliefs in exchange for their help. Others overthought it and wanted to establish command posts and interview families to “determine needs.”
The requirement of your time is simple and straightforward: show up and be willing to work right away. Ask, “Do you need a hand?” and quickly get to work.
2) Donate thoughtfully. As reported on CBS News, some donated items hinder recovery and are not necessary. Also, I learned that recoveries are fluid and dynamic and requirements change daily.
In the first few days, housing, food, and materials to help remove water-soaked sheetrock and flooring were scarce and in high demand. Then the need moved to fans, dehumidifiers, boxes and packing tape. One San Francisco friend and client did two things that touched me deeply. The Power of Business and Style CEO Anne Sagendorph sent a letter to her clients describing our plight. She followed that by sending a huge order of boxes for my neighbors to pack up their remaining belongings. Another business friend from across town donated a chair, nightstand and lamps she was no longer using. My neighbors will never meet this thoughtful friend, but they will have light and a place to sit in their temporary housing thanks to her.
Today’s needs are different. I am now trying to find animal shelters that will temporarily house cats and dogs as families’ transition to temporary housing (mostly apartments, many of which have a limit to the size and number of pets). Again a client has jumped in and is trying to help our neighborhood. Bottom line: determine what is needed and when it is required. Be thoughtful and creative.
3) Houston visitor/volunteers –are you needed? Most shelters and organizations have multiple needs. If you are a doctor or pharmacist who wants to volunteer, there are plenty of opportunities to serve. On the other hand, if you just want to help, make sure you have a plan, a place to volunteer, and a place to stay.
Many flood victims, even if they are still in their houses, are too traumatized to want company even if you are there to help. I had to tell an old college friend who wanted to travel to Houston to help that with my neighbors using me as a fallback shelter, I could not accommodate him.
If there is no specific assignment for you, determine if the money you would spend on flights and hotels would make a greater impact than your time. Many not-for-profits have up to the minute wish lists on Amazon of items they need most. And in the final analysis, nothing works better for not-for-profits (and some displaced families) than cash.
4) Select organizations that make an immediate impact. I discovered that those who lost everything almost immediately needed shelter, food, and transportation. Some who lost their wallets or credit cards needed cash. Sadly, perhaps because of its enormous scale, there is no single non-profit that has been able to support Houston's colossal needs adequately. And there seems to be disagreement whether big organizations (think SPCA and Red Cross) are as effective as grassroots fundraising organizations such as Houston Texans star player JJ Watt’s Hurricane Harvey Fundraiser and the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund, that are giving 100 percent of funds collected to hurricane victims.
Those seeking a smaller more transparent animal rescue group may wish to consider Friends for Life. Also, consider a direct gift of gift cards or cash. Last week we wrote a blog listing some of the organizations our team at The Alexander Group and Alex & Red believe are doing a great job and merit your consideration.
Disaster recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Hurricane Harvey will soon roll off of America’s radar (pardon the pun) and life for some of us in Houston will soon return to normal. The rebuilding effort that lays ahead for many will be challenging and stressful. Donations will be required for months to come. Find your cause, or causes within the disaster, and spend time doing research to determine when, how, and what you can do to help.
Alex & Red and The Alexander Group are supporting clean up and rescue efforts for Hurricane Harvey by matching all employee donations to rescue organizations.