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Answering call from within, Houstonians help any way they can

September 3, 2017

As a line of eager shoppers formed at a Walgreens on the edge of River Oaks, another group of people in the same parking lot were busy loading items into trucks to donate to those in urgent need. It was a spontaneous thing. Two guys tired of sitting at home watching the devastation unfold on TV decided to help in some way. They left their homes on Tuesday, found a promising location and put up a sign asking for donations. Before they knew it, cars began to pull up one after one.

Nobody told them to. Encouragement came from an older source dating back a couple thousand years.

“Christ says the two biggest charges are to love your neighbor and to love Him, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Joe Looke. “That’s really why we’re here.”

With water still rising in some places and the future a black hole of uncertainty, every nook and cranny of the Houston metro area has seen moments of redemption and hope. People so often characterized as hopelessly divided and living in separate worlds found that they weren’t, suddenly brought together not only by mayhem, but something more essential - their shared humanity.

And so those with boats set out to find strangers in fear. Those with trucks ferried those in wheelchairs to safety. Those blessed only with time and a little expertise lined up to give something - a blanket, a bandage, a meal, a receptive ear - to those who presented nothing but need.

Streets became rivers. Houses flooded. Shelters swelled. As the rain kept falling and one dire prediction followed another, thousands of those who had emerged unscathed from the assault of Hurricane Harvey acted on impulse and with little direction.

With an entire region in shock by what had been taken from them, an irrepressible desire rose just like the floodwaters: Do something. Give back. Help.

‘Big hearts’

The streets already were dry near Highland Village, not far from the Galleria and a stone’s throw from Houston’s most affluent enclave. The 35-year-old Looke and his friend Daniel Webb assumed there were neighbors who may be reluctant about venturing out to shelters across Houston because of flood waters. So they stepped in as middle men of mercy.

And people came. They walked up in their rain jackets, arms filled with toilet paper or packs of water. One man strolled up with a stack of warm pizzas. People who came to Walgreens to replenish their own supplies decided to add some of them to a growing pile by the door.

“Texans have big hearts,” Webb said. “The people of Houston are awesome and they pay attention and they respond to people’s needs in a time like this.”

With the sun out Wednesday, members of a Houston swim club responded to a Facebook message from their coach, Greg Orphanides. They headed to southwest Houston, just south of Meyerland, and started pulling soggy furniture to the curb, smashing wet drywall, and ripping up carpet in three homes.

With similarly flooded houses too numerous to count, their effort was beyond tiny. But it was something they could do, the first step of a journey with no obvious end.

“I didn’t have a boat or a kayak, so I started thinking about what else we can do,” said Orphanides, standing in front of a home belonging to the mother of Coog Aquatics team member Melanie Rosen. “It was possible to come over here and lend a hand.”

The swim team’s work will go on so long as it can get volunteers. It helps that school is out and their parents haven’t gone back to work. Even when that changes, Orphanides vows to keep at it. He lives in Midtown, but the fortunes of geography do not erase the responsibility he feels.

“It’s about what we can do right now,” said his wife, Kelly. “The whole city needs help.”

Flood ignores status

In Kingwood, resident Alana Nunn saw flooded folks from submerged subdivisions waiting to be taken to shelters on Tuesday, she counted herself lucky. So far hers, Kings River, remained dry. But she knew the nearby shelter that had just opened was likely to have nothing but a roof and a dry floor.

“We just rounded up all the jackets we had in our house, towels, and just giving it to the people coming over who are soaking wet,” Nunn said.

In Crosby, a community of about 3,000 in northeast Harris County, Alec Lewis and his family used their boat to rescue over 100 people, ranging from a 4-year-old child to a bed-ridden 78-year-old woman who could barely walk. All but one were strangers. Some started to cry upon reaching the boat, grown men among them. It was hard to leave their homes behind, but the fear of not being able to had been worse.

Lewis had just started at Texas A&M-Kingsville, where he plays football, when Harvey turned toward the Texas coast. He came home to be with his family, and they made it through the deluge fine. Knowing that others in Crosby did not gnawed at him. Out came the boat.

They made the rounds through the dirty chocolate water. Some of those they helped offered them money in appreciation. It never occurred to them to accept it.

“We weren’t out there for that,” Lewis said.

Except for a small number of thieves and looters, nobody was. This is what people do, whether they disagree on politics, culture, or sports. They find a way, they offer what they have. A homeless man in downtown Houston gave a homeless woman his last pair of socks. Even if the looters drew more headlines, their impact was miniscule by contrast.

William Kelsey had a boat. The Meyerland resident used it to get flooded neighbors out of their homes. Among them were the Wolffs, including Beth and Edd, a prominent family in real estate circles. They have plenty of money and enough status to help raise money in big-time philanthropic circles. That didn’t mean much when they were trapped on their roof.

“We were just being good neighbors and good Texans,” Kelsey said. “I didn’t do anything that someone else wouldn’t have done for me.”

Soon the Wolffs were among others who had been rescued and taken to a nearby elementary school doing temporary service as a shelter. From there they headed to a hotel. Kelsey steered back into the floods. Others still needed to be rescued.

“It just shows what a wonderful community we have,” Beth Wolff said. “You never think you’re going to be one of those people who calls upon community service. Our family, thankfully, has the resources to get out of the flood. We now have a very keen appreciation for the services which are needed for so many.”

A dose of outrage

Not everyone who showed up to help were local. Sid Borska and Mary Beth arrived on the eve of the storm after hearing a call for volunteers from the American Red Cross. They came with a specific purpose. Both are mental health professionals and knew their services would be needed during the catastrophic flooding and its aftermath.

“It’s a calling,” Beth said. “Volunteering for the Red Cross has been on my bucket list for years.”

The trauma of going through a catastrophic natural disaster, like the floods produced by Harvey, can exacerbate mental illness in already fragile individuals, said Beth, 69, who worked as a counselor her entire adult life before retiring last year. She arrived from Virginia on Friday, Borska a day later from Wyoming on one of the last flights before the airports were shut down.

Soon they were working 15-hour shifts at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which had been converted into a shelter and by Tuesday held 9,000 people. Borska, 72, understood what people were going through, having volunteered with the Red Cross after the Mississippi River floods of 2011. There, he met a woman who said she didn’t need to talk to him, she was doing just fine..

It came to Sean Salisbury to offer a different sort of help, a type only available to those with an audience - public outrage.

The former NFL quarterback, ESPN analyst, commentator and radio talk show host took to Twitter Monday with a short video he had recorded while parked in front of Lakewood Church, the famous megachurch pastored by Joel Osteen that was constructed in a former sports arena. Salisbury was incensed that the church had not been opened as a shelter for evacuees. He was not buying the explanation that there was no safe way to get there.

“At least offer it. At least show us that you care,” Salisbury said on the video.

‘We all feel lost’

On Tuesday, after Salisbury’s video received 3,300 retweets and was picked up on media websites and on social media, Lakewood began accepting evacuees.

“They couldn’t let them in yesterday, and they can (Tuesday)? Coincidence or inconvenience? You tell me,” Salisbury said. “We know why it is open, but, guess what. That is a good thing. I will stand up and applaud and stand on my head for Joel Osteen opening the building today.”

At Trinity Episcopal Church in Baytown, which suddenly found itself sheltering 40 residents from a nearby apartment complex, parishioner Amy Waltz-Reasonover was describing the look of “shock and awe” on the faces those walking through the front door.

“We look at the people devastated around us and we know they have so much rebuilding to do,” she said. “We all feel lost. Where do we go from here? How do we help when there’s so much need?”