Gov. Abbott honors Harvey heroes in South Belt-Ellington ceremony

July 20, 2018 GMT

As Hurricane Harvey unleashed record rainfall on Houston nearly 11 months ago, Reena Benitez, 16, was crying in her bedroom. She heard that Dobie High School roughly two miles away was being opened as a shelter, and “I knew I had to do something.”

So the Pasadena girl started walking through the flooded streets, into waist deep water, even deeper. When the water got too deep, she accepted a ride from a stranger in a large truck to get to the school, where she spent two days sorting clothes and helping victims of the nation’s worst weather disaster.

“We opened our house to people who were flooded, because have flooding,” she recalls. “I felt really bad about what was happening . . . It taught me not to take things for granted.”

On Thursday night, Reena stood among dozens of first-responders, health care workers, businessmen, church and school leaders and other Texans in the South Belt-Ellington area of Houston who were recognized as “Harvey Heroes,” as the anniversary nears when the killer storm brought Houston and much of the Texas coast to its knees.

Abbott used the packed event at the Lone Star Flight Museum to insist that the acts of heroism demonstrated during the catastrophe and its aftermath — including the selfless willingness of Reena to reach the shelter through the deep floodwaters — underscores the resilient determination that makes Texas a great state.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Harvey aftermath

“When we come together as one, there is no challenge we cannot overcome,” Abbott said, rebuffing criticism that the the recovery has been too little, too slow. “More money has been received faster than any other catastrophe in state history” — more than $30 billion so far, he added.

“We are going to rebuild but we are going to rebuild more flood-proof than ever before,” Abbott said.

To underscore his upbeat message that the Texas economy, despite the terrible storm, continues to grow at a rate envied by other states, Abbott noted that the state unemployment rate is now lower than it was before Harvey hit — and that approximately 1,000 new residents a day continue to pour into Texas because of the job market.

“Texas is better than it ever has been,” he said, repeating a theme of his re-election campaign. “There are no challenges that are beyond Texas to respond to.”

As for Reena, now 17 and a high-school graduate awaiting the chance to join the military, she said she sat through much of Thursday night’s program wondering why she was being lauded for doing what she did, especially having the governor tell her story, which led to a standing ovation. A photo of her walking through waist-deep waters was featured on the event program.

“People needed help, and I just did what I could,” she told a reporter, echoing the sentiments of other others who were recognized for their heroics and insisted they didn’t do anything that special.

Abbott had this response: “The acts of heroism came quite literally from every part of the community . . . When they were needed the most, they literally put their lives on the line to save lives.”

Mike Ward covers Texas politics, the governor and executive branch, criminal justice, ethics and investigations. He is co-host of Texas Take , the state’s leading political podcast. Follow him on Twitter and send him story tips at Mike.Ward@Chron.com.