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Calling all hands

Hurricane Harvey has proven churches and volunteers remain vital to disaster recovery efforts

Calling all hands

Volunteers toss out damaged drywall from an elderly woman’s home in Port Arthur, Texas.(Kim Brent/Beaumont Enterprise/AP)

FRIENDSWOOD & PEARLAND, Texas—James Yoakum stood in his front yard and surveyed a growing pile of debris, items that once filled his house: soggy drywall, a stack of moldy books, a waterlogged couch. One small suitcase caked in mud perched next to a pink princess bag that belched murky water when Yoakum unzipped it. The throat-tickling tang of mildew, sewage, and rotting garbage filled the air.

Harvey, the massive storm that devastated southeast Texas, first as a hurricane and then as a tropical storm, swept about 4 feet of floodwater into James and Lesli Yoakum’s home in Friendswood. About one-third of the houses in this suburb south of Houston suffered flood damage on Aug. 27, when Harvey unleashed as much as 52 inches of rain across the area.

Like most others living in or near Houston, the Yoakums did not have flood insurance. After Hurricane Harvey came and went, James, Lesli, and their 11-year-old daughter faced the daunting task of ripping out the contents of their home and planning renovations. James Yoakum figured he and his wife and a few friends would have to gut their home’s entire first floor by themselves. He set a goal of tackling one room a day.

They had just started to cut out their first section of drywall when two cars pulled up outside. Soon, church volunteers were swarming his yard and house: Unbeknownst to Yoakum, his church, Nassau Bay Baptist, had placed him on a list of people who needed help.

“You’d turn around, and there’s two guys picking stuff up and hauling stuff off,” Yoakum said. “You’d clear about another 6 foot of Sheetrock and you’d turn around, and now there’s three guys and four kids and a mom. And then you go back to work, and somebody stops you and there’s a cooler of water and there’s like 18 people around it.”

‘Helping Texas overcome this disaster is going to be far greater than FEMA coordinating the mission of the entire federal government. We need citizens to be involved.’ —Brock Long, FEMA director

The volunteers stripped the Yoakums’ home to the studs in less than 48 hours. It was one of about 30 houses crews from Nassau Bay Baptist cleaned between Aug. 31 and Sept. 4. Nassau Bay was one of hundreds of churches across Houston, Beaumont, and Rockport (where Harvey made landfall) that organized immediate relief efforts before national groups could get into affected areas. Besides lending cleanup help, some churches served as shelters, while others distributed donations. The churches also partnered with national faith-based relief organizations that coordinated volunteers from around the country to help Texans in need.

Congress overwhelmingly approved a $15.3 billion aid package for Harvey victims on Sept. 8, two days before another massive hurricane, Irma, slammed into Florida. Yet much of the rebuilding work in Texas and Florida will fall to volunteers and faith-based groups with a long track record of helping communities recover from disasters. Federal officials once discouraged mass volunteer mobilization, urging faith-based groups and others to leave recovery efforts to the professionals. But after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bungled its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the government became more receptive to outside help. With this year’s hurricane disasters, churches and charities are again proving their vital role—shown by the volunteer relief efforts in Texas in the first weeks following Harvey.

Leigh Jones

Volunteers outside of the Yoakums’ house (Leigh Jones)

At the height of Harvey’s devastation, floodwater covered 444 square miles of Harris County, which includes Houston. Officials estimate nearly 200,000 houses across the state need repair. The recovery effort could take years and cost as much as $125 billion.

As the extent of Harvey’s destruction became apparent, FEMA director Brock Long said community-based cooperation would be vital to recovery: “Helping Texas overcome this disaster is going to be far greater than FEMA coordinating the mission of the entire federal government. We need citizens to be involved.”

Getting involved is exactly what Jeremy Rust and his wife, Dana, did: The couple helped organize Nassau Bay Baptist’s early cleanup efforts. Rust, a safety engineer who works for a NASA subcontractor assisting astronauts during spacewalks, had no experience with disaster relief. But he had a cell phone and a Google spreadsheet.

After the storm, a team of volunteers began compiling a list of Nassau Bay church members with flood damage. It included three of their four pastors. People began dropping off clothing, food, and cleaning supplies at the church. Mud-out crews got to work the next day. Rust said his church just did what churches are supposed to do: “We’re here to minister to the community, serve the community. We’re trying to be here as a beacon to the community. While you’d like to do that all the time, it’s a testimony to step up in times of catastrophe.”

‘I remind pastors and faith leaders everywhere I go that a disaster should be the church’s finest hour.’ —Jamie Johnson

When it comes to disaster relief, the federal government hasn’t always been very welcoming to outside groups, said Greg Forrester, president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Before Katrina, FEMA viewed volunteer organizations as an uncoordinated network that didn’t mesh well with the government’s systems-based approach. But when the government’s approach failed after Katrina—emergency supplies ran out, crowded shelters became their own disaster zones, and agency infighting led to paralysis of aid distribution—volunteer groups stepped in to pick up the pieces.

“Katrina proved that the voluntary sector does the vast majority of response and recovery that happens in this nation,” Forrester said, noting volunteer organizations make the difference in how well a community recovers. His association has 62 members, groups that span the secular, religious, and ideological spectrum. Their diversity makes them especially good at identifying disaster victims who need help but might be overlooked by larger organizations, including the government.

Local volunteers did most of the heavy lifting during the first week of Harvey recovery. But after Labor Day, many Houstonians returned to their regular jobs, turning over ongoing cleanup efforts to national groups. Samaritan’s Purse partnered with five churches across the area to house and deploy hundreds of volunteers who converged from across the country. On a recent muggy morning in Pearland, another southern suburb, about 30 volunteers tugged bright orange Samaritan’s Purse T-shirts over their heads and gathered in the parking lot of Crosspoint Church to pray before heading out to three job sites.

LM Otero/AP

Volunteers sign up to help Harvey victims at a shelter opened at the Lakewood Church in Houston. (LM Otero/AP)

The neighborhood closest to the church, Clear Creek Estates, suffered extensive flooding, and many homeowners took refuge inside the church as the water rose. Towering piles of debris, the damp detritus of upended lives, now line the streets. The Pearland team started with a list of 30 houses that needed mud-out help, but coordinator Shannon Daley expected the list to grow quickly once people saw the crews at work. Across the Harvey disaster zone two weeks after the storm, Samaritan’s Purse had work orders for 2,400 homes.

Like the churches that launched initial cleanup efforts, national groups like Samaritan’s Purse work separately but cooperatively. Each has its area of expertise, said David Melber, vice president of Send Relief, an arm of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. Some Southern Baptist churches are collecting paint and rebuilding supplies that likely will be redirected to Mennonite groups specializing in construction projects. The Southern Baptist groups focus on providing kitchen, shower, and laundry units to areas with no other facilities. They worked with the Red Cross to prepare and serve meals at Houston’s two largest shelters during the first few weeks after the storm. And like Samaritan’s Purse, they will work with local churches to deploy cleanup crews as long as needed.

“Volunteer agencies that work disasters probably function better as a collective unit than most people realize because the needs are overwhelming,” Melber said.

In 2006, the Bush administration established the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a small group within the Department of Homeland Security responsible for connecting religious organizations with the federal government. Jamie Johnson, a former pastor who previously worked with international aid group World-Wide Missions, became the center’s director in April. He flew to Texas a week after Harvey made landfall to survey the damage.

David J. Phillip/AP

A volunteer embraces a flood victim while helping clean up her home in Spring, Texas. (David J. Phillip/AP)

“I remind pastors and faith leaders everywhere I go that a disaster should be the church’s finest hour,” Johnson said. “It is in that moment when everything seems dark, uncertain, and people’s lives are turned upside down that the church and faith-based institutions give help to the helpless, hope to the hopeless, and provide spiritual and emotional care to those who are at times at the end of their ropes.”

Many in Houston may feel at the end of their ropes as they begin to rebuild. In Harris County just 15 percent of homeowners had flood insurance. In neighboring Brazoria County 25 percent had coverage. Many homes that flooded sat in areas that had never flooded before. FEMA provides $33,000 grants, but that won’t be enough in most cases to fix all the damage. The agency will push homeowners to take out low-interest government loans to pay for remaining repairs.

Some residents simply won’t be able to afford it. That’s when local churches will step in again, said Dave Welch, head of the Houston Area Pastor Council, which helped coordinate volunteer relief efforts among local congregations: “Ultimately when all the national groups and first responder organizations go back to other places, those people that have been hurt by this are basically the mission field. That’s where the church needs to be.”

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Flood victims receive food and supplies from a church in Orange, Texas. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In Friendswood, amid the sound of clanging hammers and buzzing saws, James Yoakum leaned against a bright red rental car parked in his driveway and smiled sadly as a church volunteer hefted a closet door onto the debris pile. The Yoakums plan to move back home as soon as an electrician friend from church declares it safe. They’ll live upstairs while they make repairs to the first floor.

With no flood insurance, Yoakum applied for FEMA aid before the water had even receded. Without it, he said he would be “in a world of hurt.” He knows his church will be there to help, but he doesn’t want to have to ask.

“I don’t like turning to anybody,” he said as another volunteer trudged through his front door, pushing a wheelbarrow full of drywall. “The only thing that keeps me from going nuts over this and chasing them out is, I don’t have a choice.”

Leigh Jones

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on education for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.

Comments

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 09/14/2017 09:20 pm

    People will take care of their own, when left free to do so.  When a snowstorm clobbered Philadelphia some time ago, some low-priority blocks plowed themselves out rather than wait for city services.  That was citizen initiative at its finest--and saved the city a lot of money, too!

  • WORLD User 237159
    Posted: Fri, 09/15/2017 06:52 am

    Texas: Like most others living in or near Houston, the Yoakums did not have flood insurance. After Hurricane Harvey came and went, James, Lesli, and their 11-year-old daughter faced the daunting task of ripping out the contents of their home and planning renovations. James Yoakum figured he and his wife and a few friends would have to gut their home’s entire first floor by themselves. He set a goal of tackling one room a day.

    They had just started to cut out their first section of drywall when two cars pulled up outside. Soon, church volunteers were swarming his yard and house: Unbeknownst to Yoakum, his church, Nassau Bay Baptist, had placed him on a list of people who needed help.

    “You’d turn around, and there’s two guys picking stuff up and hauling stuff off,” Yoakum said. “You’d clear about another 6 foot of Sheetrock and you’d turn around, and now there’s three guys and four kids and a mom. And then you go back to work, and somebody stops you and there’s a cooler of water and there’s like 18 people around it.”

    Florda: Miami area police arrested more than 50 suspected looters during Hurricane Irma, including 26 people who were accused of breaking into a single Wal-Mart (WMT.N> store, authorities said on Tuesday.

     

    Texans ALWAYS stick together in their finest hour of need. I should know. I lived there for seven years. Amazing people. Always there when you needed them most. 

  • CJ
    Posted: Fri, 09/15/2017 09:18 am

    I live in Florida and our neighbors have been very active in helping each other recover from Irma.  Let's not judge an entire state by such a limited group. 

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Sun, 09/17/2017 06:45 am

    Wise Statement CJ!