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Harvey, Helplessness, and Hope

I grew up on the coast of Texas; hurricanes come with the territory. I’ve heard my parents and grandparents swap stories about hurricane Carla in 1961, I remember evacuating to my aunt and uncle’s house in north Houston for Alicia in ’83, watched in horror from my new home in Austin as friends and family were literally trapped on I45 for hours trying to evacuate when Rita hit in 2005, just after Katrina, and lastly, I remember the devastation hurricane Ike brought in 2008. When I got the opportunity to relocate back home to Houston late last year, the threat of a hurricane never entered my mind. When Harvey started showing up on the radar, I had to remind myself, “Oh yeah, it’s hurricane season.” First, it started out as an inconvenience. We were doing the usual preparations, gas in the cars, lots of bottled water, generator in case we lost power, etc., and then they cancelled school on Friday, August 25th. School had just started on Monday, and as a mom of four kids ages 2-9, school starting was a welcome relief. The storm hit Friday night, and it was uneventful for me in my coastal suburb of Houston. It was upgraded to a category 4 just before landfall, and I held my breath for our seaside neighbors in Port Aransas and Rockport. We got a little rain and some lightning, but nothing too crazy. The kids slept through the entire thing. The next day on Facebook, my feed was full of people marking themselves “safe”, and heartbreaking pictures from the coast. I got a notification that a friend in Phoenix was trying to see if I was okay and it offered to mark me safe, and I accepted. I know now this was premature. I don’t remember exactly what time the first warning came through on my phone, but it made me jump a mile. It was a tornado warning, and it was the first of many. At one point, a local news station reported that we’d had 110 tornado warnings caused by Harvey. My phone was buzzing constantly. By Monday, I didn’t even hear them anymore. On Saturday, the rain started and it didn’t stop. The rain came down so hard and so fast, that my husband was in our backyard until 3am digging trenches trying to give the water somewhere to go other than inside our home. We had to drain our pool over a dozen times. After a sleepless night and a brief break in the rain, my husband and I loaded up the kids and drove around the neighborhood to assess the damage. We couldn’t get very far. Our house is located in the center of the subdivision, and we were literally on an island. The water was so high on the outskirts, the streets were unrecognizable and we saw the top halves of cars sitting ominously in the flood waters. We quietly drove back home. Helplessness The next few days were awful. There’s no pretty way to say what was happening in Houston and its surrounding areas, and I have no words to describe the strangling feeling of helplessness as I watched the destruction going on around me. I was dry, had power, and felt incredibly guilty about it. We were lucky. My heart was broken for those who weren’t. Thanks to social media, I had an inside view into what was going on in the lives of friends and family members across town. Every time a new evacuation was called or they showed a particularly bad area on the news, I found myself checking my mental rolodex to remember who lives where and try to reach out or check their Facebook status for an update. I sat horrified and helpless as a friend’s wife from high school posted that she was trapped in her attic with her children, as friends frantically shared her status trying to get someone to rescue her. Address after address popped up of people asking for help because the water rose so quickly, no one had time to get out. With constant digging and pool draining, we continued to stay safe and dry, but I quickly learned of others who weren’t so lucky. Several colleagues and residents of JLABS @ TMC were forced to evacuate, several of their homes took on water, and some confirmed they lost everything. Still I sat in my house, glued to the news, restless, unable to help. Then came the hope One thing about Houstonians, they act fast. The flood waters were still rising when long time business owner Jim McIngvale opened his furniture store to people displaced by the storm. JJ Watt started a donation fund, which he pledged the first $100K, and that fund hit $20M after Labor Day. But it wasn’t the celebrities or the rich that made the biggest impact, it was the people who were suffering themselves. It seems like suddenly the entire boat owning population of Houston were helping people out of their homes. For every “rescue needed” post I saw on Facebook, there were two more saying “We have a boat, text me if you need help.” That’s the thing about the people that inhabit our nation’s most diverse city, in a time of need, they answer the call. When the shelters began to pop up I had the kids clean out their drawers and closets. I also made a mental note to not do a major cleanout next year until after hurricane season. After we curated our pile, I went onto Facebook and Nextdoor to see who nearby was accepting donations. To my surprise, no one was. They were now asking for very specific toiletries, and turning everything else away due to an overwhelming response. We were too late. People who lived here longer knew what was coming, and they were ready. I found a truck heading for Rockport, and I sent our donations with them. I read once that in a tragic situation we’re supposed to look for the helpers. Our operations manager Julie Humphries volunteered at a local church with her husband and two daughters, one of our resident CEO’s reported to the convention center and volunteered as a medic, how our team could contribute to relief efforts was a passionate topic in our daily team check ins, and those are just the stories I know about. Helpers were everywhere. By Wednesday, things were finally settling down. Many areas were still flooded, but the storm had finally turned east, and the sun began to peek out from the clouds. My neighbor’s unofficial rain gauge, which is basically a bucket with measurements, held 51 inches of water. If you look at the map below, I fall into the light gray category just south of Downtown Houston. The U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) actually had to add not one, but two color categories to their map to effectively show the rain totals during Harvey. The news stations are now referring to it as an unprecedented 1000-year flood. Texans are resilient. We are far from being able to rebuild. Most people are still unable to return to their homes. Schools have all been closed until September 11, some indefinitely, and even though our JLABS site had minimal damage, due to highway flooding and accessibility, we were told to stay home and focus on our families until after Labor Day. Looking forward, we will be deprived of life’s conveniences, my trash service and I imagine the rest of the city’s, has been restricted because of landfill flooding and debris, grocery stores are far from being fully stocked, gasoline prices, if you can find it, have spiked. The rest of the country will move on. We, however, will be living with daily reminders of Harvey. I am so grateful and appreciative for the constant check ins and well wishes from colleagues across the world. J&J set up a 2-1 match for employees towards partner charities, and the JLABS team has pledged to donate all event proceeds across JLABS sites for Q3 to the Greater Houston Community Foundation to help those affected by the storm.  The outpouring of support from my personal and professional community is incredible. One of my girlfriend’s commented good heartedly, “Looks like a great time to move back to Austin!” Nope, not in a million years. I’m staying right here, because I know that no matter what happens, Houston has my back.