On Friday, August 25, Hurricane Harvey landed in Texas, devastating Houston and the surrounding cities as it dumped substantial amounts of rain on the residents and their homes and businesses over the next several days. Shortly after the storm, many organizations, churches, and individuals worked together to coordinate Hurricane Harvey relief efforts to assist residents affected by the storm.
Some of the relief efforts are coming from the international aid organization, Operation Blessing International (OBI). The group set up a base camp at a church in Beaumont, Texas. There, Operation Blessing housed, fed, and equipped volunteers from across America.
“We set up and stay until the cities tell us we are no longer needed,” an Operation Blessing official reported. “We were in New Orleans for two years following Hurricane Katrina.”
Led by John Stanley, the External Ministries Pastor at Chase Oaks Church, a group of 10 Chase Oakers and I went to Beaumont, Texas, to partner with Operation Blessing. While serving there, I met volunteers from Texas, Florida, California, Georgia, Maine, and Ohio. All of them arrived with the same goal: to help strangers salvage flooded homes and to give them hope to look beyond their circumstances.
Operation Blessing provided tools, face masks, gloves, and a cooler full of water to each team before sending them out to help a local resident. Our team pulled Janis Evans’ folder.
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When they pushed Janis Evans’ door open, water rushed over the threshold. The water was two feet high and rising. Hurricane Harvey’s murky flood waters carried trash and grass clippings into her home. She stuffed her important papers into the oven above her countertops and then climbed into a rescue boat. She glided down the flooded streets where she had once played as a child.
“Daddy bought this house in the fifties,” she said. “It’s never flooded here, never gotten higher than the curb.”
Janis Evans, 72, is a retired teacher who bought her childhood home from her father back in 1994. She taught first grade for 33 years in Port Arthur, a town about 90 miles east of Houston. Port Arthur is home to the largest oil refinery in the United States. Like all the towns adjacent to Houston, Hurricane Harvey saturated the city, leaving its residents to dig their way out of the mess.
Six of us arrived at Janis’ residence on September 12, exactly two weeks since Harvey’s wrath. We saw what was a typical neighborhood in this part of Texas: curbs lined with man-tall piles of the stuff of life, every person’s belongings and walls, drenched and mottled with mold. There were mountains of it. It was relentless and tragic in its likeness. Couches. Refrigerators. Mattresses. Photo albums. Clothes. Curtains.
Everyone’s life story was out by the curb.
“When I first saw this house, it was when it was being built,” Janis said to me. “Daddy took us here to see the building progress. I walked through this house when only the studs and foundation were here. I was about ten years old.”
Janis studied her mother’s framed needlepoint, which we’d carried to her front yard. “Mother was very talented at this,” she said. “I think it can be saved, don’t you?”
The back of each frame already showed signs of decay. I hated to think that her heirloom was going to the pile by the curb. But even more so, I hated to think how unhealthy it would be for her to keep anything that was rotting. I quickly ran a mantra through my mind. What would I do if this was my mom’s house?
“Let’s lay it out to dry in the sun and see,” I told her.
We worked on Janis’ house for three days. We cut away her walls, baseboards, and doorframes. We took down the paneling lining her den. We carried out her closet doors. We wrapped her fridge with duct tape and hauled it to the curb. Every bag we filled with debris felt both personal and impersonal. We were just carrying damaged walls and water-soaked items. But we were also carrying away memories. Janis’ spirits, however, were strong, joyful almost. She just wanted the dignity of telling a few stories about her belongings.
That belonged to Daddy.
I remember when those students wrote these letters.
Oh, I loved that vest. I love vests. Can we save it?
Did you find that old-fashioned phone? The gold and white one? Do I have to
throw it out?
The vest had to go. The phone had survived.
Twice, FEMA workers rolled down Janis’ street in a giant truck and collected the debris with a claw. The truck cleared Janis’ yard, and then, we recreated the pile again. It seemed never-ending. We paused for a water break and looked at each other.
“And this is just one house on this one street,” my teammate reflected.
By the third day, her house had been transformed back to concrete and exposed studs–the way Janis had first seen it as a ten-year-old girl. Standing at the front door where she’d been rescued, we could see all the way through the house.
“When do you think I can put up walls again?” Janis asked our crew leader.
“I wouldn’t do it for at least two weeks,” he responded.
We hugged her goodbye and drove away from her street a final time, passing the still-growing mounds of debris along the side roads to her house. One church had carried out all of its wooden pews, stacking them in a Jenga-like pile near the street.
There were so many more houses and buildings waiting to be gutted. It was only a drop in the bucket. Janis was one resident in a town of more than 55,000. How would this work ever get done?
* * *
When we returned to the Operation Blessing base camp, dusty and depleted, we met a new team of 10 people from Seattle. A young man had just arrived from Mexico City.
That’s how the work will get done—through the compassion and work of others.
I held back tears. Waves of new volunteers were still coming. People from all backgrounds and skin colors. And I thought, this is my America. This is not the divided America that is lately portrayed on television. These are people who are doing unto others as they would have done for them.
Even Janis, who had lost almost everything, found reason to have hope.
“A lot of people have focused on all they lost,” Janis whispered to us as we prayed for her future. “But think about all we still have.”
Harvey brought historic floodwaters with the storm. But maybe, with the help of strangers and organizations like Operation Blessing, it will create a gentle flood of compassion in its wake.
On Facebook, look for more details about how you can be a part of the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts on Chase Oaks’ upcoming trip to Beaumont, Texas. You can also visit https://www.ob.org/ to volunteer with or learn more about Operation Blessing.