Thursday, September 28, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 3)

[Note: Reminder that we're trying to raise $5,000 for Team Rubicon's continuing good works. Click here to donate, and remember that TR is a 501(c)(3) charity that qualifies for most companies' matching contribution programs.]

Our first day in the field was Sunday, September 10. I had a pretty terrible night's sleep. I'm spoiled - I am accustomed to sleeping in a king-size, soft bed with Sharon, a pillow and some dogs. I woke about every hour or so, owing to nothing in particular except the fact that I was sleeping on an army cot in a sleeping bag in a huge room with 25 other people, most of whom snored. The snoring itself didn't bother me all that much - I usually wear earphones - but when you've already been awakened and are pretty sure there's no more sleep in store for you, snoring is just one more thing.

We had been told in our briefing the previous night that breakfast was served beginning at 6.00am, and that we had a mandatory morning briefing at 7.30am. I had unnecessarily set the alarm on my phone for 6.00am. When it went off, I was already awake and considered briefly letting Sharon sleep for a bit longer, but then realized that she was awake and reading. We both did an awkward in-sleeping-bag shuffle to put underwear and pants on. This is funny to look back on now, as five days' hence we pretty much just jumped out of bed with no regard for who was looking (which was no one). By 6.30am, we had our gear on and were, more or less, ready to greet day 1.

We left the building that served as our dormitory and walked to the hastily-constructed chow hall, which serves as a basketball court in brighter days. We hadn't really noticed the night before, but there were no less than 20 trailers spotted around the parking lot. The vast majority were emblazoned with other church organizations' logos (the Chicago Baptist Ministry, the Baptist Ministry of Alabama and the Southern Baptist Convention are three I recall). These were dedicated disaster relief trailers of one sort or another. Over the next week, I learned that two of these were shower facilities (one had eiight showers, one had four), several housed cooking facilities for large groups and one contained washers and dryers. At least five others held field equipment, water and food.

We got styrofoam box trays (so we could take food with us if needed) and lined up. The first day's breakfast was Southern standard - biscuits, gravy, sausage and cheesy grits. This was an ongoing theme - breakfasts were heavily carb-laden. We found a few people we had met the night before, wolfed down food, orange juice and coffee with them and made our way back over to the arena where the prior night's briefing had taken place. The morning briefing was much more structured than the prior night's - each key department (planning, logistics, safety, equipment) reported on their status and each had their own first-timer lecture (more than half of us were first-time TR volunteers). They stressed that we were heading for an eye-opening experience, and that safety was paramount. 

We divided into six strike teams of six people each. The strike teams are the groups that actually do the physical labor in the field - the rest of the team is there to support the strike teams. Sharon was assigned to Strike Team Delta; I was on Team Charlie. We found our assigned Ford F-250, which was already fully loaded with our gear for the day - tools of various kinds, safety gear, wheelbarrows and hand carts. We drove around to the food supply truck, where we picked up lunch for the group - this day, lunch was an assortment of sandwiches plus a mind-boggling array of chips, energy bars, nuts, fruit, gum, cookies and, incomprehensibly, chocolate bars (remember we're in east Texas in early September - daytime temperatures are high 80s to mid 90s). We also loaded 120 water bottles and 40 bottles of Gatorade. I incorrectly believed that this was about twice what we needed - we ran out before day's end.

The teams piled into the trucks and took off for our first house. For the first four miles or so, things really didn't look all that bad. There was a lot of debris on the road, but it wasn't until we got off the main highways that we began to get some sense of just how tragic the situation was. Here's an example of a very typical house in Bevil Oaks, a little town abutting Beaumont on the east. [Note: we were told on several occasions each day that we weren't 'disaster tourists,' and were cautioned against taking photos and putting them on social media, making a terrible problem even worse. This is one of only a small number I took, and in each case I got permission from the owners after agreeing to remove anything that might identify them.]
One of hundreds of piles we saw in front of almost all houses.
Most of this pile is in a drainage culvert that you can't see in this picture, so it actually represents a pile about eight feet high. Nothing that you see here is salvageable. Just to be clear - in this neighborhood, every single house had a pile at least this big in front of it. Well, that's not entirely true - some of the residents hadn't returned yet, so relief crews hadn't processed them yet. 

We arrived at our first house just before 8.00am. The house was in what used to be a lovely neighborhood, with almost every home sitting on a half-acre or more of dense woods. From the outside, if you ignored the mountain of furniture, appliances and personal goods, it looked pretty much like a house. It wasn't until we got inside that we had our first look at the real disaster Harvey had wreaked.


The house was a two-story, somewhat unusual for east Texas, with living areas and bedrooms downstairs and the kitchen, dining room and master upstairs. The homeowners, a Beaumont police officer, his wife and two children, had taken much of the moveable stuff out to the street already. This included wall-to-wall carpet that they had cut into small pieces because it was all still drenched, moldy and too heavy to carry in larger pieces. 

I should note here that the worst of the hurricane had passed nine days earlier, but the water was so high in many areas that residents couldn't return for as long as two weeks. This was one of those homes - it had taken on six feet of water and then stewed in 90° heat and 100% humidity for seven days. The stench was hard to describe, and I won't try. We all knew there was bad stuff in the air.

Our strike team leader collected us outside and gave us a rundown of what he believed we could accomplish. Since the homeowners had already do a lot of the work, most of our job was to get the house to the point where, once everything dried out, construction could start. Since this place had been under so much water, the assessment team (who precedes us at every house - more on this later) determined that we needed to strip the ground floor down to the studs up to a height of 6.5 feet. We broke into two-person teams, and I got my first lesson in demolition - the gentle art of removing sopping wet drywall in as few pieces as possible.

I say this last somewhat facetiously, but there is in fact an art to this process. One of our team leads came through the house with a Sawzall (if you don't know what this is but like destroying things, I suggest you buy one right now) and cut the sheetrock at 6.5'. This allowed us to come through with prybars and gently pull the sheetrock away from the wall. In many cases, the sheetrock was still so drenched that it was impossible to remove it in pieces bigger than about a foot square. But we did find at least a few spots where, with the proper soft touch, we were able to remove drywall segments almost intact. It became a sort of game, albeit one that was highly frustrating most of the time.

The foundation of the house, like most in Texas, is a slab of concrete. Drywall is really just gypsum plaster between sheets of paper. In very little time, every room we were in developed a dangerously slippery coating of wet plaster, requiring us to stop and scrape the floors every few minutes to prevent falls. We began to realize that the way we were organized was actually standing in the way of getting the job done, so we switched to 3-person teams. This allowed us to assign one person to scrape up the wet plaster while the other two took down the drywall. We each found at the end of the day that we were about 1" taller, owing entirely to the collected, hardened plaster on our work boots.

Since the damage in this house was limited to less than half of the living space (because of the second story and the garage), things moved along pretty quickly. We had found black mold in several of the walls, so everyone on the team wore masks - this in addition to work pants, hardhats, rubber gloves and work gloves. The result was that we were all literally soaked through with perspiration, in addition to the various other liquids we slogged through or had splashed on us. We stopped every 30 minutes or so to chug water or Gatorade. 

We began to see something that took us by surprise. On a regular basis, someone would drive by - sometimes the Red Cross, sometimes church volunteers, sometimes just neighbors - and ask if we were hungry. Inevitably, someone said yes, and we were treated to fried chicken, cold cut sandwiches, sometimes just fruit or cookies. The last time this happened on this first day, it was a neighbor who had gone to a relief center set up by his church and had taken too many sandwiches. He dropped off the five he knew he couldn't eat.

I thought this first house was pretty grim. The mother had collected Christmas ornaments all her life, and about 90% of them were ruined. Not gone, mind you - that would have been easier. They were there, and in some cases intact, but were covered in mold and other unmentionable stuff. I found a box in a closet crawlspace, and when I opened it I found about fifty of those old yellow Kodak photograph folders. There were about a thousand photos in the box. I found one of the kids (they were teenagers) and suggested that he separate as many as he could before they dried together. By the time we were ready to leave, he had rescued a few dozen; my guess is that about 10% of them could be saved.

By about 3.00pm, we had done all we could. We pulled our equipment outside and back to the truck, loaded up and each guzzled another water before heading out. The homeowners came out to thank us. Our team leader mentioned that their house was unusually well-constructed (more on this later, also - we got to see a lot of the shortcuts that unscrupulous builders take), and that this meant that rebuilding was entirely reasonable. They were surprised - they had been under the impression that they would need to get lucky not to have to tear it down. 

We decided to do a quick preview of our next house - we knew we couldn't get anything substantial done in the two hours we had left. What I said before about this first house being grim was wrong. The first house had minor damage compared to the next one, which had been almost completely submerged. We also met the homeowners, two of the most delightful and unique people I've ever met. Much more on them in the next entry.

We dragged out a few of the larger items and then needed to pack up to get back in time for dinner and our evening briefing. Once we returned, we power-washed every piece of equipment, inventoried it, washed out the truck, scraped plaster off our boots, were sprayed with disinfectant and were then off to the showers. I can honestly say that I have never had a more satisfying shower, despite it being five minutes' duration and mostly cold. 

The rest of the evening consisted of an unmemorable but welcome dinner, followed by an evening debriefing around a small campfire. Once business was done, the Beer Flag was raised, meaning that we could each partake of our allotment of two beers. There's more to tell on this topic, but I am nearly as exhausted telling this story as I was working this day, so it will wait until the next entry.

Next up: The worst of times, and the best of people.

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