Monday, October 23, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 4)

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

It's taken me a while to write this next piece. It's partially laziness, but it's mostly because this day, our second in the field, was emotionally wrenching for me and it's been difficult to revisit it. My apologies for taking so long.

At the end of my last post, we had just finished our first day in the field. I haven't talked much about the facilities, other than to mention sleeping dormitory-style, and this deserves a mention. We were housed in the Calvary Baptist Church, which had become the de facto headquarters for hurricane relief in Beaumont, TX. The church pretty much turned the entire facility, which encompassed a number of buildings on about three acres, over to relief agencies, particularly Team Rubicon. But they didn't just hand us the property - they were right there with us, working side-by-side. I mentioned cooking, shower and laundry facilities that various other Baptist ministries had contributed - the staff of this church, along with many others, also operated those facilities. 

For example, at the end of each day, we were all entirely soaked through. Both Sharon and I had packed very judiciously, since we had to be able to travel with everything we owned in our backpacks. This means that we didn't bring a week's worth of underwear and socks. Fortunately, one of the church teams ran a laundry facility in the parking lot. At the end of each exhausting day, I went to the shower facility, peeled off layers of drenched clothing and put them in a bag. After showering, I dropped them off at the laundry, which was conveniently located right next to the showers. By the next afternoon, they were returned, cleaned and folded. There were four relief workers doing laundry for about 120 people every day, and they did it efficiently and with smiles on their faces. And remember that they were washing clothes that had pretty much every awful thing you can imagine on them, from mold to Ebola. OK, maybe not Ebola, but you get the idea.

At the end of our first day in the field, we previewed the house we would work on the following day. The homeowners had set up some folding tables just outside their garage, where they were sorting through the very small amount of their belongings that were salvageable. The wife, who I'll call Helen, was a delightful, funny woman of about 75 years who insisted on hugging each of us when we arrived. I should note here that each of us had been mucking out a different house, in 90° heat and 90% humidity, for the previous 8 hours. I found it hard enough simply being in my own body, smelling the way I did, but Helen didn't care a whit. We had done nothing yet, but she couldn't stop telling us how grateful she was that (1) she and her husband David were still alive and (2) we were there to help. 

We spent only about two hours at her house that day. The house was a relatively small one-story with a recently-renovated kitchen and a massively-equipped workshop in the garage. This neighborhood was one of the unfortunate ones that was the victim of intentional flooding - the Army Corp of Engineers determined that they needed to release water from nearby Steinhagen Lake to prevent catastrophic damage to the dams. We quickly realized that this house had been almost completely submerged as a result. We spent most of our time organizing and planning a strategy for removing the remaining furniture and stripping the rest of the interior. We assured Helen and David that we would return bright and early the following morning, and headed back to our FOB (forward operating base).

Closing out each day was more than just a matter of returning a truck. We made a pretty massive mess of everything we worked with - trucks, equipment and people - and in military fashion, the day wasn't over until everything was in pristene condition for the next day. When we returned to the FOB, we removed all of our considerable equipment from the truck and power-washed both the equipment and the truck. We then power-washed and disinfected everyone's boots, which were left outside to dry, and headed for the aforementioned showers.

I mentioned in Part 3 that each day ended with a debriefing and campfire. This took place after dinner, which was typically a high-carbohydrate, mass-produced meal. There were a handful of fast-food places nearby that had reopened (at this point, 11 days after the waters receded, only about 25% of businesses were open), but no one had the energy to do much of anything but drag ourselves to dinner and the debrief.

The daily debriefing consisted mostly of our command updating us on our progess thus far - how many homes we had worked on, how many our assessment teams had evaluated and what was expected for the following day. Staff provided a small amount of beer, rationing everyone to two beers maximum. At the end of the debrief, our unit commander said, "Tell me a story." After a long pause, someone raised a hand, which opened the floodgates. For the next 90 minutes, many of my co-volunteers told stories of destruction and hope. As exhausted as I was, I still wanted to hear every single one. When we ran out of stories, Sharon and I dragged ourselves up to our cots. I looked at my phone and realized that it was 9.15pm. I'm pretty sure the last time I went to sleep at 9.15pm was never; Sharon agreed.

The next morning came far too quickly for all of us. We were all up by 6.15am - since about 50 of us were sharing 3 sinks, we needed plenty of time so we could get on the road by 7.30am. I had awakened at around 3 convinced that I would have to take the day off - my shoulder, which has been a lifetime problem, was in very bad shape as a result of my holding a 10 lb. crowbar over my head for 8 hours. But by 6 I was OK, so I took some ibuprofen and decided I could at least make it until lunch.

After some surprisingly good sausage and biscuits and a half-gallon of coffee, I was ready to get moving. Team Charlie piled into our truck and drove the 10 minutes to Helen and David's house, who were waiting for us along with their daughter. "What do y'all feel like for lunch today?" she asked. I told her that we had brought lunch along, and she asked what we had. "Mostly military MREs, and some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," I responded. She made a little motion with her hand, as though she were gently brushing the MREs off her work table. "We'd like to buy you lunch. What do you want?" There was some discussion, but no one wanted to volunteer an idea. Helen knew I used to live in Houston, and asked me what my favorite fast food was when I lived there. Before I could stop the words from escaping, "Church's fried chicken!" came out. Helen nodded and said that was also her favorite, especially with the squeeze of jalapeno juice (if you've had Church's, you know what I mean).

The first two hours consisted of deciding exactly how much of the sheetrock we needed to remove. After some debate, we decided that cutting the sheetrock didn't make much sense - the room that fared the best had water damage up to 7 feet. We decided to strip the whole house, except for the ceilings, down to the studs.

One of the other volunteers and I decided to take on the kitchen. Everything needed to go, including built-in cabinets and all of the appliances. Most of it was awful but pretty straightforward until we got to the range. We muscled it out away from the wall, no simple feat as it was shockingly heavy. But we got it positioned to move, and I got a hand cart from the truck. We slid it into place. I was pretty sure I could handle the weight, but one of the other volunteers came over to help. My work partner gave us a little boost and we tilted the range back onto the hand cart.

This was when we learned why the range was so heavy. It was an almost-new Kenmore range/oven combination, and apparently one of its features is its airtight seal. Water had somehow gotten into the oven opening and was unable to escape. In the next few seconds, my helper and I were drenched from the chest down with two-week-old dirty flood water. The smell was indescribable - I was sure something had died in that oven. Unfortunately, there was really nothing we could do at that point other than return to base for a change of clothes, which we opted not to do. We already smelled pretty bad; how much worse would another hew hours be?

We moved along to the cabinets, which were an experience in themselves for a different reason. Helen had several drawers in the kitchen that contained photos, documents and bundles of letters. These were almost all beyond salvage, but we took our time and went through everything to see if there were anything worth keeping. We did find a few things, and both Helen and David treated each like Christmas gifts. I found it hard to understand how they could keep a positive outlook when they had lost almost everything. Helen explained it very simply: "We already thought everything was gone. Anything you find is a gift."

Next: It finally all gets to me.