When you live in an area hit by a devastating hurricane mixed with tornadoes and record-breaking flooding, it makes the international news. Dramatic rescues and fatalities fill the headlines and the sensational is made more so by unending media coverage.
But most of us were impacted by the compassionate sacrifices of people who will never get national media coverage or be recognized by anyone beyond their Fort Bend circle. They are the hidden heroes, and their impact on our community has been profound.
St. Theresa Catholic Church was one of the first to step up and offer shelter to local residents displaced by the storm. Uwaila Osaren, a church member, showed up to volunteer for a few hours but willingly took on a leadership role when it became clear she was needed. She began coordinating volunteers to set up a temporary shelter and collect the large influx of supplies that arrived steadily as people began emerging from their homes. The volunteer force was largely supported by I CERV, the Ismaili Community Involved in Responsible Volunteering – that group alone constituted 60-100 volunteers who worked three shifts for round-the-clock support and cataloging of supplies.
“What has blown me away is people from all ethnicities and religions – not just the St. Theresa family – who have come together to help,” said Osaren. “Another pleasant surprise has been the teenagers who have shown maturity and dedication, working hard, staying as long as needed, and completely disproving the negative stereotype of teenagers.”
The church provided shelter and a supply drop-off point during the first week post-Harvey. However, many residents still couldn’t leave their neighborhoods and relied on a different kind of hero.
Terry Clayton, a resident of Sienna Plantation, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, was instrumental in keeping everyone informed of Harvey’s path, tornado warnings, evacuation schedules, and everything the neighbors needed to know to stay safe.
Clayton started the Sienna Plantation Neighbors group on Facebook back in January, having no idea the part it would play in saving lives during Hurricane Harvey. When Harvey’s path came closer to Houston, Clayton took to the Facebook group page to update residents and keep them informed. Soon, the neighborhood discovered the most reliable information was coming from Clayton. Thirty minutes after Clayton warned the group of the first tornado, she received 200 requests to join. Within 12 hours, she received 1500 requests. Neighbors began posting updates of lightning strikes and more tornado warnings, and by Wednesday, she had 5000 requests to join the group.
Clayton explained, “I had no idea how many people were watching me and how my reactions to the storm would affect other people. I just tried to be honest, to get beyond the rumors, without causing panic. I didn’t realize I was being a leader. I didn’t know people were looking to me for answers. It turns out, my group had become a lifeline, and it was very humbling.”
Clayton worked tirelessly to stay on top of the information and communicate it to her neighbors. She didn’t pay attention to the amount of time she was logging until her hands started shaking and she realized she’d been typing on her phone day and night. But for someone who values integrity more than anything, she was touched by her neighbors’ trust in her and by the sense of community they all shared.
“We all became family, neighbors helping neighbors, and it made me realize, none of us has to be alone.”
Mike Fitzpatrick, a resident of Prestwick Subdivision, couldn’t agree more. While his wife, Laurie, was in New York moving her youngest daughter into a college dorm, Harvey was leaving a flood of water in its wake. Alone in the house, Mike watched the water rise until it began seeping into their home.
“I don’t want to remember the sound the house made when water came in,” Fitzpatrick said. “The house gurgled and groaned, and upstairs, trying to sleep, I knew it was happening.”
The next morning, a friend showed up with a raft and began carrying belongings and the couple’s four cats to safety. On the second day of flooding, Ken Alexander, owner and president of Build Pro, a commercial and residential contractor, arrived at the house with family and friends and a canoe filled with fans, dehumidifiers, and food. They worked to salvage all they could, taking home wet towels to wash and dry and return the next day for more cleanup. Alexander left items he needed for his own business to help the family dry out and minimize their own expenses. This was a godsend, since Laurie, finally able to return to Houston, also had to return to her pediatric medical practice, where patients had been waiting for care. As much as Laurie wanted to be home to help her husband, she had to care for her patients, keep her staff employed, and administer tetanus shots to those who had been working in flood waters. She saw 40 patients a day, then went home to haul debris and set up temporary living quarters upstairs.
Fitzpatrick worried that while his wife was caring for everyone else, no one was caring for her. But that’s where friends came in, showing up each day to offer support wherever it was needed. Fitzpatrick said, “Even though thank you sounds like it’s not enough, I’ve learned to never stop saying it. I don’t know how to repay people for what they’ve done for me. There’s not enough words in the English language to convey the thanks and gratitude I have for these people. All I can do is use that motivation to help my neighbor and friends.”
That concept of paying it forward has been a popular one in Houston, where “Houston Strong” has become both an attitude and words to live by. Josh Moore was able to witness the power of God and the concept of paying it forward through a series of events that brought out the beauty in Harvey.
As the storm raged outside on the first night, Josh and his wife Anji were still in a dry home, but their neighbors, who were close to the bayou, were already seeing flooding. The power had gone off, so the families met at Josh and Anji’s house for a candlelit dinner. As they prayed over their dinner, the lights came on, and as Josh said, “It felt like hope, like God was there.” The neighbors spent the night, while Josh dug a trench around his home to help collect water and worried over his one-year-old in his crib upstairs.
By Monday, the Moore’s house was no longer a refuge as it filled with water. It wasn’t until later that Josh realized his neighborhood was one of those sacrificed to minimize flood damage to others. His hope was quickly fading until he heard a knock at his front door.
Michael Gilbert, a stranger to the Moores, introduced himself. He was a member of Anji’s father, Pastor Dave Peterson’s, church, and he was there to help. He said, “Your father-in-law saved my life and now I’m going to save yours.” He had brought two guys and a raft to carry out the Moores’ most prized possessions. In this case, that was Josh and Anji’s children.
“I had just met Michael,” Josh said, “and I knew I could trust him. He literally carried my kids out of the flood and made sure they were on a boat to safety. Since the rescue only got us out of our homes and neighborhood, Michael took us to a safe location and made sure we were cared for. And he did it all because God saved him years before. It really drove home the message that God does all the work, all the saving.”
That was the message as people emerged from their homes to survey Harvey’s wreckage and determine what to do next. River Pointe Church welcomed a full congregation that gave a standing ovation and cheered for Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert as he was recognized for his tireless work in the community. The church fed 150 National Guardsmen in the first days after the hurricane, and for the next weeks, coordinated teams were set up to work at homes hit hardest.
Pastor Patrick Kelly said, “The eye could see but the mind couldn’t process what we were seeing. We had to trust God. We had no control.” He told the story of a single woman who had lost everything and felt that God had abandoned her. River Pointe Church showed up with a team that helped clean out her house and restore living conditions, and the transformation to her heart was even greater than what took place in her home. She described the volunteers as “a light in the midst of great darkness who restored my faith in humanity.”
Kelly added, “Man is not capable of accumulating anything that will provide total security. That’s why we need God, in a big, deep way.” The church continued to send out teams as members of the congregations showed up in droves to volunteer their time and resources. Many headed to Pecan Grove, where work groups of 30 at each home did more in one day than the homeowners could have done in a month. In total, over a thousand volunteers cleaned out 150 homes in Fort Bend.
Outside of church volunteers, service clubs and organizations enlisted their members to fill needs throughout the community. Sugar Land Rotary Club was present across Fort Bend as members made deliveries for Meals on Wheels, worked at local shelters, fed volunteers, and even risked their own safety to deliver water and other supplies to heavily flooded areas. Tabb Dye, owner of Stor-it-4-Less, donated U-Hauls and personally delivered supplies with fellow Rotarian Karl Schleicher. The two headed to Beaumont with three trucks loaded with supplies, at one point requesting a police escort to get through flooded areas. The two-hour ride became a six-hour trek each way, but Dye and Schleicher were determined to help where no one else could.
“I heard on the radio that high water stopped many supply efforts to Beaumont. It felt good knowing that our shipment helped make a difference,” said Schleicher.
The stories of these local hidden heroes continue to abound as Fort Bend County residents sacrifice their time and resources to help those in need. From Greatwood residents providing a brisket barbecue for First Responders to local restaurants like Veritas Steak & Seafood feeding National Guardsmen, we have taken care of our own and shared our love with those who have come to our aid. We have shown the world what it means to be Texas Strong.
“The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fail, because it had its foundation on the rock.” Matthew 7:25
Rebecca Deurlein is the author of Teenagers 101: What a top teacher wishes you knew about helping your kid succeed, and CEO of Teenager Success 101, a one-on-one tutoring and life coaching company dedicated to helping kids find success. She blogs and writes internationally, speaks to parents across the nation, and loves every minute of living in Sugar Land, TX. Find her on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Huffington Post, or through her own blog A Teacher’s Guide to Understanding Teenagers. All can be accessed at rebeccadeurlein.com.