After the Houston Flood
Tzu Chi volunteers distribute debit cards in Greenspoint, Houston.    Huang You-bin

Hurricane Harvey dumped torrential rains on Texas, leaving the greater Houston area severely flooded. In response, Tzu Chi volunteers mobilized to distribute relief goods and debit cards.

After the floodwaters left by Hurricane Harvey began to recede, displaced residents returned to their neighborhoods in Dickinson, a Houston suburb with a population of about 20,000, to take stock of their homes and to clean up. About 70 percent of the houses there had been badly damaged. Many people removed water-damaged items from their homes for the city to collect and haul away. Moldy air enveloped the place.

Similar scenes played out in Katy, another Houston suburb. In addition to its share of floodwater, Katy had been inundated by extra water released from two local reservoirs. The Army Corps of Engineers released the extra water to avoid the danger of a breach.

Only days earlier, on August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast as a category 4 storm. It meandered along the coast picking up more moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, and then made a second landfall on August 30—dumping heavy rains on Texas all the while—before moving on to Louisiana.

The Houston area received an unprecedented amount of rain. In two days, the area received as much rain as it normally received in a whole year. So much water falling so quickly simply overwhelmed the metropolitan area, which is susceptible to floods anyway: It has a low elevation of 50 feet above sea level, and it is located near the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou. Thus, many areas of the city are in direct flood plains.

A flood unlike any other ensued. Much of Houston was drowned, with some neighborhoods getting inundated worse than others. Many people evacuated to shelters, some as far as Dallas, 225 miles to the north.

The Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas can shelter 5,000 people. At the request of the center, the Tzu Chi Dallas branch promptly provided 2,800 blankets for victims. When volunteers delivered the blankets to the center, city officials and American Red Cross workers were there to greet them. The groups were no strangers to each other. Tzu Chi volunteers had visited shelters in Dallas almost ten years before, in 2008, after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Now another hurricane had brought the groups together again. They quickly placed blankets on row upon row of cots in the vast hall.

Tzu Chi Foundation headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan, air shipped four tons of instant rice to Houston, where local Tzu Chi volunteers and their counterparts from New York, New Jersey, and California were working together to assess the damage in disaster areas and carry out relief work. The Houston volunteers were themselves flood victims, but they still volunteered to help others during the crisis.

Many areas needed help—too many for any group to help alone, so Tzu Chi volunteers chose to focus on communities that had been more severely damaged and that weren’t getting as many resources as other areas. They kicked off their aid distributions on September 9.

A volunteer helps a recipient at a distribution held on September 16, 2017, in Dickinson, Texas. Over 200 volunteers distributed goods and debit cards to more than 2,000 families that day.          Hector Muniete

Police and first responders

Many police officers and first responders, despite being directly impacted by Hurricane Harvey themselves, had worked frantically on the front lines after the disaster. They were often so busy helping others that they were unable to attend to their own homes. As a token of appreciation for their selfless dedication, Tzu Chi volunteers organized additional aid distributions specifically for them. Two such distributions were held in Beaumont and Dickinson on September 9 and 10, where blankets and debit cards were given out.

At the Beaumont distribution venue, Brit Featherston, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, expressed his gratitude to the Tzu Chi “angels” for their timely help. Police officer Ryan Hargrove, holding the debit card that he had just received, was also very thankful. He told the volunteers that his wife was a police officer in another city and that the two of them had both worked around the clock, with little rest and unable to go home. As the demand for emergency response slowed with the passage of time, the officer felt that he was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. He believed that things would get better.

During the distribution, volunteers again met Sergeant Candice Cox from the Beaumont Police Department. They had given her some assistance in New Orleans in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “I’ve had that generator [you gave me] for 12 years,” Cox told the volunteers, adding that the generator had this time been used to help multiple families. Unable to keep her tears from rolling down her face, she told the volunteers that they were always quick to show up and give a hand after a disaster. She thought such dedicated service was simply fantastic.

In mid-September, volunteers visited Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. Chief Acevedo pointed out that his entire department worked nonstop for six days after the hurricane and rescued 6,000 people. Five hundred police officers on the force were themselves hurricane victims, but they worked just as hard as the rest to serve the public.

Law enforcement and first responders are an essential stabilizing force in society after a major disaster. Tzu Chi volunteers continued to distribute debit cards during the second half of September to this group of individuals.

Tzu Chi volunteers place blankets on cots at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.        Wu Yi-xuan

Conveying warmth

Between September 9 and October 1, volunteers held 27 distributions benefiting more than 12,000 families.

Among the aid recipients were some low-income illegal immigrants living in rental units. Their homes had been damaged by the flood, but they were obligated to continue to pay the rent. They were in a particularly tight spot as their undocumented status disqualified them for government assistance.

Greenspoint, a community in the northern part of Houston, is home to many such immigrants. The area has 5,000 low-rent apartment units, of which 600 were seriously damaged by Hurricane Harvey. Many residents there are illegal Latin American or African immigrants. Their lives plunged from hard to all but impossible. After assessing the damage in the area, Tzu Chi volunteers held distributions for residents on September 10 and 27.

On the morning of September 10, some residents arrived at the distribution venue as early as six o’clock. Mark Bryant was the first in the queue. “I have nothing left,” he said. “My apartment was damaged and had to be repaired, so I had to move out for a few days. But I still have to pay the rent. All I can do now is wait.”

More than 200 families brought their claim checks to the venue that day. In addition to items including blankets, each family received a debit card that ranged, depending on family size, from 400 to 800 American dollars.

Fifteen volunteers sat behind a line of desks verifying the recipients’ identities and chatting with them as they waited to activate their debit cards.

One recipient, Sara Kneisley, said through her tears that she felt she was truly blessed and that she was shedding tears of joy, not depression, at seeing Tzu Chi volunteers coming to help her.

The sight of the debit card proved that the distribution was for real to some doubters who had come to the distribution only half believing that they would receive anything valuable. “The amount is staggering for me. I thought we’d get maybe 10 or 25 dollars, or a meal card,” said Nia Colbert. Konstance Swift said that she had thought that she would at best receive some food or clothes and had no idea she’d be given money. She said the money would be of great help to her and her family and that it was amazing that it had been small donations from ordinary people rather than government grants that had made the distribution possible.

The knowledge that the foundation relies on small donations around the world to carry out its missions of helping the needy prompted Willie Minger, another aid recipient, to rush home to get his piggybank and donate it to the foundation.

A vehicle creeps along a flooded stretch of road in Beaumont.          Jaime Prerta


November 2017