Neighbors, Community Band Together After Hurricane Harvey

So many Woodforest neighbors have helped with evacuation, cleanup and rebuilding efforts within our community; it’s impossible to mention them all by name. In fact, some have even asked to remain anonymous. Nearly every volunteer I spoke with (including those who helped coordinate the entire effort) hoped this article would highlight the collaborative effort of the community rather than the efforts of any one individual.

We all know how Woodforest residents take care of each other. Whether it’s a lost dog, chirping smoke alarms that are just out of the reach of regular ladders, or a late-night post from a mom looking for a dose of children’s Tylenol, residents always come to the rescue.

But how would they fare against a challenge like Harvey?

In true Woodforest style, they exceeded all expectations.

Harvey Overstays His Welcome

Initially, Harvey was just a glimmer in a hurricane hunter’s eye. Back on Thursday, Aug. 17, it was still Invest 91L, and local meteorologist Eric Berger showed its predicted westward course across the Caribbean, posing little threat to the Gulf Coast. But by Tuesday, Aug. 22, forecasts became a little more ominous. The storm had temporarily dissipated but showed signs of regaining strength as it began to edge northward. On Thursday, Aug. 24, forecasters were predicting a potential serious flooding event, and by the morning of Friday, Aug. 25, Woodforest began experiencing the first outer bands of Harvey, now a category 4 hurricane preparing for landfall on the Texas coast.

After two days of varying amounts of rain, the evening of Saturday, Aug. 26 brought one of the worst-case scenarios: One band stalled over the area, while the next band grew in intensity. And by the evening of Sunday, Aug. 27, Woodforest was waterlogged. On Monday, Aug. 28 at 2 a.m., SJRA began releasing water from Lake Conroe at a rate of 79,141 cubic feet per second (cfs). For perspective, the previous record, set in 1994, was 33,360 cfs.

And the rain kept falling.

It wouldn’t end until Tuesday, Aug. 29. By then, the damage was done: 21 homes in Woodforest found themselves with several feet of water in their homes.

Keeping a Watchful Eye on the Skies — and the Creeks

Woodforest resident Brian Bogus was nearing completion on his home in Sanderling (they were planning to move into the home in October), so he was very conscious of the forecast. “I was actually really confident on Sunday that we would be good to go. When I was talking with the neighbors of Sanderling, they felt the water level wasn’t too bad.” But still, early in the storm, he put some sandbags around his new home and then helped with the community’s sandbagging efforts with the other homes, focusing on Capriccio but also helping in Sanderling. “I wasn’t concerned with my new home as much as I was with the others who are already living there,” he said.

Forest Island became the de facto command center for the sandbagging effort – and it would remain the main volunteer hub throughout the flooding event. Dozens of people came out to fill sandbags — covered in mud and wet with the rain, but determined to help protect the homes. Efforts also began on Sunday to begin moving furniture to the upper levels of homes on Sanderling.

Sally Kirkland, a Capriccio resident, said that as the waters rose, many volunteers began digging trenches to reroute the water away from people’s yards. And Sanderling resident Tammy Morrow and her family had barely been in their home two weeks — just finally getting settled — when Harvey struck. She had set an alarm on her phone to notify her if Lake Creek hit 145 feet. That alarm went off at 2:58 early Monday morning. “I looked out back, and the retention ponds were still low. Everything looked OK. But just 45 minutes later, I couldn’t see the curb. Just 20 minutes later, it was in our yard.”

Lake Creek had overflowed its banks and was now flowing down Woodforest Parkway South and into Sanderling.

Brian didn’t find out about the Lake Conroe dam release until Monday morning. And when he heard the volume of water that had been released, “My heart sank. I figured we were in trouble. Once I drove near Sanderling, it became a reality.”

Sanderling resident Lauri Kent saw the river of water rushing down the street and started packing a few changes of clothes in a suitcase and brought some canned soup, a can opener and dog food upstairs. But then she got a call from her neighbor, telling her she had to get out – and a truck was waiting for her outside.

Capriccio residents also faced evacuations. Sally’s husband and other men began helping evacuees off the boats as they came on to dry land and helped move furniture to the second floor of homes. “The water was moving really fast and rising quickly,” she said. They also worked quickly to continue putting out the sandbags that were being delivered.

Relocating 39 Woodforest Families

With neighbors and the fire department conducting evacuations by boat, by Hummer and more, an on-the-spot plan was developed to deliver families to the fire station and rehome them from there. In response, posts went up on social media, asking for donations and temporary housing for the evacuated neighbors. Word spread fast, and supplies inundated the firehouse, where resident Donna Rodriguez was coordinating the rehoming effort and organizing the plethora of neighbors who were waiting to pair with evacuees and take the evacuated families to their homes.

By the time firemen arrived at the Morrow home to evacuate the family, the water in the street was chest high and rushing like a river. They were so new to the neighborhood that they met several of their neighbors for the first time on the evacuation truck.

Later than morning, the fire department began evacuating neighbors at risk in Larkhaven. And as the water continue to rise, by 10 a.m. that morning, the fire department began evacuating some Blanton Bend and Deerbourne Ridge neighbors due to the risk of flooding.

In total, 39 families were evacuated by 2 p.m. on Monday, while sandbagging efforts continued in full force. Some already had places to go; some were scooped up by willing volunteers before they ever made it to the fire station.

Lauri was met outside by a rescuer in a tall red Jeep. “They saved me and my dogs, then they went back for more people,” she recounted. “I still don’t know who they were.” Lauri went to stay with her sister and her family in Deerbourne Ridge, and she can’t thank them, her rescuers and Donna enough for all they’ve done.

A Call for Action Turns Into a Movement

By Monday evening, it was clear to residents that they needed a plan for how to handle recovery efforts when the water came down. They started by canvassing the neighborhood, seeing where there were issues, and then combining the efforts into a single voice from the Forest Island communications hub, putting out requests for volunteers and supplies on the community’s Facebook page.

Donations continued to pour in to the firehouse; it quickly became too much for them to manage. On Tuesday, Woodforest resident and real estate agent Amy Hersey coordinated with one of her clients, the Crotwell family (who now live out of town), and Donna to use the Crotwell’s vacant home as the “donation house.” Resident Amy Blady was quick to take over the management of the donation house and had the assistance of a whole team of outstanding women and willing community volunteers.

Teenagers spent time in the house sorting through donated clothing, and each room of the house was organized by section and was filled with items like diapers and wipes, pet supplies, paper goods, food and drinks, toiletries, and other household goods. And after all needed supplies were distributed to those in need in Woodforest, Blady coordinated with other neighbors to ensure the extra supplies were given to other families in the area affected by Harvey.

After calls went out on Facebook on Tuesday for volunteers to show up at Forest Island and be dispatched to volunteer efforts from there, residents showed up in force — more than 300, by an organizer’s estimates. “I was looking for a way to help after witnessing the evacuation. It broke my heart to see them fleeing from their beautiful, new homes,” one resident volunteer recalled, “I showed up at the pool for an impromptu volunteer meeting and offered to help in any way I could be useful.”

“When we finally were able to get back into our house,” Tammy said, “we posted on the community Facebook page and asked for some help. We got 15 volunteers at our door within the hour.” The same was true for each damaged home. Each had upward of 20 volunteers in homes at any given daylight hour.

The help was overwhelming, in the best possible way. “The world has to have doers – lots and lots of doers,” Tammy explained, “and we were just stunned by the doers in Woodforest.” Blady agreed. “People dropped whatever it was they were doing to help others.”

Many of the volunteers started in Capriccio, where the water receded faster, and moved to Sanderling when it became accessible. Sally recalled, “We started ripping out dry wall and carpet right away in our neighbors’ homes. It wasn’t a conscious decision to get involved — it was just second nature.”

One resident took over the organization of the “Tool Room” – the garage of an empty home in Sanderling. It became the home of donated supplies like shop vacs, fans, brooms, shovels and more. Resident volunteers began initiatives to organize meal chains and to do laundry for those affected by the flood waters. Still others offered babysitting services so parents could continue their efforts, while other families began delivering meals and drinks for volunteers.

Lauri said that as soon as she could get back in to her home, volunteers arrived and immediately started helping her push the water out with whatever they could put their hands on. They also started removing furniture, sheetrock — everything. “I was in such shock, I had no idea where to go or what to do other than point and cry. Their help was so amazing,” she exclaimed. She had people scrubbing her dishes, cleaning off her tchotchkes and doing whatever they could to help. They all took such loving care of all her things, and that meant so much.

Organizers, Lauri said, made the recovery effort look so easy. “People knew where to go and what to do. I never had to say what I needed. Somehow, everyone knew what we all needed before we knew!”

And as the water receded, residents ventured out of the neighborhood to find open stores that were selling needed supplies. Coordinators might put out a Facebook call for cleaning wipes, bleach and buckets, and within an hour, there was an overabundance. The generosity was truly awe-inspiring. Even though few were surprised at the way Woodforest responded, the magnitude of the response was certainly impressive. “At times,” one resident coordinator said, “We just couldn’t accommodate all the help that was being offered.

Everyone in Woodforest contributed in some way — even if they couldn’t do so onsite. One of the organizers of the relief work said that what impressed him was that so many folks — who had zero experience in demo work — came out to help. “It was asking a lot of some of these people to do the things they weren’t generally comfortable with doing,” he said. “But they did it!” Even the younger members of the community were pitching in. Ciaran Casey, an eighth grader at Oak Hills Junior High, worked nearly 12 hours over the course of two days with his family and friends. He said, “I felt very sad for the families and realized it could have happened to any of us. Our home didn’t have any flooding, so we were lucky. But I wanted to show that I still cared about the people around me. I helped rip out floors, carry out drywall, take out trash and move furniture.” Sixth-grader Jack Kelly agreed. “I saw people who needed help fixing their houses. It was hard seeing all the people’s stuff that was ruined all along the street.”

And as homeowners stood in their homes, watching flooring get ripped out and cabinets removed, one thing that struck a volunteer was “the optimism and grace that so many of those affected showed in the face of such personal loss.”

By the end of the day Wednesday, 80% of the homes had been mucked out, and coordinators had already spoken with Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley about collecting and removing debris. An amazing accomplishment — and welcome assistance.

Rebuilding With the Help of Neighbors

What makes this neighborhood different, Blady said, is the people. “This neighborhood really is a community — in better words, a family. Neighbors here are always willing to help one another — that’s evident.”

By the end of the week, most of the demanding work had been completed, and folks could’ve gone back to their normal lives. But several individuals organized a “decompression session” BBQ on Sunday, Aug. 27, and it was truly moving. “Even though help was almost not needed anymore, that didn’t stop the neighbors,” said one Sanderling resident. “They wanted to help lift everyone’s spirits. I know a couple guys who spent the night up there setting up for it. The BBQ was a major display of the remarkable effort, which sums up the entire experience for me.”

Nearly every volunteer and homeowner remarked on the volume of support and how organized every aspect of the flood relief effort was, especially given the unexpected nature of the event.

But that wasn’t the end of the relief efforts.

A plate lunch fundraiser was organized for Sunday, Sept. 17, offering pulled pork, brisket, ribs, jambalaya and sides. Through donated time, equipment, supplies and food, this event raised several thousand dollars that will go directly to the Woodforest families affected by the flood. A t-shirt designed by resident Adam Steward received 500 orders at $30 per shirt. A sponsor volunteered to pay for the cost of the shirts and the printing, so 100% of the funds will go to Woodforest families affected by Harvey — that’s $15,000.

Even with all the work that’s been done, there’s still a long road ahead for rebuilding. Sherri Dunaway shared these thoughts on a Facebook post: “I have learned some things about demo. I learned how to remove baseboards and cut and remove drywall. I wish I could do more. My back is aching, but all I can think about is how it’s not enough … there is so much more to do.”

There are two 501(c)(3) veterans’ organizations — 1st CivDiv and Texas Boys Outdoors — that have offered to serve as a collection point for donations and issue checks to pay bills for expenses to repair and replace flood-damaged items. This effort, currently called the “Woodforest 21 Relief Program,” will let neighbors and friends help the 21 affected Woodforest families get back on their feet after Harvey. Organizers are encouraging residents to solicit personal and corporate donations from those wanting to make a difference locally. Any funds remaining after all repair and replacement costs have been accounted for within Woodforest will stay within the 501(c)(3)s to be used for veterans or to go to other Houston-area hurricane victims. To make a tax-deductible donation to the Woodforest 21 Relief Program, click here.

Keeping the Collaborative Effort Going Forward

Even residents who have gone through major floods and hurricanes emphasized that Woodforest’s response was unique. Lauri, who lost a home in a different neighborhood to the floods last year, said it has been such a different experience in Woodforest. Not only was her former neighborhood not helpful, neighbors actually complained to her when the county didn’t pick debris up off her lawn for six weeks.

Brian said, “I think the collaboration and support that Woodforest gave to neighbors is what humanity is all about. It was truly inspiring.” As another neighbor put it, “The flooding, although terrible, brought out the best in this community. We would be hard-pressed to ever consider living anywhere else.”

And the fact that most everyone in the community could contribute in some way is truly amazing. And for that, Lauri will always be grateful. She said, “I don’t think they really know how much they truly saved my life.” And this event has pushed neighbors to ensure they’re prepared if there’s a “next time.” Sally said, “We are talking about making a plan for whose house we will go to first to start moving furniture and evacuating should we ever be in this situation again. We want to have a plan and be prepared.”

It seems obvious that a community would band together in such a time of need, but it doesn’t always happen. As a real estate agent, Hersey checked in on former clients in other neighborhoods to see how they fared. But she often heard this: “My neighborhood tried and talked about organizing crews to help the flooded neighbors, but nothing came together.” And it doesn’t have to be a big show of support. Sally emphasized, “You all make a difference! No matter how small you may think your effort is.”

And that’s what makes Woodforest unique. “I know there were so many others that helped, and I can’t begin to tell you who they all were. But I thank them so much,” Hersey said. “Because Woodforest residents are what makes this community so rare and amazing.”

Visit the Woodforest 21 Relief Program’s website and like their Facebook page to keep up-to-date on the latest news and events. Contact the program at Woodforest21Relief@outlook.com with any questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s