Houston cleanup has little crime and lots of helping hands
HOUSTON — After riding out Hurricane Harvey in a motel and waiting an agonizing week for the waist-high waters to recede, 71-year-old Bob Janak returned to his wrecked home for the first time to find it swarming with people.
They weren’t thieves or looters. They were volunteers who took it upon themselves to clean out the modest ranch house in outlying Magnolia, pushing wheelbarrows of sodden carpet and drywall and spreading armfuls of soggy, salvageable belongings on his front lawn.
“I tried to help out, but it was pretty obvious I was just getting in the way,” Janak said with a laugh. “They are amazing, I tell you. I’m so touched.”
For many people in the Houston area, the real takeaway from Harvey has not been misery, but kindness. The crime and opportunism that often follow big storms has been a notable non-factor, at least for now. That stands in contrast to the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, when reports of gunfire, looting and violence proliferated in New Orleans.
Rescue crews from other states say the aftermath of Harvey, which has claimed at least 67 lives, has been marked by more friendliness than they’ve ever seen.
“This is the face of Houston, people who are giving in spirit,” said Bill Baldwin, a real estate agent who started the Harvey Relief Hub, a one-stop place that dispatches volunteers to assignments and provides storm victims with everything from shampoo to dry shoes. “The kindness truly is the story of the storm.”
The generosity takes many forms: Neighbors wading through the floodwaters with elderly residents in their arms. Armadas of weekend boaters going door to door to rescue strangers of every race. Impromptu barbeque feasts for weary refugees. People lined up for a block outside a downtown shelter — to volunteer.
To be sure, there have been scattered problems. Houston police say they have made 18 arrests for looting. Outside the city limits in Harris County, that number is about 100, which District Attorney Kim Ogg said is incredibly low for an area of nearly 5 million people.
“This speaks to the way Houstonians work and come together,” Ogg said. “It’s been a hallmark of our region.”
So what’s so different about Houston? Some say its spirit is born of bitter experience with previous deadly hurricanes, including Allison, Ike and Rita. Others say it comes from being one of the nation’s most racially diverse cities that’s a mix of newcomers and native Texans. And still others say it’s just what’s done here.
Houston native Andrew White was still grieving the Aug. 4 death of his father, former Texas Gov. Mark White, when the storm hit. But he didn’t hesitate to use his 16-foot fishing boat as part of a flotilla known as the “Texas Navy” to help rescue people across the city.
“I’m not a hero, I just have a boat,” White said. “That’s what happened all over Houston.”
Dan Gannon, who is coordinating volunteers for the Church of St. John the Divine, said it has become common for him to send helpers to clear out a house, only to have other volunteers already there. When he sent lunch to a team of volunteers, another group had already brought food.
Some out-of-towners have driven to Houston to help family or friends, only to find that strangers beat them to it. So instead, they’ve gone to the homes of people they don’t know, offering to strip wet carpet and pull down ruined drywall. Some have responded to calls for help on social media by churches or community centers.
“To be honest, Houston’s making America look good,” Gannon said. “I wish the rest of the country would respond this way to crises.”
Abdullah Alyafie, who is studying computer engineering at Texas Southern University, joined a group of other students from Saudi Arabia who were helping clean out flood-ravaged homes Monday in a poor area of northeast Houston.
The city’s diversity was not lost on Alyafie, who said a goal of the organization he worked with, known as Hand for Hand, aspires to show that people from his country care.
“It doesn’t matter which religion you are or where you’re from,” he said. “We want to work together to make Houston strong again.”
Homer Allison, the pastor at Battle Cry Ministries in Magnolia, said he has been preparing for this day since Rita in 2005. This time, he wanted to be ready. So he set up a warehouse stocked with food, water, blankets and soap.
Women from the neighborhood have been coming by every evening to pick up trash bags of dirty laundry, returning them the next morning clean and folded. There’s also a room filled with air mattresses and cots for crews committed to long-term restoration efforts — some coming from other parts of Texas or neighboring states.
So far they have gutted 34 homes, mostly in underprivileged neighborhoods, Allison said.
“I intend to keep this going 24/7 for 365 days,” he said. “We will do mop-ups, put up Sheetrock, whatever, until the last doorknob is up.”
Associated Press writers Michael Graczyk, Jay Reeves, Paul Wiseman and Robin McDowell in Houston, and Adam Kealoha Causey in Dallas contributed to this report.