What remains: In the wake of disaster, everyday heroes offer hope
Editor’s note: Standing Up, an occasional series highlighting inspiring people, is inspired by Starbucks Upstanders
Dickinson, Texas – The family that once lived on the tree-lined street was about to buy new carpet for their house. The books of carpet samples, now lying on the pile of putrid debris in the front of their house, revealed the muted color palette they were considering.
Across the street, a package of new pencils decorated with purple flowers – ready for the start of the school year – lay near watermarked snapshots of kids at summer camp, grinning up through grass that hadn’t been mowed in weeks.
Nearby, an elliptical trainer that someone worked out on – or always intended to – was tipped against a mound of waterlogged books and wall board. A Christmas stocking bearing the name “Dan” was in another corner of the yard.
At house after house, in neighborhood after neighborhood, intimate clues to the lives of those who used to live in these homes was on display under the hot sun for all to see, weeks after Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area, flooding it with an estimated 19 trillion gallons of water. Now, this is what remained.
‘I want to help’
A few miles away in La Marque, Wil Scott was organizing piles of another kind – neatly folded socks, clean shirts and children’s pajamas. Nearby was a box of baby shoes. Next to that was a stack of purses. Not far away were jackets. This was where you came to get what you needed after you’d lost everything.
It’s where Scott has been volunteering almost daily for weeks, ever since he answered his phone to hear his wife crying.
Hurricane Harvey had spared their home, but not those of many friends and his colleagues at Starbucks, where he works. His wife, Deena, had taken some donations of food and clothing to a shelter where 250 people, many of whom had lost everything, were staying. When she got there, she expected to add her donation to other plentiful supplies. Instead, she was greeted with nearly empty tables staffed by only one volunteer – and heartbreaking need.
That was when she called her husband. “I said ‘OK, what do you want to do?” he remembered. “She said, ‘I want to help.’ I said ‘OK’. … I didn’t think that one day would turn into me still coming back here every day.”
For weeks now, the couple have devoted long days to procuring donations, at first culling anything they could from their own home, and staffing the ad-hoc relief center they run. Scott, who manages a local Starbucks, gets up before dawn to go to work and then, after a full day in the store, heads to the relief center.
It’s what you do, when the need is this staggering, he said, even if you feel overwhelmed or afraid or have no idea how to get started.
Helping “mainly comes down to ‘Are you afraid to do it?’ What are those fears?” he said. “Or just putting those things aside and doing it. It really takes courage. You have to be able to put yourself out there. If I say, ‘Hey, can I help you with something?’ someone could say ‘No.’ You can’t be afraid of that because if that was the case, I would have never shown up here.”
On a recent morning, a small waiting area adjacent to the front desk of an America’s Best Value Inn, where several hundred are staying with FEMA vouchers, is crowded with people sitting on chairs, waiting for their names to be called so they can go to the donation area and select what they need.
Far from the sparse offerings that Deena Scott encountered the first time she visited, the rooms are now filled with clean clothes, diapers, cans of vegetables, baby formula, cases of water, dog food and more.
Scott helped carry cases of water to people’s cars, checked in with those in the waiting area to see how they were and helped sort new donations. Some people wanted to chat. Others were quieter and seemed exhausted, with energy to only get what they needed and then quickly leave or return to their rooms. He understands it.
“If I was here, I probably wouldn’t be a happy guy,” he said. “So, I understand if people don’t want to interact. … They had a house just like me and now they don’t. And there are kids catching the bus to school from here and coming back here after school or their football games. It’s sad to see.”
Growing up, Scott said that money was always tight. “I didn’t know that we didn’t have a lot because I was still happy. … We were still eating. I just didn’t know it wasn’t normal to eat the same thing every day,” he remembers. “I wouldn’t have known we were poor unless someone told me. But looking back at it now, I realize ‘You know what? We didn’t have a lot.’”
But he had a family that was full of love and optimism. And he had mentors, volunteers who came to his school and talked to him about what was possible. He still talks to some of them today, he said.
Eventually, he went to college and then went to work for Starbucks. There, he was trained by a woman named Picabo Engstrand. They’ve stayed in touch over the years, even after he and Engstrand got their own stores to manage. Their families have gotten to know each other and his wife, Deena, visits Engstrand at her store.
That’s why, after the hurricane hit, “when I heard about their situation, it really broke my heart,” he said.
‘We could die’
Engstrand didn’t know that refrigerators could float. She didn’t know what water could come into a house not just under doorways, but through the very walls themselves. These are the things you learn when a flood fills your house.
Now, weeks after the Hurricane Harvey hit, the house she and her fiancé, Chris Russell, bought just a year and a half ago has been turned inside out – all its contents now in a pile on the lawn – a stuffed green dinosaur belonging to her 4-year-old son, a cabinet, a cross stitch with a teddy bear and the words “A kind word is never wasted.”
They desperately tried to save what they could. When the water began rising late the night of Aug. 26, she and Chris at first stacked their family mementos and electronics up on counters and tables. “The water just kept getting higher and higher,” said Engstrand, 23.
Outside, the sky was alive with lightning. The couple had heard people should go on their roofs, not their attics, but Engstrand was eight months pregnant and they have a 4-year-old son and two large pitbulls and didn’t know how they’d all manage to get up there.
They grabbed a crib mattress for their son to sleep on, a case of water, food, their cell phone, their son’s floaties and an ax in case they needed to break through to the roof. Then they all headed up the stairs.
“It was just like a river outside. It just kept rising,” she said. “I think that was the scariest part because you don’t know when the water’s going to stop rising. … At one point, I told my fiancé, ‘We could die,’ “ she said.
Desperate and with no sign of help coming, the next morning, Engstrand posted on Facebook “Does anyone have a boat and can come save me, my son, Chris and my dogs please??!!! We are in our attic.” It was shared 178 times.
It worked. An old friend saw the post and asked another friend to try to rescue the family. “Facebook is what saved me,” she said.
The house is nearly empty now, gutted down to the frame in many places to get rid of the water damage. They’ve lost nearly everything but they have what’s most important – their safety, she knows. And the new baby, a boy named Kai born Sept. 30, is bringing hope to all of them. The hurricane turned neighbors from casual acquaintances into lifelong friends, she said. In some ways, it’s brought out the best of people.
It’s been hard for her to ask for help, she said, but without flood insurance and a new baby coming, she’s had to. And she loves that her old friend Wil Scott is devoted to helping those like her who lost so much. Just knowing people like him are out there helps people have faith.
“Houston stood up,” she said. “People came out and helped.”
Back at the parking lot of the America’s Best Value Inn, Scott was carrying another case of water to a van belonging to two older women. He’s got something else on his mind. He needs to write his vows. The next day is his 10th wedding anniversary. He and his wife planned months ago to have a celebration and renew their vows.
They thought about canceling it after the hurricane, but decided to do it anyhow, fitting it in between work and volunteering at the relief center. After all, this is what marriage is about for them.
Deena Scott said the man she met all those years back has always been focused on giving back to the community, whether volunteering at their church, mentoring others or helping fold socks at a relief center. When someone needs something, he responds, she said. “Wil has such a passion to help.”
Later on, Scott says, he’ll go home, play with the kids, write his vows and get ready for the ceremony. But first, there are socks to fold, food donations to be collected and water cases to be stacked.
“As long as there’s people here, and they need help,” he said, “I’m here.”