At the beginning of August 2017, myself and my team of 8 other people were sent to Port Aransas, Texas to assist FEMA with their Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.
What we found there was heartbreaking. The destruction of the town was beyond words. Broken glass, power lines and debris were everywhere you turned. Out in the streets, there were piles of debris that were easily taller than I was, containing waterlogged memories and memories of the past. But even more heartbreaking were the stories of the Survivors. Those are the moments that froze around me and will stay with me forever. I still remember faces of those that I talked to. I still remember the pain in their voices and the way their presence seemed to wisp away after I had left their presence. These are the Ghost stories of Hurricane Harvey.
One of the very first survivors I tried to help the community center, will stay in my mind for the rest of my conscious days. He was an older gentleman, who had lost everything. Let me repeat, “lost everything.” In training, we would hear the Disaster Survivor Assistance Specialist (DSA) people say that but you can’t know the full force of that until it’s hitting you across the face; witnessing it makes it real. This gentleman’s home had literally washed away in the floodwater. He had been living on the porch of someone else’s damaged house for days. For days, his existence was defined by fighting off the mosquitos, or submitting to them, and living a permanent reminder that he has no place to go.
There’s a kind of hope in people’s eyes when they first walk up to you. There’s this kind of reverence they feel toward your presence and this almost very light way that they first approach you. They’re almost shy at first, stepping lightly as if you’re going to run away if they get too close too fast. And when they sit in the seat across from you, there’s always this pause. This moment of silence where they exhale once before beginning to speak. It’s the calm before the storm. The silence of the eye. And for many, it’s the first time they have the chance to sit down in a safe place.
But the thing that kills me every single time is, we can’t always help them.
The one thing this guy really needed was a place to sleep. A safe place to sleep. Get him out of the heat and suffocating humidity of Texas, off his friend’s broken porch, and under an actual roof until his money had come in. He had enough food. The community had, at least, made sure of that. There were restaurants and distribution points all up and down the road that had opened their doors to serve free, hot food. No one was going hungry on their watch at least.
While we were talking to him, people from town and neighbors were coming up to him and checking on him. Asking if he was okay, asking if he had eaten, asking if he was hanging in there. And that support system was really beautiful to see. Neighbor helping neighbor. An extensive, extended family. But there was still no shelter. Seven days, an entire week after the storm hit, and there was still no shelter in town for people to go. I was supposed to help this man. And sure, I registered him in our system to receive FEMA assistance but he wouldn’t see any of that for weeks. He would still be sleeping on a porch, and I couldn’t do a thing about it.
A week later, my teammate and I were walking down into a community that was completely devastated. It was absolutely surreal. On one side of the road were these houses with piles of debris in the yard rendered absolutely inaccessible. On the right, was a trailer park with nothing left but concrete plots. The trailers were either tipped over or gone without a trace. There was nothing left from some of them. It’s like they never existed at all.
A few minutes into the community, we see a man walking up to us on the side of the road. He had been crying. You could tell by the red tinge in his eyes. His shirt was a dirty, seafoam green, and he wore a visor that I can only assume used to be white. Unlike a lot of people we talked to while we were canvassing, he had come to us. Waved us down on the street and sought us out.
He found us, only to be intercepted by the local environmental health officers, who were working with the local police in the area for the response phase after Hurricane Harvey. One guy took him aside to check his driver’s license and to ask him questions. While his partner checked his identity, his partner was asking us questions about what we were doing in the neighborhood. He told us that they just wanted to ensure that first responders and government personnel were safe and that he wasn’t just a vagrant. And while I respected and appreciated that, the man behind him was clearly in pain. He needed help.
I know his name. I know his address. I know his face. But most importantly, I know his story. He evacuated with a friend a few days before the storm. It wasn’t the same when he came back. There was a palm tree from his yard leaning against the front of his home. His roof had all but completely collapsed on everything that was inside and there wasn’t even a way to get inside. Debris blocked entrance into his home. A boat that wasn’t even his own was leaning against the side of his home and a brand new decking that his neighbor had built the week before was in the middle of his lawn. A piece of plywood was leaning against the debris with the black lettering “Yard of the Month.” Its owner sat right in front of me in a sandy camp chair, with his deep blue eyes and shaking voice, registering for FEMA assistance.
I’m still having trouble explaining the absolute devastation and sorrow I felt when I talked to him. There really just isn’t any words that I can use. And that feels hopeless to me. I felt hopeless that day. It was right around four o’clock, right when our workday ends and two other of my teammates had met up with me and were waiting in the street. Their relief was pretty evident by the way their laughs carried over to me. It was grading on the ears to hear. Like extra rough sandpaper scraping down my inner canal. This light, happy sound, while I was staring into the eyes of a man who had slept outside in his backyard on a pile of rubble for the past week. While I was telling him that even though we were registering him, it would take a week or so just for anything to happen. And where did that leave him meanwhile? While we were talking to him, a neighbor came over to give him a tarp so he could at least make some sort of shelter for himself. She told him that there was food available at a park nearby. But he didn’t care. When your spirit is gone, you don’t care. And in the background, there was laughing.
The van picked us up right in front of his door. He saw us get in and drive away. I left a piece of my mind there when we left. I had a disconnect then, between what was real and what wasn’t. I got into the van with my mind floating through so many thoughts at the same time. The fact that my entire team was now going back to a place where we each had a warm and safe place to sleep that night, wasn’t real to me. It didn’t seem fair. I started out the window and watched as the city blended into open land, into the water. I stared at dirty blonde bun of the girl sitting in front of me, without really seeing anything, without remembering her name. All I thought about was him. And how, in the end, I really could help him at all. He had told us that all of these people were without roots now. They had nowhere to go. They were like dust in the wind. And he had started humming that song by Kansas while I was trying to register him. I can still hear his shaking, shattered voice in my head if I remember him. I don’t think I will ever forget it either.
The more and more work we do here, it occurs to me that there is really so little we can do. And what we do for people, we hardly ever see that result. We register people for assistance. We help them fill out a several page long forms with their personal information and then sit back and watch them leave with just another number that is supposed to mean something.
Each person, each family is a number. They have a social security number, and a FEMA number, and as far as they’re concerned, it’s basically the same thing. But if that’s not even bad enough, each member of my team also has to keep a running tally of the number of registrations a day, and status updates, and total interactions, and a number of other things that I really don’t think matter. Who cares how many registrations we do? If that registration won’t even help them the way they need it to, then what is even the point? I would rather spend hours with one person helping them solve a problem or finding them the help they really need because then at least, I know I made some type of difference. But this whole system relies on numbers. How many flyers did you leave at homes during the day? How many data points did you drop in a computer system that half the time doesn’t even work? We all need to report these numbers up the chain so it looks like we did something.
But I’ve come to realize it’s the stories that really matter. Like his. After we left his home and got in the van, I had pulled out my notebook (the process was more of a habit at this point than a conscious decision) and made a single line tally mark under the categories ‘Interaction’ and ‘Registration’. And that made me want to cry. Here was this incredible man, with such a heartbreaking and emotional story, and all the representation allowed in the system for him was a tally mark.
Two weeks later I had the opportunity to return to his home to see if anything had changed. We were in the same neighborhood on another assignment but we managed to spare time to stop by. He wasn’t home, but his neighbors were. My teammate and I walked over and introduced ourselves, explaining that we were with FEMA and could answer any questions they might have. They were all set with their accounts and essentially were content waiting to receive their check in the mail for damages. That’s when I ventured to ask about the man, their neighbor. The middle-aged man who appeared to be the father shook his head and informed me that there had been no one there in weeks. “Just a squatter.”
I was shell-shocked. A squatter? My mind immediately washed over and I couldn’t do anything but stand there and try to breathe evenly. My teammate stepped in for me to change the subject when he continued on about how much trouble he had received from that door over the years and how he had called the cops on him. ‘The squatter’ was told that he had 30 days to vacate the property. I had no words for the desolation I felt at that moment.
We had been in Port Aransas for two weeks and I had loved everything about the city. I loved helping the people there. I loved walking those streets and I loved seeing the familiar faces of people I had already met. My team knew their stories, we knew where they lived, we knew their names, and they started to know ours. For that short period of time, we were part of the community, and it was such a breathtaking experience. Coming from the NorthEast, I really wasn’t used to anything like that. My neighborhood isn’t close. I barely knew my neighbors. But here, everyone was a friend. Everyone was treated like family. Or so I had thought. Now, this? I felt betrayed by everything I thought I knew about the community.
I had to clench my fists and walk away. My heart and mind were racing. I quickly texted the teammate I had been with and asked this one question.
He was real right?
I quickly got a response back. ‘Yes. Of course why?’ I had to shake my head and lean back in an attempt to keep the tears from flowing out.
He was not a squatter and how dare his neighbors not know that. I had seen his face, I had heard his story. And if that too wasn’t enough, I had seen his driver’s license with the address of the home that was now in front of my face on it. I was livid. I wanted to rage and scream and pound my fists on the waterlogged ground. Where is he? Where is he? I should never have left that day. But what could I do?
I have this vision in my head that years from now, I will return to Port Aransas and walk down those streets again. Alister St. Seabreeze Blvd. 6th St. Maybe I’ll even recognize a few faces as I go. But something tells me it’s going to be different that time around. It always is. But I would like to go back anyway and see how the town has bounced back and rebuilt. To see how lively and beautiful the town would have been before Hurricane Harvey almost wiped them off the map entirely. I want to go back and find him.
To this day I still think about him. I wonder if he’s okay. I wonder if he got any FEMA assistance. I wonder where he is now. I wonder if he still hums ‘Dust in the Wind.’
There is no answer to some of the questions I still have. I still struggle with whether I could have done more, or whether everything I did was all I could do, and just not enough. Over the coming weeks, this question kept popping up and reoccurring in my experiences. We left Texas after a month to respond to Hurricane Irma in Naples, Florida, and my questions followed me there.
In time, I hope to answer them. But for now, their ghost stories will stay with me.
This site contains affiliate links. In the event you purchase a product through one of these links, I will receive a commission at no additional cost to you. These commissions are deposited very lovingly into my travel jar <3