On Sunday morning September 3rd, (joined by 4 of New York’s Bravest who chose to commemorate 9/11 and their 343 fallen comrades by helping others) I left to go help the people in Beaumont, Texas who were hit by 21 inches of water overnight just a few days earlier. Through funding from the foundation and inspired by Vic, I learned once again that it is in giving that we receive.
I left Staten Island at 6am Sunday morning with FDNY legendary firefighter Tommy Schweizer riding shotgun. We drove into the Beaumont Texas area around 11 PM Monday night. We could smell the floodwaters and could see their reflections in our headlights.There was water everywhere. We didn’t know what we would see when the sun came up but they got 21 INCHES of rain overnight just a few days earlier.
As we rode down the deserted streets of this mid-size city (we found out later there was a curfew so nobody was allowed out), we stopped a police car to find the closest fire house. The women officer couldn’t have been nicer or more appreciative of our coming to help. We were impressed…Tommy went into the local firehouse at around midnight in the hopes of getting a list of homes of people in the community who really needed help. What we got was more then we could have dreamed of.
The firemen & the firehouse took us in as their own. For the whole time we were there they fed us, gave us quarters to shower and sleep and got us any medical attention and supplies we needed. We were joined at 3am by three other young firefighters who worked with Tommy from the Tottenville firehouse…..young kids in their early 20’s who got in their truck on their own time and dime and came to help. Very special young men.
WE brought down two truckloads of water, food, clothes, bleach, snacks and money for the devastated people in the area…..we also brought every tool and piece of equipment we could get our hands on. From sledgehammers, spades and rakes to generators, saws and garbage bags… we thought we were ready until…..
The sun rose and we drove toward our first house to work on and for the first time we saw the scope of the devastation….it was SANDY times 5 and over an area much larger than all of New York City. When a flood hits and the water recedes, the most important thing to do is to “gut” the house as soon as possible. It is very hard, dirty and dangerous work. With the immense destruction, it is also very discouraging in that you feel “what can I do with so many tens of thousands of houses to be gutted”. All I had to do was think back 72 hours when at Monmouth Park I read the parable of the “Starfish”. Each house we did meant the world to that family.
Over the course of the six days we gutted houses and we watched as families sifted through their lives belongings. Sometimes family heirlooms passed down through generations being brought to the curb to be buried and burned. One family had just bought their home two months earlier. They made their first mortgage payment in August. In a 500-year flood zone, they had no insurance. Their whole life’s savings and dreams down the drain. Another home had a crying mother of three trying to save pictures or anything from when she was raising her kids….no such luck, all gone. The very last house we did was a proud Texas family who had multiple generations of heirlooms dating back to the birth of Texas, all destroyed….taken to the curb. While taking a wheelbarrow of “junk” to the curb I spotted something I had to save….a “Bronze Star” earned in World War Two and awarded to the owners father…..we got that baby looking brand new and “awarded” it back to her.
These proud Texans lost everything yet all they saved was what was most important to them. Their flags…..all over you saw flags hanging out to dry. The United States flag and the Texas Lone Star flag. The U.S. Flag always flies slightly higher then Texas as respect but no other flag can ever fly higher than the lone star.
Over the course of the week we worked with other volunteers from Tyler, Odessa, Waco and Killeen Texas. We ran the crew and coordinated the efforts. We were somehow known throughout the area as some sort of celebrities. (Are “you-all” the guys from New York they would ask?) People came up to us all day and night with heartfelt thanks for being there and helping.
The director of the project who was giving us the addresses and contacts out of Houston was hoping we could do one house a day. That was what they were getting in other communities like Houston, Victoria and Galveston etc… In Beaumont and Port Arthur we gave them 18 houses in six days… that comes out to 3 Starfish a day!
In retrospect and as is almost always the case, we got back much more than we gave. The people of Texas were the best people I have ever met in my life. Not once, never, not even a hint of a complaint the whole time we were there. Nobody asked why? Why me? What am I gonna do? Everybody put on their big boy pants, pulled up their sleeves and started to rebuild their lives….by throwing away one heartbreaking wheelbarrow of memories and mementos at a time.
A very special people in a very special state…God Bless Them.