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Houston never ends
Hurricane Harvey put a metropolitan area the size of New Jersey and neighboring cities in southeast Texas under as much water as is contained in the Chesapeake Bay, and killed more than 80 people. But it didn’t drown the sprawling power of humanity here. by Tom Johnston, managing editor
His four kids crying.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, weeks after the force of its epic rain caved in the roof of his house on Houston’s northeast side, the memory haunts Carlos Nevarez.
He has the nightmarish images stored in his smart phone, too. Now dry and everyone safe, he is back at work marinating meat at Martin Preferred Foods, showing through the cracked screen of the device some pictures. In one, blurred by the torrential rain, he’s following an inflatable swimming pool carrying neighborhood kids he helped rescue in chest-high water.
Ronnie Snowton, a plant manager at Chung’s Gourmet Foods, had it up to here, too, when he rose out of bed to answer a knock at his front door, only to step into ankle-high water. When he opened the door, in came a surge of more water up to his knees. With it came a huge tree branch and — insult to injury — floating dog shit.
Sabrina Lewis, a co-worker of Nevarez, and her husband were making a joke of bringing all of their swimming pool implements —inflatable tubes, noodles — into their home in Dayton, Texas, ahead of the storm. Their storage shed was already full. But when the water rose as high as their chain link fence and they had to use the pool equipment to rescue their dogs, it wasn’t funny anymore.
Their stories are like those of so many others who survived Hurricane Harvey, which in the course of a few days dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some areas of the sprawling, 6.5 million-head metropolitan area and farther east. That only 82 people, by last count, perished in what will likely stand as one of the country’s most costly natural disasters ever is blowing the minds of experts in these sorts of terrible things.
A visit 11 days after the storm’s first landing in Houston showed an almost dumbfounding retreat of water, and the Magnolia City looked with its sunny blue skies and felt with its signature steam almost normal. Apart, that is, from the remaining evidence, including a section of Beltway 8 (see drone footage) on the west side still turned into an impassable canal. Bridges that were scenic walkways 15 feet over waterways are tree branch traps. There’s the mud. It paints shrubs, drawing a spooky, fine line between what was wet and dry. And the debris. So much damned debris — people’s lives left in 10-foot piles on the curb.
And so, Nevarez, Snowton and Lewis are picking up the pieces, something they have in common among many of their peers at work and the masses in Houston at large. Out of disasters such as this come uplifting manifestations of humanity, in their case provided to a great degree by their employers. To be sure, the meat processing industry here saw a powerful transition from business to benefactor, helping their employees and communities in various efforts to help sustain and overcome the hardship rendered by Hurricane Harvey — in a way that cuts to the core and importance of what they do: Feed people. And as Hurricanes Irma, José and Maria followed in quick and startling succession, terrorizing the East Coast and Caribbean, the lessons learned from tragedy are becoming a valuable commodity.
They’re trying so hard. Trading the microphone between messages in English and Spanish, the young men outside the gymnasium here at Christian Tabernacle Church are doing everything they can — from quoting Bible passages to performing a comedic skit involving one poor soul playing the part of a pet dog — to keep up the spirits of people in the long, single-file line as they wait to go inside. There they get a shopping cart and fill it with general supplies, from water to toilet paper. Afterward, they can loop around to pick up some protein.
Children cling to their parents’ legs or to the shopping carts with which they are strolling. All walks of life, some sullen, some paging through their phones as if nothing happened, some even upbeat. But all share in need.
Tyson Foods has set up a cook station at this east side congregation as part of its Meals that Matter program, which dispatches employee-volunteers from across the country to disaster areas to grill up chicken wings and sandwiches, burgers, fajitas and more to feed the displaced. The main camp is set up almost 55 miles north in Conroe at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, a spacious staging ground that is also operating as a collection point for displaced dogs and horses. But now that the water’s mostly gone, the teams can do what they do — get closer to the need.
Pat Bourke, who is coordinating this effort in the wake of Harvey, calls this church’s locale, with the Greens Bayou in its backyard, “ground zero.” Locals here say C.E. King High School, some 5 miles north of here, was at one point under water, if you don’t count the few inches that stayed above it. Restoration crews say they found the wooden gym floor floating. Meanwhile, a local volunteer helping Tyson fill boxes with meat at the church mentions that a couple dead bodies were found even closer to the church.
“The bayou is just on the other side of the treeline,” says David Young, pointing to trees shading the Greens Bayou not more than a hundred yards away. The senior live production manager at Tyson’s Monett, Mo., poultry complex, Young is leading the Meals that Matter crew that Bourke sent here to Christian Tabernacle. “It really devastated several neighborhoods. We’re told that about half the fatalities that have been reported came from this area.”
Flooding continues Aug. 30 in downtown Houston after Hurricane Harvey dropped historic levels of rainfall. Photo credit: GettyImages
East meets worst
This area, between what had become the rushing, overflowing waters of both the Greens Bayou and San Jacinto River, is where Carlos Nevarez’s world went awash in trauma. It’s here where he lives in a ranch house with his wife and four children, ages 12 and younger.
Nevarez has soft eyes, is soft-spoken and, apart from a thick black mustache, almost baby-faced. But he’s oaken; he’s almost methodically speaking through every detail of the nightmare without tearing up behind his glasses. The story he replays gets more troubling than the crying of his children.
It starts like this:
On Thursday, Aug. 24, the day before Harvey hit Houston, Nevarez watches the news and thereafter begins to stock up on food, water and canned goods. Like a good man, he has a power generator ready, too.
Meanwhile, Nevarez and his wife apprise their kids of the situation, telling them that they might eventually need to evacuate, but assuring them all along that nothing bad was going to happen.
On Friday, Aug. 25, like any other day, Nevarez reports to Martin Preferred Foods, a value-added meat and other food products processor just north of downtown Houston. As more coworkers talk, the more he realizes that Harvey was going to pack a bigger punch than he’d thought. He calls his wife, tells her to pack up, gas up and get ready to go.
That evening, after he leaves work, he and the family are prepared to leave. But they don’t. They’d survived Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, were in a relatively high part of town, and other floods never amounted to much. So the rationalization went.
“When 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. (on Saturday, Aug. 25) came around, we started to see the water rising,” he recalls, speaking in Spanish. His co-worker, Martha Bardales, translates. “They said the hurricane was coming at a much stronger speed than we thought.”
Nevarez sees that four streets up from him, the waters of the Greens Bayou were rising rapidly, and flooding began on the first street …
and then the next street…
and then the next street …
“It didn’t stop raining.”
Hurricane Harvey made canals out of highways with its epic rainfall in late August. Photo credit: GettyImages
Water on water
As recalled by Wayne Butler, CEO at Chung’s Gourmet Foods in downtown Houston, “Harvey was one of the few storms that was predicted accurately.” That’s to say it packed all the wallop that the news reports tend to inflate and thereby turn viewers into skeptics. That's to say there was an opportunity to prepare for it, and a mighty price to pay if you didn’t. It started raining at 2 p.m., Friday, Aug. 25, at which point Chung’s, one of the nation’s leading egg roll producers, shut its plant down and sent people home as planned. By 8 or 9 that night, it turned to a torrential rain — “and then 60 inches of rain fell, depending on where you were,” says Butler — that didn’t stop until the following Monday, Aug. 28, at mid-day.
“They said it was a trillion gallons of water (that fell), and I have no idea what that means, other than they said it would fill the Great Salt Lake three times,” Butler says.
So many attempts at somehow using words to draw a picture of Harvey’s rainfall have been put out there that it’s easy to see how they get tangled. Much of Houston saw more than 50 inches of rain. Things got worse 85 miles east in the Beaumont area; Nederland saw 60.58 inches. The 1 trillion gallons of water that fell over four days was just in Harris County, home to Houston proper, and the meteorologists were saying actually that it was the same amount of water as rushes over the Niagara Falls in 15 days. When the number got to 9 trillion, they were saying that would fill the Great Salt Lake twice. At 19 trillion gallons, the amount estimated to have fallen on greater Houston and Southeast Texas, there was more water than is in the Chesapeake Bay. When accounting for all the states Harvey swarmed — Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee — the storm dumped an estimated 33 trillion gallons of water.
That can be explained in a bunch of mind blowing ways, but suffice to say, as Butler does: “It was a lot of water.”
That largely had nowhere to go.
The greater metropolitan area surrounding Houston is on a flat plain beginning at the Gulf of Mexico and stretching out more than 8,000 square miles, about the size of the state of New Jersey and more than enough space to fit the cities of Washington D.C., Chicago, New York City and San Francisco inside it. Historically lax zoning laws in Houston have helped spur a tremendous sprawl, so much so that from 2000 to 2010, for example, the area’s population grew 26 percent to nearly 6 million people. With more development has generally come more concrete, which means less natural means to absorb water. The city’s efforts to help solve the problem have been slower than the rate of growth, making it susceptible to major flooding in normal circumstances, let alone those presented by a catastrophe of Harvey’s stripes.
On Sept. 6, the city was counting only 25 high water areas, which, according to Butler, would usually be considered “a big deal.” Directly after Harvey’s invasion, there were 400, turning Houston’s enormous knots of interstate highways, loops and beltways into rivers. Those thoroughfares actually have become a part of Houston’s flood plans, intended to corral and carry waters away from homes and businesses. But Harvey overwhelmed the system. The city’s two main reservoirs filled so quickly that its engineers, in order to prevent that infrastructure from collapsing altogether, were forced to release water from them into already flooded areas.
The above map displays Houston and Beaumont-area FSIS-inspected meat processing facilities, and their relation to the path and hourly rainfall rates of Hurricane Harvey. SOURCES: FSIS, U.S. Geological Survey, National Weather Service
It’s no wonder that Tyson’s initial relief efforts had to be positioned up in Conroe, well north of the hardest-hit areas, which included the location of its processing facility, employer of 600 people, on the east side. Bourke, his cap backward, his skin sunned, sweat cutting a wet V into his T-shirt and his gray stubble growing with these intensive days, tries to get word from the plant’s human resources manager, Rosa Cruz, about her availability. She says she has none; she’s too busy helping displaced workers, including some whose idea of “home” has been reduced to a couch.
“Some of the stories they’ll tell you are heart-wrenching, and you hope to God that something like that never happens to you or your family. They’ve lost homes, they’ve lost cars, and some have lost everything they have,” Bourke says, as the phone in his pocket rings on end. In addition to more requests here in Houston, he’s already hearing of potential setups in Florida as Irma’s on her way. Tyson has assets in Jacksonville, Fla., and in southern Georgia to worry about.
Katrina. Sandy. Joplin, Mo. Bourke, a logistics man by background, has run Tyson’s major disaster relief operations all over the country for six years, but says of Harvey, “It’s been a while since we’ve had to help our own with this level of destruction.”
The Tyson plant on Portwall Street had to close for a week, even though, like many of the meat processors contacted in the greater Houston area, it doesn’t appear to have directly sustained much in the way of physical damage. The main impact for most processors was that employees and truck drivers couldn’t get to their facilities, even if they weren’t already busy dealing with their own personal hell.
Rescuers from Odessa, Texas, make their way along Eldridge Parkway in the Energy Corridor of west Houston on Aug. 30 in Houston, Texas. Photo credit: GettyImages
Back to hell
At 3 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 26, Nevarez’s children are sleeping. Outside, the flooding creeps closer to their house, four blocks in from the Greens Bayou. Nevarez himself hadn’t slept in a couple days, instead making hourly checks on the bayou’s level. He’s back at the house when he notices water leaking from the ceiling. It began to bulge like a balloon, he describes, as soaked insulation sags and makes it bow.
Then the roof collapses.
“It scared the children because they were asleep … they thought it was a tornado,” he says.
Later that day, at around 5 p.m., with the water having risen to nearly 5 feet high on the next block closer to Greens Bayou, their neighbor’s children were taking refuge in their home’s attic. It was time for Nevarez and a friend to make a move. They took two plastic inflatable swimming pools, slogged through chest-high water, collected the neighbor’s kids into the makeshift life rafts and steered them back to Nevarez’s house. It was a better, if not very desirable, option. With the roof damaged, the garage was flooded with about a foot of water and some had crept inside the house. Nevarez tells his kids they would have to evacuate, too, if conditions worsened.
Blurred by the nonstop stress, Nevarez’s memory is shaky in some areas, but he believes that it was Monday, Aug. 28, when the Greens Bayou swamped the nearest street to his, from which he had rescued his neighbor’s children, and was now all the way up to the rooftops there.
“I saw on the news that the San Jacinto River was going to overflow. There’s the Greens Bayou and my house and San Jacinto (River),” he says, mapping it out with clasped hands plopping three times on the table. “We were going to be in between. … I had no way out, only through one street. … I just wanted to leave. My children were crying when they saw the news.”
They evacuated finally on Tuesday and went to Nevarez’s brother’s home.
But things got worse for Nevarez and his family. With their home already damaged, their money being siphoned to artificially skyrocketing grocery prices ($30 for a half-pound of barbacoa and nearly the same for “a few” bottles of water), their kids laboring through canned food, Nevarez returned home to find a window broken and two TVs, his daughter’s laptop and his brand-new power generator stolen.
For 15 hours, there was no power. All the food he’d thought to store up ahead of time was inedible with no power generator to help keep it cool.
He thought he had his truck, too. He remembered that he’d parked it somewhere else in the hopes that it would be spared. When he found it, his hopes were dashed.
Nevarez moved on to explore more flooded areas and to help neighbors. It was enough to make him sick.
“I heard the screams of people who saw a body in the bayou.”
“I started to feel not too well,” he says. “I didn’t see it myself, but I heard the screams of people who saw a body in Greens Bayou. It was close to where I was. The smell is, still to this day (Sept. 7), very bad.”
Massive piles of ruined property were a common site in the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey made landfall there on Aug. 25. Photo credit: GettyImages
Nevarez certainly wasn’t alone among those at Martin Preferred Foods who were impacted by the storm. The company says he is one of 71, and has a sobering spreadsheet charting every one of the people and the specific types of damages they incurred.
President and Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Tapick has the list handy as he relays his recollection of events, a saga that stands as the only time in the family business’s 73-year history that Mother Nature shut the Houston operation down.
As a handful of Martin’s people were able to navigate their way to work on Monday, Aug. 28, at least to begin moving product around the warehouse and make phone calls, the time it officially was closed was maybe a half-day. But it didn’t take long for the impact to surface.
Of the 375-strong work force, fewer than 50 returned to work on the first full day of operations, Tuesday, Aug. 29. The first order of business, says Tapick, was to just try to get a hold of employees, who live all over the region, and evaluate the impact on them.
“We realized we had upwards of 20 percent of our workforce impacted in some way,” he says. “That’s when my family and I had to do something above and beyond just making a loan here and there when people were in a financial squeeze. We realized we had to put something much more robust in place.”
The company was quick to set up a private foundation, to which anyone within and outside of Martin could make tax-deductible donations that the company would match dollar for dollar for a relief kitty that its employees can tap to help them recover from the loss of homes, cars and other belongings. “We’ll be doing that for the foreseeable future,” Tapick says. “I would imagine it will stretch out for several months.” The company also created a You Caring page to raise additional money from its customers, suppliers and community members. All employees received full pay for the week of Aug. 29.
Also as an immediate response to the sopping, smelly mess that Harvey created, and knowing that big hardware stores would quickly run out of supplies, Martin Preferred Foods tapped into its vendors’ supply chain and bought all manner of cleaning supplies — Shop Vacs, bleach, gloves, mops — for impacted employees to use in their recovery efforts. Meanwhile, the company hired support for its human resources department to help employees file insurance claims and apply for FEMA aid. Because it takes a while for that kind of help to arrive, the company made some hardship loans to those who needed quick cash for temporary housing, food, general supplies, including those for the school year starting up. In the second week after the storm, more than 20 employees had requested and received that type of help. A counselor was also on hand to help them talk through their emotions.
This storm is like cancer; everyone knows someone who has been affected by it.
“The idea here is that our employees are the bedrock of our company, and with so many affected, we wanted to take care of them first, recognizing that by taking care of them they can take care of us and our customers,” Tapick says. “We’re glad we were able to put that priority there.”
Tapick keeps the story line to company matters, declines to go into how the storm touched his family. But it did. (And, after an airboat rescue, all are safe.)
This storm is like cancer, though; everyone knows someone who has been affected by it.
Food supplies dwindled as Houston residents bracing for Hurricane Harvey stocked up on provisions. Photo credit: GettyImages
Over at Chung’s Gourmet Foods, located near the University of Houston near East Downtown, Butler walks through the facility on his way to showing production at work. He introduces one of his employees, Vernon. Almost in passing, but more a careful attempt to minimize attention to it, Butler mentions that Vernon’s cousin drowned in the storm; he was found dead at the bottom of a drainage ditch. Vernon nods in acceptance of condolences, and says, “He was a good guy.”
We leave it at that.
Butler is comforted in knowing he and his management team successfully executed a plan to evacuate the plant, which sustained only minor damage, and that, having worked hard to get orders out before the storm, business continued almost without a hitch. All 100 some employees were paid for lost time and made whole.
“I’m blessed to have a job. A lot of people don’t have that anymore.”
But he says it’s all the people in the city who died that is bothering him.
“I’ve been lucky, because of how we came through it,” he says. “But Houston lost lives and that haunts me — and that’s because they didn’t heed the warnings. Don’t try to outthink the Weather Service. If you’ve got a hurricane coming, get out of Dodge, do what they tell you to do and prepare ahead of time.”
If there’s a lesson in this for Nevarez, it is just that. “Salir,” he says in Spanish. To leave.
Snowton, the plant manager at Chung’s, feels the same, openly regretting that, as he puts it, he put his wife and 15-year-old son in danger by staying. Echoing the sentiments of scores of residents around the city, he’s also upset that, upon advice, he didn’t take out flood insurance.
He opened that front door, and “The next thing I know I have roughly a foot and a half of water throughout the house,” he recalls. “My refrigerator actually turned over, and things just started floating throughout the house. I told my wife about it, and she just went hysterical.”
Sabrina Lewis, who works in inside sales at Martin, urges everyone that even if they have flood insurance, to read the fine print. She’s learning that, because the damage to her home was caused by water that rose from the ground up, and did not come through the top of the house, she might not get a dime.
“You can’t walk on the back part of the house … because you’ll go through the floor,” she says in a Sept. 7 interview. “To top that all off, we live 6 miles from the [Arkema] chemical plant explosion, so we’re literally trapped in, not just from high water but road blocks as well. So yeah, it’s been a nightmare.”
But, unlike some of her neighbors, Lewis and her husband still have and live in their home. And they vow to buy a boat.
“I’m blessed to have a job,” she resolves. “A lot of people don’t have that anymore.”
Snowton’s wife’s in his ear about getting the heck out of Houston, to which, she points out to him, they only came for his job. She never liked Houston, and Harvey certainly didn’t help endear her to the city. They’d lived in Florida before that, and managed to escape storms there unscathed, as they were farther inland. Not so here.
Snowton is sure that eventually they’ll go back to what he calls home, Paris, Texas, in the northeast corner of the state.
“If I listen to my wife, it’s time to get out of Houston,” he says.
Nevarez, however, already has begun rebuilding. He isn’t waiting for FEMA’s help, something that takes a while if it comes at all, or insurance payments. He immediately rigged the roof to keep out the critters and the elements. Secure in his job at Martin, he says his and his family’s future is here in Houston.
“I’m feeling very calm,” he says. “I am going to have to spend a lot on repairs, but my neighbors lost their homes. There are people who lost their children and their siblings. My losses are not as much compared to theirs.”
Snowton, uplifted by the help his coworkers offered, has a similar outlook.
“You accumulate this stuff and you think it’s valuable to you, but then it’s just gone in a day. It’s just almost like a vapor. You have it today and it’s gone today.”
“You accumulate this stuff and you think it’s valuable to you, but then it’s just gone in a day. It’s just almost like a vapor. You have it today and it’s gone today. What do you do? Really, what do you do? All I can say is, through it all, I’m blessed. I can only say I think God. I'm still here. My family is still here. This too shall pass.“
Residents impacted by Hurricane Harvey line up for supplies and food at Christian Tabernacle Church on Houston’s east side. Photo credit: Tom Johnston
Tragedy brings out the worst in humans, as Nevarez could attest (the vandalism, the stolen TVs and laptops, the price gouging). But it brings out the best in them, too.
It’s in the beads of sweat coming out the pores of the Tyson volunteers here, and the wet towels around their necks, as the scorching grills that they’re manning boost Houston’s already blistering, sticky heat around them up to 130 degrees. Teams rotate every couple days to avoid exhaustion. Yet 85 cook teams have signed up to help out.
Ray Haught, a chaplin from Tyson’s Monett, Mo., plant is here.
“It’s definitely been a devastating scenario for [Harvey victims] to go through, but in the same manner you see a lot of people pulling together, helping each other out and making it happen, and that’s what it’s all about,” he says during a lull in action at the Conroe post, which has become a distribution center to area churches and Tyson’s processing plant.
Houston resident Lupe Rodriguez is picking up some food to bring to friends and neighbors flooded out in the storm in the suburb of Woodbranch.
“I’ve never seen this kind of flood before. Never.”
“I’ve been in Houston since 1964,” she says. “I’ve never seen this kind of flood before. Never. It’s devastating to see so many lives lost. But I think everybody is trying to help everybody.”
Bourke gets a call — his phone never rests — from the pastor at Christian Tabernacle Church, his “ground zero.” The floodwaters have receded, and they’re ready for Tyson’s help.
Power of protein
With all the bright red semi trucks, the tents and grills, Tyson is making a huge impression here. Cook sites set up in Conroe and Rockport, Texas, served 916,018 meals that were distributed by local volunteers. Thirty-two thousand meals, ice and bottled water were distributed to Tyson employees in Houston. In addition, 700,000 meals were donated to Feeding America food banks in Harris and Montgomery counties. That's more than 412,000 pounds of product. The combined efforts of Houston and Florida, where Tyson would donate 326,529 pounds of product to Irma victims, stands as the largest disaster response in the company's history.
But it’s just one of the many examples of outpouring from the meat industry in the aftermath of this beast of a storm, as a business often dogged for killing animals and the planet became a benefactor, stripped down to its simplest, highest purpose.
“We talk a lot about feeding the world, and you really see it when you get to the ground level and you see the people who have gone without food for several days … ,” says Young, leading the Christian Tabernacle Church site. “It’s a real humbling feeling.”
Tapick, the president over at Martin Preferred Foods, knows the feeling well.
“The cynic in all of us takes the view that in a disaster everyone looks out for themselves,” he says, sitting in the company’s conference room. “That was not the case here.”
“The cynic in all of us takes the view that in a disaster everyone looks out for themselves. That was not the case here.”
In those four trying days, when Harvey deluged the Houston area with biblical amounts of rain, the company was called on to assist in getting food out into the community.
On Monday, Aug. 28, only a handful of people in the company, including Tapick, were able to make it in to work. They at least wanted to call customers and let them know they were ok. Tapick remembers on that day that his wife was following local chefs on Twitter, and saw that they were calling for food donations to a police station only blocks away from the Martin plant. She texted Tapick to let him know, and then he knew what was the company’s role in all of this mess. Never mind the “7-digit” drop in sales; insurance will cover that.
So Tapick and his team loaded up a truck with 400 pounds of beef fajitas and headed over to the police station. There he met a sergeant, who he’d guessed had been on duty nonstop for three days. So grateful was the sergeant for the food that he broke down in tears right then and there.
“That was a seminal moment for me,” Tapick recalls. “It was like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this. This community is going to step up, and we’re all going to be there for each other.’ That memory is going to be with me for a long time.”
So indelible is the company’s Harvey experience that its new logo incorporates the phrases “Houston Strong” and “We are stronger together.”
Over at Christian Tabernacle, a young man who looks more like a physical trainer than a preacher is outside the gymnasium with a microphone. He is welcoming all comers, as by rote he cites scripture, Matthew 11:28, ensuring the “weary” — the waves of people patiently waiting their turn for the mundane necessities that have become pronounced now in their significance — that Jesus “will give you rest.”
As a reporter videos local residents picking up food at the adjacent Tyson cook site, an outgoing young mother notices the camera pointed her way and urges her young son riding in the cart to smile and wave.