by Lindy Williams
When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, JJ Jenks, Timothy Veldman, Alex Carbaugh, and Brett Jenks felt they needed to help.
“I was kind of thinking about going down,” JJ said. “I was tossing the idea around about going to help, and the day after that, I got a text from Veldman –– who I work with –– and he was trying to round up some interest for people to go down there. So I thought it must be a sign.”
After resolving to go, JJ, who works for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), began trying to raise money and gather donations. JJ sent out an internal memo to the other employees of PNNL. At the end of the donation period, the group had raised $2,000, and many people donated bottled water, diapers, and food. When the group set out, they had two pickup loads full of donated goods for those impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
“The stars aligned for us to go down, so we just headed out,” JJ said. “At first it was just going to be two guys and a boat, maybe. Then it stared evolving into something bigger. So we wound up with a boat, two pickups, and a Humvee from John Peila out at Wagontire. That was really handy; we didn’t have to use the boat as much because Humvee’s are semiamphibious. So that was really nice in the water, which was still a little over two feet deep.”
On Aug. 31, the group left for Texas with the donated goods. They arrived in Houston on Sept. 2, and began looking for work.
Before setting out, JJ signed up with an online volunteer website, as they didn’t want to get down there and have no work or find themselves impeding efforts. However, the group got no response from the site, so they kept track of the news and soldiered on.
JJ, along with his wife Erin, had previously lived in the Houston area while working for NASA and had friends who frequently updated him on Harvey’s destruction and the ongoing volunteer efforts.
“We were just trying to figure out where to go, where the most need was. By the time we got down to Houston, the major flood that was seen on TV, that went over the freeways, was pretty much done. We just saw mainly the aftermath of all the reservoirs flooding those communities,” JJ said.
During the two-day drive to Texas, the group had plenty of time to research what to expect once they arrived in the Houston area. This included chemicals and flesh-eating bacteria. To protect themselves, the group wore hip waders during all of their work.
To get to Texas, the group first needed to complete the 40-hour drive.
“We would drive 18-20 hours, then stop to rest. We wound up sleeping in a Walmart parking lot. I’d never done that before,” JJ said. “But, there were a lot of other people who were doing the same. We would sleep 2-3 hours and hit the road again.”
Upon arriving in Houston, the first order of business was finding a shelter that could use all the supplies that the employees of PNNL donated.
“That was something that we wanted to offload at a shelter as soon as we got down there. We went to one shelter, and they were already loaded with supplies. We went to another shelter, and they had all the donations they could handle. Then we found this one, it was the Southern Hills Baptist Church south of Houston, and they needed help. So we donated all of the supplies, food, and water to this shelter. Then we thought, well where can we go to help people out?”
The group spent most of their time in Port Arthur, which is southeast of Houston.
“They are right on the gulf, so they were hit pretty hard,” JJ stated.
As Harvey moved north of Houston and the surrounding area, some of the communities began flooding as the storm filled upstream reservoirs to a dangerous level.
“They were getting to the point where they were about to fail, so they were doing controlled releases of the water. So those communities downstream were starting to flood,” JJ said.
JJ, Veldman, Carbaugh, and Brett regrouped at a nearby convenience store. They, along with other volunteer organizations, attempted to get into flooding neighborhoods, but were stopped by a police barricade. One man from a different volunteer group ignored the officers’ warnings, attempted to enter the neighborhood, and was turned around and issued a citation.
“The gist of it was that they [the police officers] didn’t want to have to rescue additional people,” JJ explained. “Because they were doing mandatory evacuations in those neighborhoods, and there were people in there that didn’t want to come out, they were just waiting for them to call 911. So the police force didn’t want any additional people in there playing hero and ending up needing to be rescued themselves.”
Back at the convenience store, the group found another organization that needed help: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
“They needed some help getting in and out of places because they were just going around to local communities like us. Their interest, of course, was trying to help the pets out, which there were a ton of people who just left their pets. So that’s how we tagged up with them, and the rest of the trip was basically just helping them rescue animals from flooded communities.”
Using the Humvee and the boat, the group worked with ASPCA and rescued abandoned dogs. When evacuating, some residents locked their dogs inside their houses. The ASPCA broke into those homes to rescue and relocate the animals that were left behind. Many of the homes had a foot and a half to two feet of standing flood water.
On top of the flooding, there were additional dangers to face. JJ recounted that they helped a woman back into her neighborhood to survey the damage of her home. Because the woman had no waders or water boots, JJ took her camera to take pictures of the damage to her house. While snapping pictures, he noticed something concerning.
“Since it was more of a flooding storm, and there really wasn’t any wind damage, all the power was still on. So, unlike Hurricane Irma that just wiped everything out, most of the community still had power. So you’ve got electricity with one to two feet of water on the ground.
“Outside of her house, there was one of those condenser air conditioning units. It was completely underwater and still running. It was freaky because those units take a lot of power; they’re usually a 220-volt. So I backed off from that,” JJ said with a laugh.
After recounting the story, JJ stated that the scenario reminded him of a warning that they received from a group of Texas Fish and Game employees.
“They were saying that one of the big issues they had with people dying or injuries, especially rescuers, was that they would hit a power line or something in the aluminum boats,” JJ explained.
In some of the communities hit by Harvey, the water reached the roofline of houses. This made it difficult for rescuers and volunteers to see and avoid areas with live electricity.
“So that was a concern that I came face-to-face with, but, luckily, nothing happened. It was weird to see something on, like the fan running, underwater. People’s lights were still on. It was very weird,” JJ said.
The work in Southern Texas is far from over, and the clean-up efforts will likely take years. Many residents lost nearly everything and will have to rebuild and refurbish from the ground up. Unfortunately, many people didn’t have flood insurance as they lived above the 500-year plane.
“Everyone thought that the chances of a 1-in-500 years flood were low, so they didn’t get it. That got blown out of the water because I think they wound up calling Harvey a 1-in-800 or 1,000 year flood, and all those people were just screwed,” JJ stated.
The group returned to Oregon on Sept. 5 after two days traveling to Texas, two days volunteering, and two days driving home.
“It was exhausting,” JJ stated. “I think I slept for two days after we got back and the adrenaline went away. It was a whirlwind trip.”