Help from Hurricane Harvey
When I came home this Saturday night a week ago from a second tour of duty down to Houston to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey, as you do after an experience like that, I tried to make sense of my feelings from the experience. What you see at these times leaves powerful impressions on you. That depth of suffering and destruction cries out for purpose, value, meaning. So here goes.
At first as you stand outside a semi-abandoned house and smell that blend of rot and filth unique to a flooded area, you feel a powerful revulsion at the thought of willingly walking into the dark soiled rooms. You ask yourself what you alone could possibly do against such complete destruction and ruin. Regardless you swallow down the bile, put on your two layers of gloves and dust mask, and walk resolutely into the darkness.
Then while you strip to the bones the homes and lives of flood victims, you feel an impersonal intimacy with the people whose ruined lives you’re carrying to the curb. You pull up the carpets in the back of their bedroom closet dripping with sewer water. You handle their family photographs; you empty their medicine cabinet; you carry in your hands so much accumulated value of their lives as you pile it all at the curb along with all their neighbors. Through the sweat and heat of your dust mask you breathe in pity and empathy as you envision someone else opening the cabinets and draws in your home. How would they judge your life by what they would carry to your curb? As fast the flood water permeates your clothes, a respect and charity for the lives you are seeing permeates you.
As the day wears on into the heat and humidity of Houston’s indian summer, you start to see differently the men and women who have come with you as volunteers. That guy who always sits an an air-conditioned office covers his exhausted stagger with trip on a phantom piece of wood so you won’t ask him again if he’s alright. A soccer mom turned empty nester turns away as you walk past to keep you from seeing her desperately tired eyes so you don’t ask her to take another break. By the end of the day you have to mildly place your hand on shoulders to tell these volunteers for the third time that the day is done. Standing in driveway surrounded by mounds of debris you created, you look around and say to yourself,
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers [and sisters];
For he today that sheds his [sweat] with me
Shall be my brother [and sister]; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.”
After something to drink and a rest you start to load up the tools you borrowed from your neighbor into your father-in-law’s truck. You realize you're not alone. Strangers and neighbors who have lived the worst of this disaster come up to you with popsicles and pizza and a hand to shake. They offer their smiles and gratitude which means more to you because these are the people whose homes you're tearing apart. Finally, driving down a tunnel of the ruined lives piled over the top of your truck roof you notice pink feathers waving to you in the evening breeze at the top of a particularly large pile. The handwritten note simply says in crayon, “Thank you Harvey volunteers.”
Empty and coated in filth you stop the truck and smile. The meaning to the personal striving and suffering surrounded by all the loss and desolation galvanizes deep inside. Despite the pessimism and feelings of helplessness surrounding our daily lives, when we walk willingly to the heart of darkness and filth to give aid, we see the true light of charity and humanity shining brightest. That’s when you decide you too will hang your own thank you note when Harvey comes for you.