A heart-rending scene repeated with only slight variations throughout Houston is recounted by Julie Stanger, one of the thousands of volunteers who are helping people begin their lives again after the floods of Tropical Storm Harvey:
“Arriving home on Tartan Lane in Houston for the first time after Tropical Storm Harvey, Grace Duan found what looked like a war zone, with tall piles of foul-smelling debris pulled from flooded homes filling most yards.
“She was not prepared for what she found in her own home. The rush of three feet of water through the house had tossed furniture end on end and destroyed a lifetime of belongings. The smell of mold was setting in.
“As she stood helpless before the loss, she felt an arm around her.
“Nancy Kraus had taken time off from her nursing job in California, feeling a call to help flood victims in Texas as part of ‘Mormon Helping Hands. She knew her work would involve emotional as well as physical relief for victims. When she saw Grace standing in front of her flooded home, she knew she had to be by her side.”
“Nurse Nancy” Kraus was among hundreds of volunteers who rushed to help when Stanger organized a relief program in one of Houston’s hardest hit areas, drawing on the highly organized “Mormon Helping Hands,” sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
These volunteers went to work across Houston even as flood waters were still rising, evacuating victims by boat. Since then, these volunteers, wearing characteristic yellow t-shirts, have launched cleanup efforts in many parts of the city.
As soon as road conditions would permit, members of the LDS Church left their homes to check on other members and neighbors.
Among them was Stanger, a corporate attorney with Chevron, legal representative on the company’s emergency response team who is also a leader in the young women’s program of the LDS Church in Houston.
She found that the area where members of her congregation live — the the LDS Church’s West University Ward — had escaped damage. But help was needed in nearby neighborhoods where Braes Bayou had overflowed. The homes of many leaders of another LDS congregation — the Hermann Park Ward – had flooded. Church members and their neighbors were in trouble.
“They are our friends. If their homes hadn’t flooded, they’d be the ones out there helping others. We wanted to be their hands,” Stanger says.
“When I went to a house that had been flooded and found a young mother with three children who is eight months pregnant trying to clean out her home with only her husband to help her, I knew we would have to move fast,” she says.
“If we were to provide help, we’d need a simple, strong structure and we’d have to go quickly. We wanted to harness people’s desire to help during the week when they were off work and able to volunteer,” Stanger explains.
West University Ward volunteers “set up shop” on a Hermann Park Ward street and invited “Mormon Helping Hands” and anyone else to join their effort.
“Volunteers started arriving only two hours after we sent out a call for assistance,” she says.
“It was a grass roots effort. Every day, more and more people arrived. In five days, we had 250 or more volunteers – and not just from the LDS Church. We had volunteers from St. Anne Catholic Church, the Rice University Football Team, and other organizations. One of my work colleagues drove down from The Woodlands,” she says.
“People who couldn’t do hard labor offered to do laundry for flood victims who had been without power for days. They prepared lunches for workers and meals for families. They cared for the children of volunteers who were working in houses tearing out carpet, knocking out sheetrock and hauling out ruined furnishings and trash. They canvased neighborhoods to see who needed help,” she says.
“In five days, we worked in 76 houses. Even more important was the unity we all — volunteers, people who were flood victims, and neighbors- felt as we helped each other through this crisis,” she says. “We were brothers and sisters.”
Mormon Helping Hands
Thousands of LDS Church members, joined by friends and neighbors of other faiths, have organized through the LDS Church’s “Mormon Helping Hands” program. They put on yellow shirts and work gloves (some saved from past relief work in Louisiana) — or come in any comfortable clothes — to help families in Houston and other parts of Texas.
“Helping Hands” volunteer crews have spread throughout the most hard-hit areas to “muck out” houses that had been flooded, remove fallen trees and debris and battle the onslaught of mold. Shortened LDS Church meetings are being held on Sundays and work continues.
In Harvey’s aftermath, the LDS Church is coordinating service with Crisis Cleanup, a free, open source application that connects disaster recovery organizations with the people who need help.
By Labor Day, about 5,000 homes in the greater Houston had registered to receive assistance in the greater Houston and, of these, 3,600 remained unassigned. Statistics were not yet available for the number of residents needing assistance in Beaumont, Orange and other locations.
Bob Wells, Houston Stake Second Counselor in the LDS Church’s Houston Stake, says that, in the Houston area, 19 stakes (regional LDS Church organizations) are among a total of 47 stakes that have registered with Crisis Cleanup, The 47 stakes are among a total of 156 organizations that have also signed up to provide similar service.
Wells says, “Houston area stakes have claimed 1,584 homes thus far. Of these, 939 homes are completed, while 645 remain open. The stakes have added 2,028 to the database.”
LDS Church members (Mormons) have a lay organization with no professional clergy. Ward (congregation) and stake boundaries that are geographically determined, facilitating communication. Members are continually being given opportunities to provide service, both within their ward boundaries and wherever there is a need.
When flood victims in Louisiana needed assistance, thousands from Texas put on yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” shirts and joined clean-up efforts. Now church members from other areas are coming to help Houston.
For example, Dallas Stake members have received this notice:
“Call to Serve: 1st request — 110-120 people (15-20 from each Ward/Branch) from the Dallas Stake for Saturday Sept. 9 & Sunday, Sept. 10. 2nd request — 110-120 persons from the Dallas Stake for Saturday, Sept. 23 and Sunday, Sept. 24 ….
“Plan: Leave Saturday morning about 5 a.m. Get to Houston to work at 10 a.m. There will be an air- conditioned high school to sleep in Saturday evening. There will be a brief Sacrament Meeting on Sunday morning. Work Sunday until early to late afternoon. Drive home Sunday night.
“Tools to bring: Crowbars/pry bars, sledge hammers, hammers, wheel barrows, debris sleds (Stake has 8 of these), shovels, dry wall knives and spare blades, sawzalls; screw guns; hammer drills …. “
When these “Mormon Helping Hands” volunteers arrive in Houston, they’ll be greeted with open arms, Wells says.
“There is still plenty of work to be done.”