Most of the floodwater has receded from Houston after Hurricane Harvey made landfall late last month, dumping close to 50 inches of rain throughout the state of Texas in just a few short days. But with thousands still stranded in shelters with nowhere else to go, emergency relief is still in short supply.
Rather than sit idly by, two local teens from St. Francis High School took a personal trip to Houston over the weekend to volunteer in one of the largest shelters still in operation, helping families who have lost cars and homes during the deluge in August. St. Francis seniors Aiden Bingham and Catie Bates, along with Bellarmine senior Tommy Bates, took off on Friday, Sept. 15, to help at the makeshift relief shelter located within Houston's NRG Center.
Though the center is typically used for rodeos and major conventions, the vast space was stacked with emergency supplies and hundreds of beds. Bingham said he and Catie Bates spent both of their shifts working at a pop-up medical clinic in the center, helping patients fill out forms for prescription medication they lost due in the storm.
Bates said her official volunteer job was to check in with the patients, but she made an effort to play with the kids stuck at the shelter while the doctor saw their parents.
Bingham said that although the shelter's operations were clearly winding down following several weeks of intense need for emergency aid, it was still home to over 2,000 people who had no home to return to. An announcement from BakerRipley, the volunteer organization running the shelter, said last week that the NRG Center has served more than 8,000 "guests," but 2,200 people still remained within the center. Many of the people still stuck in the shelter were "housing insecure, homeless, disabled or vulnerable before the storm," according to Lauren Duplessis, manager of volunteer engagement at BakerRipley.
The shelter is scheduled to shut down on Saturday, Sept. 23, leaving little time for those who remain to figure out what to do next. Bingham said one family described how their home had been flooded and their car had been entirely inundated with floodwater, turning the interior into a moldy mess and potentially destroying the vehicle.
"They don't know what to do after Saturday when the center closes," he said.
Bates said she heard similar stories of desperation, including one man who said he was stuck on the highway because all of the exits were flooded, and that he had to do some serious backtracking in the wrong direction to make it out.
"He had no way to get his Camaro off the highway," Bates said. "He was telling his family members goodbye because he wasn't sure if he would make it back."
All three teens traveled out to Houston on behalf of their volunteer group, Teen Telehelp, which finds ways for students to give back to the community and go beyond the school-required community services hours needed for graduation. After seeing the devastation from Hurricane Harvey, Bingham said he searched for ways they could help and ultimately settled on BakerRipley -- a division of United Way and the largest shelter organization still operating in Houston that was willing to accept teen volunteers.
Hurricane Harvey left an estimated 82 people dead and destroyed upward of 10,000 homes. A report by Cox Automotive found that between 300,000 and 500,000 vehicles were likely damaged by the storm in Houston alone. Earlier this month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the hurricane damage could cost between $150 billion and $180 billion, which would make Harvey the country's most expensive natural disaster to date.
But hearing these figures and watching the news is worlds different from actually traveling to the epicenter of the disaster and directly helping with the relief effort, Bates said.
"Usually you hear a bunch of catastrophes and you go 'Oh, there's another one,'" she said. "But when you're actually out there talking to the families, it's a whole different experience. It's not some far-away thing -- it's right here."