Now's the Time to Start Helping Out, Houston

The rains will end and the floods will recede but our city's human needs will not be diminished. Thankfully, neither will our city's indomitable human spirit.

By Katharine Shilcutt August 29, 2017

I don't have a Hurricane Harvey thinkpiece in me, I muttered to absolutely no one as I schlepped the last of a few dozen boxes of toiletry kits donated by United Airlines into Hall C at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

My neighbor and I stood there for a few seconds, towering stacks cardboard boxes filled with paper towels and snacks teetering precariously around us, while other volunteers swooped in to begin sorting their contents and distributing them to other halls within the massive convention center. They'd come off the back of an 18 wheeler, and the Houstonians all around me had seemed like ants, each carrying as many boxes as they could on their backs or in their arms, scurrying to get it all inside and out of the pouring rain.

One of the worst discoveries of Hurricane Harvey for some people has been the floating mounds of fire ants that drift through the flood waters, clinging to each other for safety. They're dangerous if disturbed, but can you blame them? They're just trying to survive. Survival is not glamorous.

The George R. Brown Convention Center is also not glamorous. When I first arrived, I was momentarily stunned at the 7,000 tired-eyed people sitting listlessly in cots or hard plastic chairs. Where there were no cots, people slept on mats repurposed out of cardboard boxes. Exhausted mothers in pajamas rocked tiny babies, while restless toddlers in PJs of their own sprinted up and down the carpeted halls.

In Hall E, hundreds gathered around a single TV screen watching for news of the continued floods. A man in sweatpants stood next to me and farted heartily. Outside Hall A, an elderly Australian blue heeler peed on the multi-colored carpet. His owner's face registered as much disappointment and resignation as the dog's did.

But at least they were together. This man and his old dog. Further down, near Hall B, a group of young kids hugged their own dogs: two chunky grey Staffordshire terriers dressed in matching red hoodies. "Look," I told my neighbor. "That's got to cheer you up a little bit."

And they did. But it was the helping, she said, that helped most of all. We had been stir crazy, desperate to get out and give back, safe and warm in our non-flooded homes and wracked with survivor's guilt. Helping others helps us all.

Helping is not glamorous, but it's what your fellow Houstonians need right now. Houston is not glamorous, but it is a survivor. And this is not a thinkpiece about Hurricane Harvey, because I don't have one in me when thousands of my fellow Houstonians are suffering.

But it is a call to arms. There is so much that needs to be done now and so much that will need to be done in the days, weeks and months ahead. The rains will end and the floods will recede but our city's human needs will not be diminished. Thankfully, neither will our city's indomitable human spirit.

So here's what you can do right now: If you are safe and the roads are clear, drive to your nearest shelter and volunteer. Check their lists of immediate needs on social media or call the shelter itself, and bring whatever items you can donate. If you are safe and can't drive, donate to online relief efforts. We have several posts rounding up the best ways to help out; start there.

In Hall E this morning, I watched as a young man swept the concrete floors clean with a giant, wide-splayed mop. Who knows if this is how he imagined his volunteer efforts would be spent; sweeping is not glamorous, but it is necessary.

As he took a moment to stop and throw away his swept-up trash, an old woman in a housecoat shuffled up to him, perhaps five feet tall to his six. She propped herself up with a cane to meet his eyes with her own. "Thank you so much," she said, as she gave him a small hug.

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