Heroes of Harvey

Norma Porter and Barb Hankins: The Dynamic Duo

From Memphis and Manvel, a tale of flooding, friendship, and neighbors helping neighbors.

By Catherine Matusow October 2, 2017 Published in the October 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Jeff Balke

You would think the two women had known each other forever. They had an easy way with one another and completed each other’s sentences. But they’d met only days before, on Sunday, August 27, at 4 a.m.—in the thick of Harvey’s havoc—at the sprawling Brompton Court Apartments, located right on Brays Bayou near the Medical Center.

Worried about the rain, Barb Hankins, who was staying in her daughter Meghan’s second-floor apartment, stepped into the hallway with the thought of checking on her car. It was pitch-black, the power off. She promptly bumped into Norma and David Porter, a couple from Memphis who were staying in the same building—number five—but on the first floor, while David underwent radiation for throat cancer at MD Anderson. Their apartment was starting to fill with water.

The Porters had heard that all the cancer patients were gathering in apartment 647—Brompton Court is full of students, patients, and medical professionals of every stripe—but, given the darkness and the size of the building, they couldn’t find it.

“There was this nice lady who said, ‘Hey, do y’all need something?’” Norma recalled, speaking with a reporter five days after the storm, sitting at a table in Meghan’s tidy, unflooded apartment, elevated a level above a chaotic scene: rooms being stripped, bombed-out cars, and piles of trash everywhere, with the line where the water reached tracing its way around the entire complex. “It was this lady,” she added, pointing at Barb, whom she’s since nicknamed the Team Captain of All Captains.

The women stayed together while David searched for number 647. He returned dejected. “There’s a bunch of families up there,” he told his wife. “You could just see his face like, ‘Oh my god,’” remembered Barb. “I said, ‘Well you got an LSU hat on, my daughter went to LSU, you’re family. You can camp here.’” The women started carrying baskets of the Porters’ things up to the second floor. They were on their last trip—and David was telling the group in 647 the couple had made other arrangements—when a woman came running down the hallway.

“She’s screaming,” Barb recalled. “She sees me … she goes, ‘Help me, help me, my friend’s having a baby.’ I get goosebumps right now telling you. And I turned to her I said, ‘Yes! I’ll help you.’ And I said, ‘My friend can help you.’”

Barb, an office manager for an oil-and-gas management company who lives in Manvel, south of Houston, had no idea that Norma worked as a nurse in Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, the two didn’t yet know each other’s names. It would be hours before they thought to introduce themselves. Both were wearing the clothes they’d slept in. Barb wasn’t wearing a bra. Norma wasn’t wearing shoes. They didn’t think to tell David before setting off, didn’t hesitate for even a second.

They were in building five; the pregnant woman was in building one. The water was now chest-deep and cold, and darkness enshrouded everything. Barb and Norma walked straight into it and set out to find the other building—no easy task in a complex spanning blocks.

When they got there, the two found several members of a Chinese family (who declined to be interviewed for this story). Mom’s water had broken; she was lying in bed; her contractions were four minutes apart. The family had been dialing 911 over and over again.

“Everybody was afraid but her,” recalled Barb. “She was the calmest person I ever met.” Mom only spoke Mandarin, but her husband spoke some English. “I introduced myself and what my profession was,” remembered Norma. “I said, ‘Are you okay with me being here?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’”

“I left her with the patient,” remembered Barb. “I said, ‘We gotta find doctors. This whole complex is full of them.’”

“Barb said, ‘What do you need?’” Norma recalled. “I said, ‘I need towels, I need blankets, I need bowls, I need clamps.’” Barb set off through the complex, wandering the hallways, also asking for alcohol, peroxide, hemostats, sutures. “People started swinging me things,” she said. Others fanned out with the same purpose.

Eventually, two residents—a Mandarin-speaking internal medicine doctor from Baylor and an OBGYN at Memorial Hermann—showed up and began to prepare for delivery. The assembled group, which added and subtracted members as the minutes ticked past and Mom’s contractions got shorter, stayed on their phones, trying to get help.

Eventually, someone got through. Barb waded back across the water and made everyone PB&J sandwiches. Contractions continued to shorten, and the group waited, Barb and Norma still in their wet, itchy clothes.

As they did, they came across residents performing good deeds large and small. There was the man who ran through the complex waking up first-floor neighbors, coaxing the elderly to higher ground and breaking windows to save dogs whose owners hadn’t been able to get back to them. There were the man who’d picked up and carried a medical professional across the water to building one.

And there was the young man who took his red shirt off and gave it to Barb, no questions asked, so she could stand in the water, on the hood of a flooded Mercedes SUV, and wave it in the air as a Coast Guard helicopter descended—first for what turned out to be 15 trapped people, then for Mom and Dad, somewhere around 10 hours after that frantic woman had run through the hallways looking for help. (“We never saw her again,” said Norma. “No, I did,” corrected Barb. “Her son later gave me a croissant.”)

The helicopter hovered above the roof of building one, where a floaty Norma had bought for David, hoping he could relax in the apartment pool, was hanging out the window; multiple people stood on the roof, wildly waving. Mom’s contractions were 45 seconds apart, but she had no choice but to climb a narrow fire escape on the side of the building. Norma followed close behind, ready to catch her if she fell.

Mom and Dad were airlifted into the helicopter and carried to Children’s Memorial Hermann, and good thing. As it turned out, she needed an emergency C-section.

As for Norma, Barb and David, their journey was just beginning. Barb told her own husband she couldn’t come back to Manvel yet. Instead, she stayed with the Porters at Brompton Court, then at her nearby office after it regained power; days after the storm, someone handed the couple a hotel voucher and everyone finally got a hot shower. When businesses began to reopen, Barb took the Porters for groceries and to Ragin’ Cajun, and also ferried David to radiology appointments. She even braved high water to do everyone’s laundry.

“This is what I want to say, after all this, and I’ll try to say it without crying,” said Norma, nodding to Barb. “She said, ‘I’ve been told to try to find one thing to do for one person,’ and she said, ‘You’re that person.’” But there was more than just one thing, or just one person.

David, who stayed quiet during most of Barb and Norma’s interview with Houstonia, spoke up. “I will tell you, if you ever heard in your lifetime, what goes around comes around, you do good things, good things come back to you? Well, I’ll get emotional for this, because I’m an emotional guy, especially after doing radiation, but when Katrina hit …”—he paused as his voice broke— "…my wife and I were fortunate enough that I was able to take my truck … and I think I had about 600 gallons of diesel and gas, and I was able to take it and distribute it. And I honestly feel that by us doing that, that’s why she picked me up”—he pointed to Barb—"and brought me to a clean environment with my cancer. I believe that.”

David had completed his radiology treatments, and the next day he and Norma were heading back to Memphis. The couple and the Team Captain of All Captains were finally going their separate ways but planned to keep in touch. And they were happy to report that they’d heard from the family they’d befriended.

Mom was doing great, as was Harvey, the new baby.

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