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You Can't Unknow the Truth: Why We Share Their Stories

I recently had lunch with two self-made Houstonian business people—the kind of individuals who measure their success by growing thriving businesses as opposed to reaping huge profits. These gentlemen are similar to myself in age, and are involved in church, their kids’ sports and charity work.  One could characterize them as the “doers” in their community.

Our conversation naturally shifted to Houston’s recovery efforts following Hurricane Harvey. I asked them about the recovery. How was it going? What did it look like? Is it successful?

They were very candid with me as they talked about the true American spirit that surfaces after all disasters—the passion, energy and commitment present in the early response and initial recovery. They described how driving by many streets, one could see both volunteers and family members working together while other neighbors cooked and served meals.  People pitched in—in the traditional sense of community. They talked about how many impacted families were quick to focus on those most in need, saying that others were worse off than themselves. These were the kinds of stories that remind us that we haven’t lost our way—the kinds of stories and morals we want to pass on to our children. It seemed there was a real momentum building and that progress was being made.

Then, it faded.  By December, many—and certainly not all—people just moved on. Not because they didn’t care, but because the need wasn’t as clear. The media scaled back coverage, debris piles had been removed from lots of curbsides and fewer folks had to drive through devastated neighborhoods.

After a disaster those with the most means tend to bounce back quickly. Not necessarily, or only, because they have a nest egg for such occasions, but because of layers of resilience (e.g., paid vacation, availability and ability to afford babysitters, not paid by the hour, friends and family members who did not flood). Unless commutes or travel routines require it, the existing needs are less clear as the more affluent communities recover.

The background of my lunch companions is important. If they weren’t aware of the current state of recovery in Houston, then many others probably weren’t either—people who care and who could be making impact and speeding along recovery efforts. The truth is, while great progress has occurred, hundreds of thousands of families still are not home.  

Take for example Neome Harris, a former childcare provider and her daughter Dianne, who worked as a patient monitor at the hospital. Both women dedicated their time caring for others. As Harvey made landfall, Neome and Dianne became trapped in the house before they were rescued by the Coast Guard. During the rescue, Noeme ingested contaminated flood water and became ill. Dianne, who is on dialysis, also began experiencing additional health issues. Both Noeme and Dianne live on fixed income and have limited resources to make repairs to their home. Instead of being able to treat their health issues from the convenience of home, a place Neome has owned for 53 years, they continue sharing a hotel room months after the storm while they wait for assistance.  

Carmen and Leo Cardenas lived in their home for 45 years prior to Hurricane Harvey. Leo was a construction worker who is now permanently disabled due to the loss of his eyesight. Fearful of traveling, they stayed in place as the flood waters continued to rise. The next morning, they ventured out through waist-high waters to meet their son who took them to safety. The Cardenas didn’t have flood insurance, as they lived outside of the mandatory flood insurance area. They received a FEMA award, making the most of it for repairs, but they still need a new HVAC, flooring and a fresh coat of paint on the walls to finish.

Another survivor, Agustina Vasquez has lived in her home for 20 years. Her home took on four feet of water during the storm and had to be completely gutted. Since then she has continued living in the house, sleeping on a mattress that was partially submerged in the flood waters. With no money to rebuild, she reached out to SBP for help. Agustina shares her home with her daughter Esmerelda, whose asthma has worsened by living in the gutted home. As Summer temperatures keep climbing, it becomes increasingly unsafe for families living in these conditions. We need to act now.

The Three Takeaways

  1. I share these stories not to guilt anyone into feeling like they have failed these most vulnerable individuals and communities, but as a reminder that there is still a need. Recovery doesn’t stop when the cameras or rubble piles go away, or when your neighborhood bounces back. There are other families who achieved the American Dream of homeownership who are now living an ever present nightmare—the majority of which (80 percent) didn’t live in an area where flood insurance was required by the government. Recovery is a long term, collaborative effort to ensure everyone gets to return home.
  2. We have the ability to leverage our resources—to use our networks to call on influencers, donors and volunteers. People want to be involved—to make things better for others. Unless the need is right there in front of them, it won’t remain top of mind.
  3. For those of us whose job it is to shrink the time between disaster and recovery, we need to make sure that compelling human stories are known. We need to tell the stories about our clients—hard working and once independent people—who, facing an abyss of uncertainty are at risk of being push beyond their breaking point. I once heard a saying that, “You can’t unknow the truth.”  Let’s make sure that the truth about our clients is well known.

Looking back on my lunch, I’m thankful for the reminder that we can’t get complacent in assuming that everyone is aware of the struggles of others. We have to do our part to advocate for those in need so that the doers of the community can lend a hand. Bill Gates once said, “I believe that if you show people the problems and you show them the solutions they will be moved to act.” Let’s make a conscious effort to do just that.