After the storm: Cleaning up after Hurricane Harvey
Hurricane Harvey began August 17 as a slow-moving tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico, grew into a Category 1 hurricane by August 24 and made first landfall in south-central Texas late August 25 as a Category 4 storm.
Harvey brought winds, heavy rains and a massive storm surge. It also lingered for days deluging the area with a record several feet of rain. Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S. and its environs, bore the brunt of the damage with parts receiving more than 50 inches of rainfall. The monster storm dumped an estimated 24.5 trillion gallons of rain on the region.
“This is going to be a massive, massive cleanup process,” says Texas Governor Greg Abbott. “People need to understand this is not going to be a short-term project. This is going to be a multi-year project for Texas to be able to dig out of this catastrophe.”
Reeves Journal checked in with Texas industry members in the first weeks after the storm. What we heard were stories of initiative, resilience, cooperation, community spirit and an attitude of “we can handle this” that exemplifies the Lone Star state. Here is some of what happened as they began to dig out, clean up and get back to normal.
Almost immediately, a flotilla came to the rescue, from pool floats and jet skis to all sizes of boats willing to travel in shallow, hazard-filled water, basically anything that floated. Among them was the crew from Modern Plumbing in Pasadena. They went from checking on family to pulling stranded people from flooded homes the morning after Harvey hit.
“Harvey was tough, but Texans are tougher,” says Josh Hollub, a supervisor at Modern Plumbing in Pasadena, Texas, the company owned by his father, Albert Hollub, and uncle, Eddie Hollub.
“I saw the devastation in other places after disasters and watched them wait for the Red Cross, FEMA and different assistance programs. Houston didn’t wait. Texas didn’t wait,” Hollub recalls. “Houstonians are the toughest people I’ve ever been around and I’ve lived in 20-something different states. They take the initiative.
“The hurricane came in, we were pretty well ready, or so we thought. Your grocery stores were completely empty, they didn’t have anything. [Officials] warned to be careful that gas was going to run out, that kind of thing. The hurricane hit and I looked out into my front yard and it looked like the house was sitting in the middle of a lake. It had to be 3 or 4 inches within the house — we were lucky — so we decided we should probably start checking on everybody. We got hold of my aunt and she said, ‘Josh, we’ve got about a foot of water in the house now.’
“Both of my brothers had gone to my aunt’s house to watch the [Mayweather-McGregor] fight. It started raining, and by the time the fight ended we walked outside and it was up in the bushes at our house. They were in the Dickinson area, where they got the worst of it. Within three hours their house had a foot of water in it. By the end of the night, she had 3 feet of water throughout the entire house.
Offering a helping hand
“About 10 a.m. on Sunday, we decided to go pick up family. What usually takes 20 minutes to drive took three hours to get there. We launched the boat in a foot and half of water, put the outboard inside the boat, pushed the boat out hip high, put the engine on, dropped engine and moved about 4 miles. We saw more cars underwater than I think I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life — the water was up to the roof. At one point we measured it at almost 11 ½ feet deep,” Hollub says.
How to pitch in
PHCC-TX’s Alicia Dover wants to alert industry members in- and outside Texas the organization’s state headquarters will be acting as a Texas disaster relief clearinghouse during recovery from Hurricane Harvey. Requests for assistance and aid offers will be compiled along with information on where aid is most needed, and the kinds of materials, supplies, skills and donations, are most needed. This is where to start if you want to help. Dover can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 512-523-8094.
“I’m taking the boat into what I normally drive into with my truck. I look over and I see an elderly couple with their grandkids walking chest high through this water, carrying bags over their heads. I called my aunt and told her she’d have to sit tight in her house for a little bit, ‘I know I said I was on my way but there’s this elderly couple and I have to help.’ She said, ‘Do what you’ve got to do, Josh.’
“That was my first trip. I picked them up and took them to a grocery store where they were staging everybody to take to the shelters. We dropped them off and I looked at my twin brother Jake and said, ‘That felt pretty good.’ My brother-in-law said, “Josh, we don’t have to just pick up our family. We’re here already and our family is fine for now.’ So we decided, ‘We’re just going to do this thing.’”
Hollub, his twin brother Jacob and brother-in-law Andy Kunkle started water rescues at about 1 p.m. that Sunday and worked “until we just couldn’t see anymore. We took seven to eight people per boatload, outside of us — what we could do safely. We probably moved around 80 people. The Coast Guard and everybody were there and they were using airbuses and they were just flying.”
At one point the Hollub crew was flagged down by an older gentleman who said the Coast Guard was supposed to be there already and his wife was ill.
“I told him we’d be right back. Keep calm.” They returned a half hour later and transported the woman to an ambulance. She’d suffered a stroke but the timely rescue allowed her to be treated quickly and she talked with Hollub later to thank him. “Somebody put me in the right place at the right time.”
They also transported about 40 people who work for the “Cajun Navy” — a group of private boat owners from Louisiana who mobilized to help out — over to a small church that was serving as a shelter and volunteer housing.
“They are the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” he says. “Monday is when we started working with the shelters. We started picking up food, bringing in supplies. People needed hygiene products, plastic plates and forks, everybody was donating canned foods,” Hollub says.
Next came remediation of flooded homes. Once the water began to recede, the company began with 15 or 16 of their customers in one area.
“The first thing you do is remove everything from the house, then rip out the flooring and the baseboards. Then you cut out the sheetrock 18 to 24 inches above the water line, Hollub describes. Next, humidifiers and huge fans are brought in to dry everything out and the place has to be sanitized.”
The entire soaked household contents end up piled on the front lawn until it can be carted away, a process that can take weeks or months due to the extent of the flooding.
“The worst part of the flood water is the chemicals people have in their garage, it spills into the water and seeps into everyone’s house. When you have that and oil, gas, not only does it make you sick because of the smell, it makes you nervous because it is really close to your electrical. So, you start to think about those kinds of issues. I know we can deal with the flood, because we’re Texans and we can deal with just about anything, but the problem is you start to worry about issues like that,” Hollub says.
Modern Plumbing did the tear out/clean out for many of their residential customers who couldn’t afford to have it done. The company also provided and staged large fans and dehumidifiers to speed the dry-out.
“There are hundreds of houses in these subdivisions with several feet of water and we’re working with as many as we can, going house by house by house.
“We wanted to do what we could for our customers, especially those who have been loyal to us for years. We were going to be paying our guys to stay home because we didn’t have the work for them. Then, we decided we’d rather have them do something to help the business and our customers. We think it’s important to give back and take care of our people.”
They also worked at two small hospitals and a general practitioner’s office before they “reached out to our customers that we know have had issues to see if we can help out. Our goal was to get them to the point where the house was at least livable and they were on their way to recovery.”
Early on, Texans dealt with the issues of displaced people in temporary shelters not designed for that purpose, auditoriums, arenas, churches and other buildings large and small where the facilities are taxed beyond expected use. A small church that’s a regular Modern Plumbing customer was housing displaced residents, Red Cross workers and members of the National Guard — 70-plus people, and two bathrooms — do the math.
Needless to say, due to a combination of flooded drains and much heavier than normal use, the sewer kept backing up. The company paid several visits to the church to help them out.
“People might not realize that places like this church are using electricity, gas, oil, water, bathrooms. It can be a strain on that organization. Of course you donate that kind of work when you hear their stories,” Hollub says.
For Hollub, an animal lover, dealing with abandoned and stranded pets was “the hardest thing about it all. I work personally through Modern Plumbing with Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists. You’ve probably seen them on NatGeo Wild. I called the owner to see if they could take in some of the dogs we were rescuing. That’s when I found out that their entire three-story building down to the parking deck was completely under water.”
Animal lovers have donated healthy sums and volunteer assistance in relocating dogs and horses to temporary quarters until they can be reunited with their owners, find new homes or are restored to health. Hollub reports that the condition of these non-human victims was heartbreaking. Imagine the condition of horses that have been standing flank high in floodwater for days.
Hollub anticipates a shortage of water heaters and boilers due to the extensive flooding. The company had a call early on that a local school had lost eight huge boilers and needed a solution, because they wouldn’t have hot water when school reopened.
“Luckily we also own a supply house and have quite a bit of stock, but there will be shortages and that’s going to be a problem for awhile until the supply chain is re-established.”
The recovery and rebuild work
Just north of Houston, Milton Frank Plumbing & Cooling in Spring, Texas, did their share of water rescues and supply delivery runs, says general manager Jessica Burden-Frank. [Milton Frank is also RJ’s 2017-2018 Western Contractor of the year. — Ed.]
“A lot of us were involved in evacuations,” she says. “We had four or five employees who were involved in high-water rescues that whole weekend, and on that Monday, as well.
“We also worked with a lot of other companies, friends in the industry that we knew. Mainly we were checking on employees and employees’ friends and families. We decided just to go and do it, and once you got to an area, you just couldn’t leave a long as there were people there to help.”
All but four employees were able to get back to work by the Tuesday after the storm.
“We weren’t very busy at all because everybody was still in shock and a lot of the people who had evacuated still had not come home. There just wasn’t emergency plumbing to be doing at the time. But there was a lot of tearing out, so a lot of people were doing a lot of volunteering around their neighborhoods, and those of their families and friends. Once you do one house, you just keep moving down the street — you can’t just leave somebody there,” Burden-Frank says.
While the governor was urged to sign an emergency bill to get plumbers in from other states to help, “We said, ‘No, we’ve got it covered.’ Texas is a big state and although a large area around Houston was affected, we had people calling us from Austin, San Antonio, and Amarillo, saying, ‘If you need people, we’ll send them down.’ Companies from those areas trucked in supplies, brought in food trucks and helped out with rescues and cleanouts.”
By two or three weeks into recovery, Milton Frank was busy getting people back the basics of hot water and air conditioning.
“Our HVAC division has been really busy because those units have been sitting in the water. We’ve replaced a lot of water heaters. That is the major work right now — the hot water and the HVAC units.
“We’re also starting to do some flood-based plumbing repairs, some of which were partly the results of the tear outs. That’s the rebuild work. Right now we’re trying to get everything out [of the flooded structures] so we’re seeing a lot of trash. You drive down streets here and it’s just piles and piles and piles, miles of trash, so we have to get all of that out. Right now we’re trying to get removal done and the rebuild will come down the road,” Burden-Frank says.
It’s been estimated that all of the soaked household contents measure eight million cubic yards in Houston alone, enough to fill up Houston Texans stadium twice.
“We’re also doing a lot of yard drains, French drains, they all sat under water for hours, so we’re doing a lot of drain cleanout and jetting. A lot these houses don’t even have water back to them yet because of all the tear out. With the homes that don’t have electricity back, we don’t know the extent of the HVAC, three plus weeks post-Harvey, so we’re stuck in a holding pattern, getting everything ripped out for everybody who was flooded.
“We’ve been doing a food drive through our office helping to supply the food bank at Trinity Lutheran Church,” she says. “The company is giving a discount on services to customers who donate. We’re asking for four items, and they usually give us bagsful. We’re also collecting cleaning supplies and personal supplies. Everybody is helping everybody, one way or another. When you saw those trucks driving down the street there was no picking and choosing who you were going to help. They were saving everybody.”
Some families have lost everything, their jobs included because they can’t get to work, and are living out of RVs and hotels. Burden-Frank notes her own children learned the meaning of “lost everything” when they returned to school after 12 days and some classmates didn’t even have their schoolwork binders. School supplies were among the donated items in the “food drive” to help children and their families begin to return to some sense of normality.
“They had ridden around with me making deliveries to job sites and moving shop vacuums between houses, but hearing about it in their own world, away from adults, made it more real,” she says.
When it came to communicating needs and marshalling resources, especially in early days, “social media is what really helped us out a lot,” Hollub says. “There’s a small group of people — the Texas Plumbing Forum — and people stayed busy getting information constantly on who had what all over town. What I did was to reach out to certain people in those areas and collect some items and bring them to the shelters.”
Alicia Dover, executive director of PHCC-Texas, says help and concern came from industry members throughout Texas and outside the state as well. The state office has served as a clearinghouse for those needing help and those volunteering manpower, skills and supplies.
“The response was amazing,” she says. “We got calls from so many companies offering their help.”
Dover notes folks just drove in and began to pitch in, everything from hauling in a barbecue truck to feed first responders and volunteers to loading up supplies like water, food, blankets and generators anticipating the need. People said they couldn’t “just sit still and do nothing” so they began to collect donations like gas for generators.
In the cleanup and rebuilding process, especially in areas where homes and other buildings may be a total loss, there will be a definite need for trade skills, but how fast projects can be greenlighted will depend on insurance coverage and government assistance, both of which take time, as the example of the post-Katrina Gulf Coast attests. The devastation left by Hurricane Irma, which cut a swath through the state of Florida on its way to Georgia and South Carolina, drew attention away from post-Harvey recovery.
Massive devastation like that experienced in Hurricanes Harvey and Irma mean a disruption of the local economy, severe damage to infrastructure, and environmental issues such as hazards from petroleum and chemical production as well as sanitation issues. Health officials warn that people returning to flooded areas and those who remained also face health hazards related to polluted air, contaminated water, infected wounds, mold, contagious diseases, carbon monoxide and mosquitoes.
Along with replacement and repair of piping and plumbing fixtures, as well as salvaging materials from homes that may be leveled and rebuilt from the ground up, work that results from the historic rain-producing storm will probably go on for years. There already has been talk of changes in zoning laws in some areas, as well as a look at the infrastructure related to preventing weather events from overwhelming existing catch basins, reservoirs, levees and river banks.
Recovery will take time, but industry professionals in Texas say, “We’re working and we’ll get it done.”