A long road to recovery
From lack of food and water to burst pipes, region struggling in aftermath of storm
Werner Velasquez waited at a crowded drive-thru food distribution, hoping for bottled water. Pipes had burst in his home, causing the ceiling to cave and destroying his children’s beds and the washer and dryer.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for Velasquez, who was just laid off from his job painting cars after the owner of the shop contracted COVID-19 last month.
“With the pandemic and now this, it’s been hard,” Velasquez said. “It’s going to take at least another two years to
get back on my feet.”
About 3,000 cars received donations by 11 a.m. Sunday through a Houston Food Bank distribution site at NRG Stadium. The nonprofit estimated it had given 25 to 30 pounds of food to 5,000 cars. For many people in line, water remained the top priority. The city spent most of the week on a boil water notice, which was lifted later Sunday afternoon.
And even with the city’s water supply usable again, so many Houstonians need to get busted pipes repaired. Megan Byrd, a couple cars down, said she won’t be able to get a plumber in until next week to fix her pipes in her home in southeast Houston. She will have to make do without running water until then. The entire ceiling in her bedroom collapsed, and the pipes in her laundry room burst as well. Large pieces of debris fell on her washer, dryer and water heater. It’s going to cost $4,000 to fix the pipes alone, she said.
“It was a big money drop for us,” Byrd said. “We just have been spending money throughout the week.”
‘It’s a team effort’
But for every Houstonian suffering, another stood ready to help. During the rolling blackouts, Bishop James Dixon sent an email blast to church leaders at the Community of Faith Church on the Northside, to see how soon they could respond. By Sunday afternoon, they organized a food drive and began collecting donations, distributing them through a network of nonprofits and community partners.
“It’s a team effort,” Dixon said. “No one organization and no one church could support all of Houston during these times.”
About 50 miles south in Galveston, Amanda Huschle and her three grandchildren were first in line at a pop-up food stand Saturday afternoon, organized by a local insurance adjuster in a parking lot behind a Jack in the Box. They collected hamburgers and chips for their first hot meal since their house lost power and running water during several days of freezing weather.
“We don’t have anything, just bags of chips,” Huschle said. “I don’t have the money to go to restaurants, so we’re blessed to have a community that can help us.”
Huschle is single and unemployed, collecting disability checks to pay bills and care for her three grandchildren, two of whom have special needs. Her son, who serves in the Army and is based in Poland, sends money when he can. During the cold snap last week, Huschle’s house lost power, and her family was forced to sleep in her sedan to keep warm as temperatures dropped below freezing. By Saturday, her power had returned but she still had no running water, and all of the food in their refrigerator had spoiled.
Enter Melanie Spoon. The co-owner of InsuranceBusters.net, a local public insurance adjuster company, Spoon and her colleagues organized a food giveaway in their parking lot, setting up a smoker with pork chops, pulled pork and brisket, and publicized it on Facebook. Huschle found out about it through word of mouth.
“We do this for every disaster,” Spoon said, adding that she was one of the lucky few on the island who still had running water.
Until Sunday, Galveston had been under a boil water notice since Wednesday due to frozen pipes and water main leaks that sapped the city of its water supply. At one point, the city was losing 14,000 gallons of water per minute.
As a result, even while nearly every residence and business on the island had power restored, many were still without potable water.
Texas Tail Distillery on Seawall Boulevard offered a solution for water troubles. With a 55-gallon filtered water tank in the back of the bar normally used in the process of making vodka and whiskey, co-owner Nick Droege gave it away to anyone who showed up with a container.
“It’s reverse-osmosis filtered water, so it filters out all of the impurities. It’s what we use for our day-to-day operation,” Droege said. “We’ve probably given out 600-700 gallons so far.”
‘A bad journey’
Jessica Gorman heard about Texas Tail’s giveaway from a Galveston Facebook group and jumped at the opportunity to fill several containers with clean water. Gorman went to several grocery stores on the island to find water and came up empty. With two kids at home and brown, debrisfilled water running from her faucet, she was grateful to finally have enough water to get through the next few days.
“For drinking water, it looked like there were chunks of metal coming through my faucet,” Gorman said. “I didn’t go to any of the water distribution sites yesterday because I think that’s for people who really need it, but (the Texas Tail giveaway) is awesome.”
Several blocks west, a line of cars filed into the Academy Sports + Outdoors parking lot where dozens of volunteers buzzed around a food stand that was giving away hot meals of grilled chicken, sausage and pulled pork. Craig Hall, a construction contractor, was recruited by Michael Marquez from Sharky’s Tavern to man the grill for the afternoon, cooking enough food to feed up to 600 people.
“We’ve got a lot of people that are hurting right now, families that are hurting,” Hall said. “We’re a family of means, and we do our best to help our people who got it a little bit worse than us.”
Susie Martin and Norma Hawk eagerly waited in their cars as they slowly filed into the parking lot. They were one of the last on the island to get power back on Saturday. Martin and Hawk are security contractors for the cruise industry in Galveston. With cruises canceled during the coronavirus pandemic, they were laid off in May and have struggled through the last year.
“We’re spending money we don’t have,” Hawk said, adding that she’d gone around to restaurants on the island in search of water last week after the pipes in their home burst. “We’ve got to thank (Sharky’s) for this. I’m not working anymore; we’re waiting for the (cruise) boats to come back in.”
Robert Brown had spent the last several nights squeezing into his truck with his family of six to keep warm while their house had no power. A hot meal was a welcome reward after a tough week. Brown noted how lucky his family was after watching the news and seeing that another person had lost their life by sitting in a truck.
“We’re making it,” Brown said, as he carried seven servings of food back to that same truck. “It’s been a bad journey. Hard, but we’re here.”