Saturday, December 30, 2017

KIRF Field Report: Hurricane Harvey Relief in Houston, Texas 2017

It’s always hard to make a choice of who to help when disaster strikes.  While driving to work one day, I heard interviews on NPR of survivors who had experienced the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.  The pain in those voices and the dire circumstances of the victims helped us decide to do a relief trip to Houston.  Yet, as we were planning the trip, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico causing many deaths, knocking out the island’s electrical grid, and destroying thousands of homes.  After Maria, one person asked me where we were going. I replied that were going to help the folks in Houston. Why?  Because KIRF had made a representation and commitment to people in Houston that we were coming to help.

“HUD is now collecting rent in September….” “The flood waters were 14’ deep destroying our home.” “ I slept in an attic with an axe before I was rescued.” “An elderly woman stayed in her flooded house for five days before her daughter could rescue her.” “A barista who lost his job due to the floods and has been living in an overcrowded hotel, with loud noises and dogs barking all night, only getting two hours of sleep each night.” These were parts of the stories I heard as we assessed the damage and needs the first day in Houston.

While we were assessing damage and interviewing people in the Clear Creek and Frendwick districts of South Houston, we met the Noe, the pantry manager at the Interfaith Caring Ministries in League City.  He told us that they had plenty of donated food but still needed cleaning supplies.

We next met Jeanne, the Coordinator for the Prevention and At Risk Services for the Clear Creek Independent School District. This school had converted one of their gyms into a temporary housing facility for the flood victims and the other gym was used as a  donation center for clothes and cleaning supplies.  Jeanne told us that about a 100 students and teachers in their elementary school classes had lost their homes. What some of these people needed the most was Walmart gift cards because they did not yet have a place to live and store stuff. They were still living in temporary housing or in hotel rooms six weeks after the hurricane's flooding ruined their homes.

Later in the day we interviewed people at University Baptist Church. Chis told us that the church volunteers had “mucked out” (ripped out all the moldy drywall) 175 homes. Also, that they had just received a semi-truck loaded with drywall.  They had enough support to purchase screws, tape and drywall mud to re-drywall the homes.  However, he knew of families who were food insecure. He put us in touch with a parishioner, Sujata, who had been feeding these families out of her own pocket in the badly flooded area of Bayridge. She emailed us wish lists created by these families who had been hit hard by the hurricane. They needed nutritious food items, cleaning supplies, toiletries, feminine supplies, and baby products.

So, wish lists in hand, we took our trusty Penske rental truck to Home Depot, Walmart, and finally Costco and purchased items based on the wish lists and our own assessment interviews.  We also purchased Walmart gift cards for the students and teachers of the elementary school who were still living in temporary housing.  Once the truck was completely filled with supplies we drove to the University Baptist Church. After we finally unloaded the truck, we had a late dinner and a beer at 1:30am early Saturday morning. 

We started again later that same morning at 9:00am by meeting more volunteers from the Space Center Rotary at the University Baptist Church. We unloaded the truck and with the wise advice of Fausto, the Church facilities director, using a large meeting room in the Church to stage filling our "relief bags" with the above items on the wish lists. Each relief bag consisted of a construction grade large 50 gallon plastic sack, packed full.  We were helped by patrons from this church and other churches to stuff the bags.  Then we loaded the truck and drove to a neighborhood in Bayridge and began a long day of knocking on doors and handing out our large relief bags of supplies.  We helped about 60 families in this community.

During our delivery of aid to a flooded neighborhood, a volunteer with us knocked on a door to ask if the occupants needed food or supplies.  An elderly woman answered the door leaning on a cane.  The smell of mold was overwhelming as she opened the door.  We asked if she needed help. She invited us in to look around.  A pile of her personal belongings was in the center of her living room. Drywall was cut off of the walls from the floor to 3’ high and the studs were black with mold.  She was 92.  We asked her why she was still in the house because it smelled so bad. She said she was waiting for FEMA to assess the value of her destroyed goods.  Hurricane Harvey had struck six weeks ago.

After Bayridge we drove to Dickenson.  It was devastated. The streets reeked of mold and rot and were devoid of people or cars.  Not one person seemed to be at home. We drove around for about an hour and finally saw a small church that was accepting donations.  The Lighthouse Baptist Church’s hours of disaster relief assistance for the community had been cut back because of a lack of donations. So, when we showed up, the man in charge, Rick, was very happy to see us.  We unloaded approximately 60 more relief bags for distribution in Dickenson and Rock Port- two very badly damaged areas.

In total, we provide aid to approximately 200 families who were displaced or still living in badly flood damaged homes in Houston, Texas. We could not have performed our 48 hours of disaster relief, September 15-17, 2017, in Houston without the dedicated, hard working, and always-ready-for-good-laugh Rotary volunteers Greg and Courtney.  Greg was our fearless flatbed truck driver and Courtney kept us laughing after 20 hours straight of non-stop relief work.  Our success would not have been possible without the generous support of KIRF’s generous donors, the Rotary Club of (Downtown) Ventura, and Lion’s Club of Ventura, and the tireless work and incredible hospitality of members of the Rotary Club of Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Monday, October 17, 2016

KIRF Field Report: Flooding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana 2016

Ruined trailer park flooded near the Comite River, Louisiana.
Photo: Mark Kirwin
Louisiana Relief 2016
As we were driving down roads stacked high on each side with ripped out drywall, furniture and moldy house hold goods, an elderly gentleman told us that the flood waters covered more area than the state of Delaware.

It is hard to believe the magnitude of the flood that hit Baton Rouge Louisiana in August of 2016.  It has been estimated that the damage caused by the flood was the worst in US History since Hurricane Sandy. We saw the results of what overflowing rivers and record rainfall did to  the communities of the parishes such as Denham Springs along the Comite River. 

The locals told fellow Rotarian and KIRF volunteer Steve Doll and I that if it were not for the “Cajun Navy” many more people would have lost their lives during the flood.  The Cajun Navy was a group of local fisherman who used their boats to rescue people from rooftops during the worst of the downpour and flooding that put much of the town under water and ruined thousands of homes and businesses. It was news of the Cajun Navy that originally inspired me to plan this KIRF relief trip in partnership with the Ventura Downtown Rotary, Ventura Rotary East, and Ventura’s Downtown Lions Club.  The financial partnership of these organizations made this relief trip a huge success.

Working out which families need help and the
quantity of cleaning supplies, house hold living supplies
and food to purchase at The Arc. Photo: Steve Doll
We were fortunate to be able to accomplish a large part of the need assessment with the tireless help of a team of local volunteers: fellow Rotarian Mike H. from Baton Rouge Sunrise Rotary, Charlene M. from the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, Samuel S. from the Mid-City Development Alliance, Lisa H. from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and Charles D. from the Church of Immaculate Conception.  Once we were on the ground in Baton Rouge, Steve and I could not have accomplished so much so quickly without the amazing stamina and guidance of Laura D. from the Sunrise Rotary and Charles D. Father Thomas Clark was of great assistance in locating elderly people who needed assistance; as well as Barry Meyer, from The Arc of Baton Rouge. He organized his team to help us shop for and deliver requested supplies.  Thank you also to Sam, Angie and Laura for putting us up in their houses during our time in Baton Rouge.

We were on the ground for three days.  Our first day started with a Rotary meeting at Sunrise Rotary (friendly bunch if you ever get the chance to have breakfast with them!).  Then we were off driving the communities around North Baton Rouge with Charles to observe the damage and discuss the present needs of the people affected by the flood.
Still cleaning up house debris.
Photo: Mark Kirwin

Later that day we met with Barry at The Arc and went over lists of what The Arc’s clients and employees with flood damaged homes needed. Basically, many lost everything but the clothes on their backs.

After a long day of needs assessment, we found out what was needed. So day two was spent in Walmart and Cosco purchasing the requested products.  A special thanks to Walmart manager Fred and his awesome staff for helping us purchase need items for 96 Arc clients and employees. We purchased cooking and eating supplies, plates, towels, sheets, cleaning and bathroom supplies, and gift cards so folks could purchase clothing.

 We were able to purchase 6,000 cans of nutritious tuna and chicken breast meat for the Food Bank.  The Food Bank lost all of its food and most vehicles as a result of the flood waters.
Steve lining up the shopping carts with supplies requested by
families who lost their homes. Photo: Mark Kirwin


We worked most of the day with volunteers loading up cans of chicken from Costco. Tuna was purchased at discount through the kindness of Associated Grocers.  

The Food Bank is supplying much needed food for those stricken by the flood.  We purchased a pallet of cases of food for families with children and elderly people who lost their homes and are food insecure. 

Our work ended the following day when Father Clark and his congregation delivered supplies to 30 elderly couples whose homes and contents were badly damaged by the flood waters.")

Thank you to all who helped with this relief trip to Baton Rouge!

Mark Kirwin, Esq.
President and Co-Founder KIRF