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Value of the network: members from three states join to help Hurricane Harvey victims

Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger | 12/1/2017 12:13:54 PM

On Aug. 24, Hurricane Harvey attained Category 4 status and made landfall near Rockport, Texas. Over the next four days, many areas received more than 40 inches of rain, causing catastrophic flooding—in some cases up to six feet. More than 17,000 rescues by helicopter, boat and four-wheel-drive truck were required and 90 people lost their lives. Total damage from the hurricane is estimated at $198.6 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster ever in the United States. More than 30,000 people were displaced, and the Texas Department of Public Safety reports that more than 185,000 homes were damaged and 9,000 destroyed.

Recovering from damage of that scale isn’t possible with the help of just one institution, or even with the resources of just one city. It requires a network that joins together. And on the weekend of Nov. 17-18, the NeighborWorks network demonstrated just how powerful joint action can be.

The donors

This particular story starts in Las Vegas, of all places—and a partnership of strange bedfellows: our NeighborWorks network member, Neighborhood Housing Services Southern Nevada (NHSSN) and Caesars Entertainment, which owns nine hotels in the city.

5th Ward Houston residents line up to receive furniture donations.
In mid-September, a former executive director from HomeAid of Southern Nevada and Project 150, both of which have a special focus on housing the homeless, connected NHSSN with Caesars Entertainment, which was seeking a charitable route for offloading 1,286 rooms of furniture as part of a major remodeling program.  . 
“Normally during a renovation, furniture is sold to a liquidator [for discount resale],” explains Sherri Pucci, general manager of Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino. “In this case, we decided to donate to charitable organizations. Full-room remodels don’t occur often, so this was a wonderful opportunity to make a difference.”
Michelle Merced, NHSSN president, picks up the story: “We and two other local nonprofits received Caesars’ first shipments of donated items, most of which went to our low-income tenants, including some who live in one of our transitional housing projects that had had a fire in February. But we heard from Caesars that it had more items than local groups could take. So, I start chatting with my vice president, Kathy Freeman, and we wondered how we could get some of the furniture to cities hit by the hurricanes, where we knew they really needed it.”

Houston was the obvious choice, since it’s the closest to Las Vegas, although Merced wishes there was some way to get some of the items to Puerto Rico. Her husband is Puerto Rican, and her own mother-in-law, who now is living with them, has become a “hurricane refugee,” giving Merced a firsthand account of the aftermath.
Freeman asked the nonprofit’s Caesars contact, Rainey Day Addington, if the company would be willing to ship furniture to hurricane-affected areas, and she promptly agreed. Thanks to their membership in the NeighborWorks network, the two women knew where to go find the right recipients in Houston.

“When I started (at NHSSN) 11 years ago, I was a housing counselor, then later I became homeownership director,” explains Merced. “I went to annual homeownership meetings, and got to know all of my counterparts in the network. There are many barriers when putting something like this together, but when you have a team of thoughtful, committed people, everything is possible!”

The distributors

Houston’s Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp. serves one of the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, given its pre-existing vulnerabilities, parts of the neighborhood also was classified as one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

“It’s no secret; 5th Ward has some challenges, with a high number of deteriorating properties, seniors and people with disabilities,” remarks Kathy Payton, president of the nonprofit, also a member of the NeighborWorks network. “The buildings just couldn’t withstand the rising water and high winds. We are a 30-year organization with a reputation for getting things done. So, when people are in distress, they call us.”

Despite thier own personal losses, 
Kathy Payton (third from left) next to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee
5th Ward staff immediately began work “mucking and gutting” flooded homes and apartments. Their counselors now are offering vital services such as providing temporary employment opportunities for displaced workers and paying off predatory payday loans taken out by desperate families, in return for a commitment to crisis budget counseling.

Caesars’ furniture was gratefully accepted, but a challenge to process. The shipment that arrived in Houston Nov. 15 included sofas, lamps, dressers, chairs, tables and armoires complete with flat-screen TVs from 55 rooms of the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino and 106 rooms in Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel & Casino. They were shipped in nine 53-foot trailers.
“We underestimated the volume, the heaviness of the furniture and the amount of labor needed to unload it all,” admits Payton, who was born and raised in the 5th Ward. “It wasn’t very volunteer-friendly.” Preparing for the distribution was crunched into four days, around the clock, but also was an opportunity to employ 23 people who had lost wages while several Houston employers remained closed.

The volunteers

The challenge continued on Saturday, Nov. 18, the day of distribution. Word that furniture was being given away to impacted families who could show up with vans and trucks spread like wildfire in the neighborhood. When I arrived along with other volunteers Friday night, residents—including some entire families—already had begun lining up in their cars on the streets and parking lots. The site of the distribution was the historic DeLuxe Theatre, originally built in 1941 as one of the few such entertainment centers open to blacks during segregation. Until Fifth Ward reopened it in 2014, it had been abandoned for more than 40 years—the roof deteriorating to the point it let in rain and sunlight. Even the seats had been unbolted from the floor and stolen. 
Lori Gay helps a resident choose furniture for her home.
However, it is beautifully restored today and now serves as a multipurpose venue, community playhouse—and site of the “Recovery Resource Fair.” In addition to the furniture distribution, counselors were on hand and free clothing donations and food (including turkeys provided by state Sen. Borris Miles, since the event occurred just before Thanksgiving) were available. Other partners and suppliers of volunteers included the Tejano Center (serving the area’s large Latino population), Pleasant Hill Ministries, SAI Group, NHS of Los Angeles County, NHS Southern Nevada (both Merced and Freeman attended) and NeighborWorks America. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee also dropped by to assist a few families in loading their trucks.

Unrestricted grants were sent by NeighborWorks America to five network member organizations in the Houston area, including $75,000 each to Fifth Ward and Tejano. But “the first dollar” received by Fifth Ward, says Payton, was from NHS of Los Angeles County, which also sent a crew of volunteers for the furniture-distribution day. “When I have people coming to my aid like that in every way they can—that’s when I am most proud of being a NeighborWorks affiliate,” Payton says.

Lori Gay, president and CEO of NHS LA County, traces to 9/11 her nonprofit’s commitment to donate to other organizations impacted by disasters.

“9/11 taught us something. My staff and I felt so helpless that day; we couldn’t do anything while we watched the towers crash to the ground. But we knew we could always could send money. So, we scraped together what we could and sent it off,” recalls Gay, who missed two events she “always attends” in order to volunteer for the donation event in Houston. “Fran Justa, the executive director of one of the New York City nonprofits at the time, told us later that was ‘the best thing you could ever have done and I hope you always will.’ Now, whenever a disaster occurs, we figure out how much we can give. This time, we sent money to 10 organizations impacted by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Marie, including those in Puerto Rico.”

The families

All of this effort and resources made a real, tangible difference to 162 families made homeless or forced to sit on boxes and air mattresses by the wind and flooding of Hurricane Harvey. Here is Carolyn Smith’s story:

Carolyn was No. 2 in line, staking out her place at 8:30 p.m. the night before the furniture distribution and sleeping in her car. She thought she had escaped the worst of the hurricane, and went to church the evening of the next day to give thanks. But then the rain stepped up and when she left to go home at about 11 that night, “the freeway was a river as far as I could see,” she recalls. “My car wouldn’t crank. So, I called a friend who has a truck. He said he was coming, and I sat there waiting. There were actually waves in the water and the current was so strong. I was afraid to get out. When the water started to rise in my car, I thought, oh my goodness! I’m going to die! So, I put my phone and purse in one of the coolers I had in my back seat, which I’d brought to stock up on ice in case the power stayed off, and attached a lanyard to it so I could let it float and pull it behind me. I put up my umbrella and started to walk. I was wearing a long, denim skirt and tennis shoes, so it wasn’t easy. The water was up to my thighs and I’m 5 feet 7!”

Carolyn said she focused all of her attention on wading through the swirling water, until she finally made it to a pharmacy that was open. She dried off her glasses and called her friend, who told her he couldn’t get to her; she would have to walk to a relative’s home.

“My heart dropped,” she recalls. “I couldn’t see in all that darkness and rain! But he told me I would have to try to remember the layout of the street and just go on. I had to give up on my umbrella. It had blown out long ago. It was horrifying, really.”

Somehow, Carolyn made it. She stayed at her relative’s house for five days; when she was finally able to return home, she founded it flooded with about five inches of standing water—not as bad as other houses, but enough to do damage. I heard about this donation event by text from a friend. What a godsend!”

The donation event was considered so successful that Payton says she is requesting another delivery, probably in February, and Pucci adds that Caesars hopes to send furniture to hurricane-impacted areas in Florida as well.

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