Angels in My Lifetime
Hurricane Harvey made landfall near the Texas towns of Port Aransas and Port O’Connor as a Category 4 hurricane on a Friday night and then slowly—dangerously too slowly—made its way up the coast to Houston and surrounding cities.
In its wake, it left more than 70 people dead, billions of dollars of damage, and hundreds of stories of strangers helping strangers. Several of those stories involve insurance professionals who were scrambling as early as Sunday to rescue customers from flooded homes and begin processing claims.
Randy King, a partner in Avalon Insurance Agency, an affiliate of Wright Flood Insurance, was keeping constant vigil on the rising water in his central Houston neighborhood, worrying not only about the clients he expected would have a tough time in the storm but also about a home he had just closed on but not moved into.
Nearby, one of his personal lines clients, Claude “Lee” Martin, a respected community leader and elder at the Westbury Church of Christ, was monitoring the storm from his two-story home, thinking Harvey just might spare his neighborhood. It stopped raining in his neighborhood Saturday afternoon, and he even spent some of the day swimming in his backyard pool.
But Saturday evening, rain started falling everywhere—in record amounts. Martin’s daughter and her family came to stay at his house because he has a second floor. They moved what they could upstairs, including a small air conditioner.
“I checked at 3 a.m., and it hadn’t stopped raining,” says Martin. “It just appeared to hit and stay here. Water was coming in under the doors. By 6 a.m., it was a foot and half deep in here. I walked down the street a bit, but the current was real strong and it could pull you into a storm drain if you didn’t know where they were.”
By Sunday afternoon the power had gone out, and he was fashioning a raft out of pool toys to evacuate his grandchildren from the waist deep floodwater that had by then engulfed his house.
Meanwhile, in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, Westbury Church of Christ teacher LeeAnn Moody had thought she too would be safe. “I was sure that I could stay home and not be affected,” says Moody. “We’d had hurricanes before with no damage. My son kept asking me to come to Katy and stay with them.”
The storm was so long and so intense that the days seemed to run together, Moody says. She knows her son Kyle drove from Katy, Texas, to rescue her but cannot recall if that was Sunday or Monday. “It rained several days before he came to get me,” she says. “The last time Kyle called me to say, ‘I’m coming to get you,’ I finally said, ‘Yes, I’ll go.’ I was getting scared, and the waters were rising up the driveway quickly.
“With roads being closed by the minute, there was no guarantee that he’d get to me, but he did. Kyle and I walked through 18-inch-deep water with my frightened dog, one suitcase and whatever else I could carry.”
Randy King’s roots are in Westbury. The Avalon partner is a member of the Westbury Christian School board and married his wife at the Westbury Church of Christ. “I’m really tuned in to what the school is about and what the people are like. They were my first priority,” he says. When King discovered the extent of Moody’s flooding, he reached out to help her, offering up the house he had just closed on as a place for her to live while he helped rebuild her home, which included tearing out the wet sheetrock and insulation, rebuilding the walls, re-flooring and painting the interior.
King is delaying moving into the new home until he can get Moody back into hers, which he expected to have accomplished by the end of October.
Moody says King is “a little like a comic hero. Randy is always joking and funny but the first one to offer help.” Along with King’s help, the Westbury Christian faculty helped Moody pack up her house. And the football team and coach helped demo the damaged areas of the house. “Some of my own anatomy students were right there with me in the mess helping to demo, throw wet items out and pack my things up in boxes to move,” Moody says.
Martin echoes the response from King and from Wright Flood. Not only were the adjuster’s estimated damages exactly what Martin was expecting, but the communication and swift action were crucial.
“I’ve known Randy for years,” says Martin. “On Monday, he got my claim filed. On Wednesday, the adjuster called to say he was trying to come to Houston from Florida but the airport was closed. He got out here Thursday and said he was sorry it took so long. He was really professional. To me, the communication took a lot off my mind. I’m quite happy. The process has been handled extremely well.”
This comes in the face of losing a great deal. “This one really opened my eyes,” says Martin. “It ruined everything. All our memorabilia—that’s just stuff. Now we start from scratch and do it over. This type of event really takes people under. But I feel pretty good about staying here. I like this area, and I’m ecstatic that Wright did everything that should allow me to rebuild myself. It will probably take about a year to get the house back to where it was. I really feel like I’m going to be able to get out of this OK.”
All the Help We Could Give
According to the National Weather Service, Harvey dropped a total 51.88 inches of rain near Mont Belvieu, just east of Houston, making it the biggest rain-producing storm in U.S. history. Some estimate Harvey dumped 27 trillion gallons on land, or enough to fill the Astrodome 86,000 times. For perspective, Houston’s highest annual rainfall recorded at George Bush Intercontinental Airport north of downtown Houston was 49.77 inches.
Harvey affected far more homeowners than businesses. Richard Blades, chairman of Houston-based Wortham, said he expects 85% of Harvey claims to be residential and 15% to be commercial. Some 185,149 homes were damaged or destroyed, according to data from the Texas Division of Emergency Management. An estimated eight million cubic yards of trash from flooded homes—soaked drywall, flooring, furniture, clothing and toys—was generated by the storm in Houston alone. If stacked together in one pile, it would be enough to fill the Houston Texans’ football stadium two times over.
King admits to being scared as the rain started pounding his neighborhood Saturday night. “Saturday night through Sunday morning I was worried it was going to come in. It was just raining, raining, raining. Just constant pouring rain…. I had everything I needed upstairs, and I wanted to stay and ride it out. I never went to bed. I stayed up and watched the radar. At 2 a.m. Sunday, the water in the street was starting to get pretty high so I started putting everything upstairs.
While both of King’s houses were spared, it wasn’t until Tuesday that water in the street receded enough for him drive his car. “I came into the office on Tuesday to help man the phones,” he says. “My partners work from their houses, but only one of them was answering phones, because the other got flooded and didn’t have any electricity.” The partner who was on the phone also had six inches of water in her house, but because her electricity never went off, she handled calls along with several other employees who were able to work out of their homes.
Other brokers and industry professionals heeded the call, showing their desire to help beyond just assisting with claims.
Reinsurance brokerage and risk/capital management advisor TigerRisk Partners sent a volunteer force of employees led by a former Navy SEAL to aid in rescue and recovery. Staging in San Antonio, the team assembled from several TigerRisk offices and embarked for Houston with a truck loaded with a flat-bottomed boat, tools, provisions, supplies, several ATVs and several four-wheel drive trucks.
“While we’re dealing with the economic aspects of the disaster, there are Americans in real need. In the face of so much suffering, we feel compelled to help,” says Rod Fox, CEO of TigerRisk.
The volunteer team was led by David Fernandez, an operations specialist at TigerRisk and former Navy SEAL. “The situation is a lot worse than people understand,” said Fernandez from a truck ferrying supplies from San Antonio.
Brett Herrington, president of Marsh & McLennan Agency Southwest, says several employee teams rallied to help displaced colleagues with tear down and removal of water-soaked items but they also stopped to help others in their area who needed it.
“You look for people who look like they need help,” says Herrington. “You may get inside and find people who had too many other volunteers already. Maybe they just needed something like a fan or a dehumidifier to dry things out. But many needed all the help we could give.
“Between sales and support, our people spent more time worrying about their colleagues than they did themselves,” he adds. “And it wasn’t just their colleagues. Many stopped wherever it looked like people were in need of assistance.”
Ally Financial senior account executive Denise Douglas had to be rescued from her flooded home on Monday and within days was volunteering time to help customers and even an elderly neighbor of one of Ally’s customers because she had no one else to help her.
“As we were helping one of the ladies gut her home and throw out all her belongings, she started crying,” says Douglas. “I walked up to her and put my arms around her and said, ‘I can’t imagine what you are going through watching years and years of memories be thrown to the curb.’ She turned to me and said, ‘That is not why I am crying. I am crying because I don’t know any of you and you all have been working all day in my home helping me. I have seven strangers in my home getting me through the worst time of my life.’”
Richard Beatty, an Ally Financial commercial product specialist, spent Tuesday rescuing as many as 25 people from the Blackhorse neighborhood in a friend’s boat.
“We heard a rescue boat had capsized in the Blackhorse neighborhood and people were missing, so we headed to Blackhorse,” Beatty says. “En route, a sheriff’s deputy pulled us over and requested that we follow them to the Bear Creek subdivision where a paraplegic needed to be rescued. When we arrived and launched the boat, the two deputies asked my son and me to stay on shore, as the boat was not big enough. As we were waiting we figured we could launch my boat there as well. The National Guard helped push the boat off the trailer, and we began rescuing people.”
“The experience is one that I would not wish upon anyone, but if I had to go through any type of disaster again, I would want these people with me,” says David Cullins, an Ally Financial account executive. “Everyone worked hard and did things that we definitely do not do during the course of our normal business day. I had one lady pull me aside and say, ‘I never thought I would meet real angels in my lifetime, and then y’all showed up.’”
Patten is a contributing writer. firstname.lastname@example.org