The pile of furniture, carpet and drywall filled the driveway outside of 86-year-old Grace Beatty’s house in Port Arthur, Texas on Tuesday. The widow had been living in her home outside of Houston for 28 years when Hurricane Harvey hit nearly two weeks ago, bringing massive amounts of rain and damaging flooding.

Inside, volunteers were busy stripping the house down to its studs, demoing the kitchen and carrying out the last of Beatty’s belongings. The scene was one of a full-fledged construction zone, complete with the noisy hum of fans turned on high to dry things out.

Among the few things Beatty had salvaged were a study bible and a teddy bear.

The volunteers’ work and Beatty’s profuse thanks for their help were broadcast on Facebook Live thanks to Daniel Williamson, the pastor at Church for the Nations Flagstaff.

Williamson is one of 17 volunteers from the Flagstaff and Phoenix Church for the Nations, Hope Cottage and Sunshine Rescue Mission who traveled to the Houston area to help the tens of thousands affected by the hurricane-turned-tropical-storm.

“It’s communities helping communities,” Williamson said.

Williamson and the other volunteers left Flagstaff Sunday afternoon and traveled through the night to make it to Texas. They packed into trucks and vans that hauled trailers loaded with hundreds of pounds of bottled water, cleaning supplies, toiletries, baby food and other necessities.

Since they arrived, the group has been working 12 to 15 hour days moving from flood-damaged home to flood-damaged home — up to four or five a day, said Michael Chavez a disciple at Sunshine Rescue Mission who is on the trip.

“The water damage itself is just unreal, it’s unbelievable,” Chavez said. “It’s nothing we can comprehend in Arizona because we don’t have to go through this kind of stuff.”

At each home, the volunteers gut the house and haul water-damaged items into huge piles out front. Not much is salvageable, Williamson said.

“Probably 90 percent of their belongings (homeowners) will have to bring backhoes in and get rid of it,” he said. “What’s so heartbreaking is you’re dealing with people’s personal stuff but it’s so destroyed that you just throw it on the side of the road.”

Workers rip out wet carpet, insulation and drywall, bleach the floors and walls and put down bacteria-killing paint, he said. It’s a race against time to get the work done before black mold starts to grow.

Videos Williamson posted on his Facebook page show streets where home after home’s entire interior had been ripped out and piled in the front lawn or driveway. Some homes still have standing water, he said. In other neighborhoods, homes on one street had to be completely gutted while a block away the residences were relatively unharmed just because they were on slightly higher ground.

Neighbors and friends are helping each other clean up and teams of volunteers from places like New Jersey are joining the effort as well, Williamson said.

While their homes are torn up, many residents are staying with friends because nearby hotels are full or still don’t have utilities, he said.

“It seems everywhere we turn someone has one or two families living with them,” he said.

Residents have also had to cash in on vacation time and make tough decisions about working on their homes or getting back to work because they need the paycheck, he said.

There is some semblance of normality returning to the area where they’re working, Williamson said, with restaurants and stores beginning to open for limited hours. In a sign of the city’s current state of rebuilding, the shelves of local convenience stores are well stocked with snack foods but completely out of cleaning supplies and water, he said.

The Flagstaff and Phoenix volunteer group is receiving directions from local emergency operations teams whose logistics and organization Williamson called “absolutely phenomenal.” The group’s home base is the Golden Triangle Church on the Rock in Beaumont, Texas, which has been turned into a designated command and distribution center, Williamson said. That means the church is seeing hundreds of families a day who are seeking assistance and it is helping feed about 2,000 people per day, from guards and inmates at the local prison to residents at nearby assisted living centers, Williamson said.

All of the resources their group brought with them -- enough supplies to fill a 26-foot U-Haul trailer, a 20-foot box trailer and empty spots on a 15-passenger van -- were gone in a matter of hours, he said. Sunshine Rescue Mission also donated 1,000 pounds of meat and that was used up in two days.

Williamson is already thinking about when he will return with volunteers to help rebuild homes they have spent the past few days gutting out.

“We call this first phase rescue and relieve. Phase two is restore and rebuild,” he said.

Despite the destruction, people are managing to lift themselves up, he said.

“When a person walks into their home and it's gutted, there is usually a moment of breakdown,” Williamson said. But following that there is stamina, grit, grace and a will to be bigger than the devastation.

“People have chosen they're not going to let Harvey have the last say,” Williamson said.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or


Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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