Love in Action—A Marathon Relief Effort
RICHARD VARA, a seasoned editor for the Houston Chronicle, is not easily impressed, but last year he was. “I have never seen anything like it!” he exclaimed. “I can’t believe it.” His feelings were shared by Lee P. Brown, the mayor of Houston, Texas, U.S.A. He said: “I wish everyone in Houston could see what you have done. I am extremely impressed.” What was the subject of their comments? The editor and the mayor were commenting on a relief effort that was carried out by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Houston. What did this effort involve? Why was it needed? And what made it so impressive? To find out, let us start at the beginning.
A Record-Setting Flood
In early June of 2001, a fierce tropical storm named Allison pummeled the flatland area of southeastern Texas. Ultimately, on Friday, June 8, in a 24-hour period, Allison dumped three feet [1 m] of torrential rain on Houston—the nation’s fourth-largest city.a In no time, rising water rushed into shops, offices, and tens of thousands of homes. Freeways around the city turned into raging rivers, washing over stranded automobiles and tall trucks. High water made it impossible even for fire trucks and other rescue vehicles to navigate some of the flooded roads. Helicopters and heavy-duty military vehicles were called in to rescue people.
Finally, when clear skies returned on Monday, June 11, it became evident that Allison had taken a deadly and costly toll. Twenty-two people had lost their lives, including two of Jehovah’s Witnesses: Jeffrey Green, a Christian elder, and his sister-in-law Frieda Willis.b In addition, some 70,000 homes had been damaged, making this flood one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit a large metropolitan area. In fact, by causing close to $5 billion in property damage, Allison became the costliest tropical storm in U.S. history.
A Flood of Volunteers
People were in shock. Said one relief worker: “Their beds were wet. Their carpet was wet. Their baby pictures were gone.” Many of the more than 16,000 Witnesses of Jehovah in the Houston area suffered loss. Eight Kingdom Halls and hundreds of homes of Witnesses were damaged. Some of these homes were flooded with several inches of water; others had water up to the roof. In all, more than 80 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses were affected. Yet, these victims were not left on their own. Within days a flood—but this one of volunteers—came to their rescue. How did that come about?
Even before the floodwaters began to recede, Christian elders of the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Houston sprang into action. “We called and visited our brothers and sisters,” related one elder. “Then we assessed the damage, and by Monday, June 11, we had compiled a full report listing the victims, the number of damaged homes, and the extent of the damage. This was sent to the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York.” A few days later, the U.S. branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses put in place a relief committee of eight Christian elders from Houston and provided relief funds. The committee’s assignment? To help the victims recover emotionally and also to repair the damaged homes of the Witnesses—more than 700 homes!
‘How can we tackle this mammoth task?’ wondered the members of the newly formed Jehovah’s Witnesses Houston Relief Committee 2001. They spent long evening hours working out an initial plan and called on the more than 160 congregations of Witnesses in the Houston area to assist. “The response was overwhelming,” related the chairman of the committee. “Over 11,000 Witnesses signed up, offering their time, labor, and skills free of charge.”
Mold Versus Volunteers
A few days after the flood, volunteers went to work at the victims’ homes, tearing out saturated carpets, damaged floors, ruined walls, soaked cabinets, warped doors, and everything else that was soiled by the sewage-contaminated floodwater. “We were concerned not only about fixing our brothers’ homes,” related one volunteer, “but also about safeguarding their health.” Since toxic mold would quickly begin to grow behind walls and inside cabinets, the homes first needed to be thoroughly disinfected.
To learn how to do the job safely, several Witnesses requested training from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a government agency specializing in dealing with disasters. After that, each FEMA-trained Witness invited ten volunteers to go with him to a damaged home, where they were taught how to disinfect that home properly. The following day each of the ten newly trained volunteers in turn took ten other volunteers with him. “In a few days,” recounted one volunteer, “the number who knew how to do this work grew to several hundred.” The spreading mold simply could not keep up with the growing number of volunteers! Retirees and teenagers on school vacation worked during the day. At night, other volunteers took over and pressed on. Within six weeks all contaminated homes of the Witnesses were clean and safe.
One Center and Seven Hubs
Meanwhile, the relief committee purchased huge amounts of gypsum board and tons of other construction materials. But where could it be stored? “When the manager of a company learned about our needs,” recounted the spokesman for the relief committee, “he offered the use of a warehouse—with a floor space of 60,000 square feet [5,000 sq m]—free of charge!” Besides holding building materials, the warehouse provided room for office space. Before long, it became the administrative center of the relief effort, where some 200 to 300 volunteers worked days, nights, and weekends.
Since the damaged homes were located throughout a vast area, hubs, or regional relief centers, were established in seven Kingdom Halls. On weekends each hub buzzed with volunteers. (See the box “Hub of Activity.”) Many of them had worked together before in building Kingdom Halls in the region. In fact, volunteers with construction skills from 11 different Regional Building Committees in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas helped out.c In each hub, carpenters, painters, plumbers, and other skilled workers took the lead and trained others.—See the box “Training Programs.”
A Plan and a Data Base
The volunteers followed a seven-phase construction plan. Construction materials were delivered to the homes in four batches, and repair work on each home was scheduled to be done in three weekends. This way, the entire relief effort would be completed in about six months.
To make the plan work, the committee set up 22 departments, including logistics, purchasing, rooming, and trucking. All departments were assisted by the information contained in an extensive data base that was developed by the volunteers. Before the repair work began, volunteers spent ten days entering information. “It was a data-entry marathon,” noted a news report. However, at the end of that “marathon,” a trove of useful facts was available. With a click of the mouse, the data base showed when the 11,000 volunteers would be available, what skills they had, and how to contact them. With another click, it showed the status of repairs, the building permits needed, and other details of the damaged homes. The data base became known as “the heart of the relief effort.”
Overwhelmed and Grateful
Homes that were mold-free and dry were visited by volunteers skilled in home construction to determine what it would take to repair the damage. “These volunteers would figure the materials down to the number of nails needed,” the spokesman commented. “We did not want to waste any funds or donated materials.” At the same time, other volunteers obtained the necessary construction permits from city officials.
Next, affected families were invited to come to the warehouse to choose from a limited selection of carpets, cabinets, vinyl flooring, and other items to replace what they had lost. Flood victims were overwhelmed and often wept when they saw all that was provided for them. Victims also received advice from volunteers with expertise in insurance matters and government policies. Then, homes were scheduled for repair, and on the exact day that the repair crews needed building materials, volunteer truckers delivered them. A non-Witness whose damaged house was being repaired told his Witness wife: “Your brothers are a wonder. One crew leaves, and another rushes in. They work like ants!”
Basic repairs took about three weekends for each home. “At times, though, it took five or even eight weeks,” said the committee chairman. When walls were removed in older homes, the volunteers often noticed previous damage, and they did not want to put in new walls without first repairing these old problems. Said one volunteer craftsman: “At times we saw that studs were infested with termites, so we made sure that the termites were destroyed. We did a lot of structural reframing to fix things. We left the homes in good shape.” A flood victim reflected the feelings of many such homeowners when he gratefully told a visitor: “My house is better now than when I bought it!”
To provide food for the many volunteers, a group of Witnesses transformed a warehouse behind a Kingdom Hall into a food-preparation and distribution center. Witnesses throughout the country donated refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, stoves, and other kitchen equipment. Each Saturday and Sunday, 11 chefs and some 200 other volunteers prepared thousands of meals in the center. The volunteer who oversaw this kitchen said: “We have been preparing meals for Kingdom Hall construction projects for 19 years, but this project was bigger than we ever imagined.”
The meals were packed into 120 large containers. These were loaded into 60 waiting vehicles, which delivered the meals to all hubs and the administrative center. Meanwhile, each crew working in a home sent one volunteer to their assigned hub to pick up the meals for the entire crew. The volunteers ate their meals in the homes and went right back to work.
Finally, in April 2002, the 11,700 volunteers reached the finish line of one of the longest relief campaigns ever undertaken by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The volunteers spent 1,000,000 hours in repairing or rebuilding a total of 8 Kingdom Halls and 723 homes. One flood victim spoke for many others when he said with tears of gratitude in his eyes: “I thank Jehovah and the volunteers for all the help they have given. To belong to a loving brotherhood is a great comfort!”
a The cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have more people. Houston’s metropolitan area has about 3,500,000 inhabitants and is larger than the Middle Eastern country of Lebanon.
b A memorial service was attended by 1,300 friends of Jeffrey and Frieda. That support gave much comfort to Abigail—Jeffrey’s wife and Frieda’s sister.
c Regional Building Committees normally handle the construction of meeting facilities of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[Box/Picture on page 21]
HUB OF ACTIVITY
It is Saturday, 7:00 a.m., at Hub No. 4 in northeastern Houston. Talking, laughing, coffee-sipping, and doughnut-munching volunteers mingle in the Kingdom Hall. Some have driven hundreds of miles from their hometown to be here. But at 7:30 a.m., the lively conversations die down, and the hub’s overseer conducts a discussion of a Bible text. He also announces that a Watchtower Study will be held on Sunday at 7:30 a.m., before the volunteers disperse to their work locations, and he encourages all to share in the study by commenting either in English or Spanish. He conveys a message from the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is received with a round of applause.
The hub’s overseer then gives an update on the relief efforts and warmly thanks the volunteers for their willing spirit. He asks: “Does anyone here not know what to do or where to go today?” No hands go up. “How many meals do we need?” All hands shoot up, and laughter erupts. Finally, a prayer is said, and the 250 volunteers—men, women, young and old—are on their way, ready for another long day of hard work.
The same scene takes place at the other six hubs and at the warehouse. Meanwhile, other volunteers working in a central kitchen are already busy stirring the cooking pots—after all, by noon today over 2,000 hungry volunteers throughout Houston will be ready for a hot meal!
[Box/Picture on page 22]
During the relief effort, volunteer craftsmen conducted classes to train unskilled volunteers for specific tasks. Some were trained to disinfect homes. Others learned how to install walls and cabinets. Still others learned how to plaster and paint. These Skilled-Workers Seminars were videotaped, and the videos were then used at the hubs to train additional volunteers. “Through these seminars,” noted a relief-committee member, “we ensured the high quality of the repair work.”
Craftsmen conducting classes
[Box on page 24]
“THE REAL ACT OF GOD”
“Insurance companies call natural disasters acts of God,” noted one relief-committee member. “However,” he added, “the volunteers who worked here for all those months are the real act of God. Our brotherhood is a miracle!” During this relief effort, 2,500 or more volunteers showed up on weekends to work. Said the committee chairman: “Those unpaid volunteers canceled planned vacations, rearranged their family schedules, and put other personal affairs on hold to assist in one of the largest relief efforts Jehovah’s Witnesses have ever tackled.”
The lengthy relief campaign required sacrifices. One volunteer who supported the work from start to finish held a 50-hour-a-week secular job. Yet, he spent 40 hours each week on relief work. “Jehovah gave me the strength,” he said. “Acquaintances ask me, ‘Do you get paid for it?’ I tell them, ‘You could not pay me enough to do this.’” On weekends, after a full week of secular work, a family from the state of Louisiana drove 500 miles [800 km] round trip to help with the relief work. Many worked from sunrise to sundown, and then they drove back home. One group of 30 skilled volunteers, who drove seven to ten hours one way, said: “It’s well worth it.” Another volunteer got off her day job at 3:30 p.m. and then volunteered in the administrative center till 10:00 p.m. She also helped on weekends. “It’s rewarding,” she said.
Indeed, these and all other volunteers were willing to help because of having brotherly love—the identifying mark of genuine Christians. (John 13:35) After visiting the administrative center of the relief effort, Houston’s mayor was moved to say to a group of Witnesses: “You believe in doing what God tells us to do. You’re putting your beliefs to work.”
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Floodwaters invade Houston, June 9, 2001
© Houston Chronicle
[Picture on page 21]
Freeways turned into rivers
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Water rushed into homes
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Some of the thousands of Witnesses who served as volunteers
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The kitchen crew prepared over a quarter of a million meals!
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