Muckouts, Marines and Social Media

Blog Feature Hurricane

Kelli Kirwan, Communication Analyst

“Everything’s bigger in Texas” is a statement most Texans are proud to own. Big trucks, big belt buckles and big personalities all come out of the Lone Star State. It’s no surprise Hurricane Harvey tried to fit right in — dropping 15 trillion gallons of water and causing catastrophic loss of life and $75 billion in property damage. As I write this, those impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have moved from search and rescue into recovery and rebuilding. The last in the hurricane trio - Maria - has only recently devastated Puerto Rico and its citizens are facing the most dire circumstances - lack of power, water, fuel and food - a situation made especially challenging by the island’s geography. For all of these communities, the road to full restoration will be long. For reference, it took more than a decade for New Orleans to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

What can’t be bottled, branded and sold is the ability to ride out a storm, roll up sleeves and do the work of getting back to the business of living — AKA, resilience. As a former military spouse and communications professional supporting military families, resilience is a concept I’ve come to know well. While there is much professional literature on the subject, there is still much we need to learn about how people and communities develop resilience. As the waters recede and the clean up continues, let’s take a closer look at what Hurricane Season might be teaching us about community resilience.

Social Connectedness

Social connectedness is a key indicator of community resilience. Socially-connected individuals tend to be more resilient than socially-isolated individuals because they have more awareness of and access to shared community resources. A 2016 report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests that civic engagement, such as volunteering, can represent a community’s level of social connectedness. When it comes to volunteering to support hurricane rescue, recovery and now rebuilding, Texas has been off the charts.

When the rains started falling and water began to rise, people got out their boats, their trucks and their ropes and began taking care of each other with no other thought than, “this is what you do.” No one needed an official title to take care of their neighbor, rescue a pet or comfort the distraught.

Debra, one of our personel financial counselors who supports more than 800 Navy and Marine Corps families assigned to the Navy Operation Support Center (NOSC) in Houston, had a front-row seat to selfless acts of volunteerism. A sailor whose car was flooded did not hesitate once the water receded. He drove to the NOSC — acting command center for search and rescue efforts — ready to help. He knew that no matter how bad his situation was, someone would have it worse.

North of Houston in Montgomery, a former Marine participated in the community’s emergency response team by rescuing local residents and providing shelter, food and comfort. His Marine Corps training allowed him to be a valuable asset during the storm. When asked about his experience, he said:

“We had one of our guys helping rescue others while his own house was flooding. That’s just what you do, right? Really, it was people coming together and setting themselves aside. You might be devastated but you do what you can in the moment. It’s frightening, sure, it’s in the back of your mind, but you have to help others because they have it worse than you.”

We are seeing the same community support among the Marines we serve through the Wounded Warrior Resource and Call Center. Many of these Marines were involved in Harvey search and rescue operations, helped their communities prepare for Irma and are still contributing to the recovery efforts in both places. When we reached out before Irma made landfall to provide them with a comprehensive hurricane resource list we created, many were already out boarding up windows, providing sandbags and assisting senior citizens. They were thankful and eager to pass the resources on to others.

Perhaps one of the most touching examples of service before self is the story of two service members whose wedding would have been spoiled by Irma. They wed at a hurricane staging area at the Orange County Convention Center a week before their scheduled beach wedding, then spent their first night as a married couple awaiting search and rescue orders for the people of Florida. Talk about making lemons out of lemonade!

Air Force MSgt. Zachary Morris walks Senior Airman Lauren Durham down the makeshift aisle as Durham weds fellow Senior Airman Michael Davis. The couple volunteered to aid in rescue and recovery operations with the Florida National Guard’s Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Emergency Response Force-Package.

When asked about her work, Debra couldn’t help but elaborate on the character of the people she serves, which seems to apply to entire communities: “These people are resilient. There’s no other word. Not only are they resilient, but they are ready to work even in the face of their own loss.”

I’d also be remiss not to also mention the critical role social media played in sustaining and reinforcing social connection before, during and after Harvey hit. While many of my friends and family watched water approach their doorstops and later flood their homes, I was helpless just two hours away. In Houston, one of the members of our Bowen team was sheltering in place with her three young boys. We watched as she posted videos and images of the waters rising into her street and up towards her yard. We couldn’t get to them. We couldn’t help. We could only frequently refresh our Facebook feeds for updates or, if luckier, the chance to hear from them directly by text or phone.

When more detailed updates are not possible, Facebook’s Safety Check tool provides a simple way for those in affected areas to communicate their status during the hurricane. While some of us love to hate social media (enough with the hashtags already!), I’d be hard-pressed to deny how practical and valuable it is during times of natural disaster and emergencies. Not only does it help individuals quickly update family and friends, it also plays a tangible role in official disaster communications and rescue efforts. An American Red Cross survey found that 75 percent of “emergency social users” said they’ve contacted friends and family to see if they were safe. More than a third said information on social media prompted them to prepare — gather supplies or seek safe shelter.

In addition to supporting safety checks, recovery efforts and disaster response, we are also seeing the creative use of social media to maintain online social connection when typical community operations are put on hold — like public school closures, for example. A second grade teacher from Katy, Texas immediately recognized the challenges parents faced keeping children calm and occupied while sheltering in place, and created the Hurricane Harvey Book Club on Facebook. Originally started to give Houston area families a way to feel connected to each other while house- or shelter-bound, the group grew to more than 70,000 members. Children, parents, concerned family and friends, teachers, principals, librarians and even book authors recorded book readings to share with the group. With Houston-area and Gulf Coast schools closed for two weeks, this club gave children a much-needed sense of normalcy. 

Leo and James read a book for the Hurricane Harvey Book Club.

Collaborative Networks

Another indicator of community resilience we’re seeing in South Texas is the collaboration among diverse individuals and organizations. Collaboration of this kind can often be challenging, as agencies focus on their specific goals and constituents. In Texas, polarizing opinions have been set aside as federal, state, city, county, non-profit, corporate and religious disaster relief groups work together to coordinate rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts in the short and long-term.

In any case of flooding, an expedient muckout is critical. Muckouts involve removing all contaminated items from the home (appliances, furniture, clothing, flooring), tearing out walls up to just above the flood line (sheet rock, insulation, and drywall) and treating affected areas to prevent mold. Given the number of homes that flooded — many not covered by flood insurance — and the need to mitigate the impact of the water to prevent mold growth, many muckouts in the Houston area are being done by home owners and volunteer teams comprised of their family members, friends and…oftentimes, strangers who just want to volunteer to help.

NOSC sailor helps with a home muckout.

In the suburb of Katy, Texas — a community with a large number of churches and faith-based groups — denomination took a back seat to the muckout mission. The faith community came together and established a centralized disaster response website that allows any member of the community (church member or not) to request muckout assistance and other kinds of support. Those who want to volunteer to help can sign-up and receive ongoing notifications regarding muckout and other volunteer opportunities. Muckouts are emotionally and physically exhausting for everyone involved. Consolidating support through this collaborative network of churches not only results in operational expertise and efficiencies, but can also alleviate a small amount of the emotional stress families are experiencing.

While most Texans and Floridians are back to work and school, many are still dealing with the aftermath of flooded homes, wind damage and muckouts. Puerto Ricans are in the early phases of rescue and recovery; response and support in the coming weeks will be critical. As we observe the recovery process in all of these communities, we know that it will be a marathon, not a sprint. And we are hopeful that social connectedness and collaborative networks will continue to play a vital function in the rescue, recovery and rebuilding for all. We look forward to supporting these efforts where we can and and sharing more positive stories of resilience in action.