MILL CREEK — In Houston after the hurricane, Greg Erickson drove past endless mounds of garbage piled up in the front yards of the Fifth Ward. Each one represented a life, or lives, that had been upended.
“None of us knew what to expect when we got there,” said Erickson, 45. “We didn’t know if there’d be five feet of standing water or what. Everything was brand new.”
Dozens were killed when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in August. The toll on survivors was staggering, too. Homes splintered. Roofs torn open. Entire neighborhoods were submerged waist-deep in floodwater. Early estimates predicted losses would top $100 billion.
Three weeks later, Erickson arrived with a small group of men from Redemption Church in Mill Creek to aid the recovery. They landed at the airport, met a pastor at a local Mexican chain restaurant — and learned that over the next days, they wouldn’t be rebuilding anything. They’d be demolishing walls of water-damaged houses.
Flooded homes, they learned, were in a race against the mold that can leave them unlivable, if it’s allowed to spread. At the first house they visited, northeast of the city center, they smashed out drywall up to 4 feet off the ground, the standard height for a contractor to replace it with fresh, unmoldy Sheetrock. But once exposed, the naked vertical studs were like brown mush. Erickson pushed through one with a single finger, and discovered the walls were being held up by almost nothing. They had to abandon the project, or else risk the ceiling collapsing on them.
Other homes they “mudded” had their share of horrors, said Kerry Day, 32, a father of three who flew to Texas as part of the group.
“You have years of hard living,” Day said. “It’s not just storm damage you’re finding, but years of termites. There’s hurricane damage, obviously, but it reveals some of the problems of owning a home in Houston.”
Texas heat and humidity is not kind to those who labor. Erickson said each morning it felt like he’d jumped into a swimming pool, and then had to walk around in wet jeans for the rest of the day.
A few residents were content to stay inside as crews stripped the walls around them. At one house, a man in his 90s sat on a couch as far away as possible from the demolition work. Once the workers were ready to move on to the other side of the home, they lifted the couch to make room. Gallons of nasty black water gushed from the cushions.
Some people had flood insurance. For others, their house was being completely gutted, and they had no clue where they were getting the money to fix it again. Many asked for help from Christian groups.
Redemption Church has its roots in Houston, of all places. About a decade ago, the Southern Baptist church Houston Northwest planted Journey Church, which is now in Everett. Journey sent a handful of members to start the Mill Creek church in 2015. Houstonians have flown to Snohomish County for years to help lead the churches’ vacation Bible schools. So when the hurricane hit, Erickson and others saw a chance to give back to the city. Another small group from Journey Church arrived the following week, to do odd jobs and more demo work.
They saw devastated neighborhoods next door to rows of houses, ever so slightly higher in elevation, that had passed through the storm almost unscathed. Houston Northwest’s campus was badly damaged. Day and other relief workers bunked at Crossover Bible Fellowship, a few miles to the south. Many people they served had no connection to the churches.
One man had rebuilt his home before, in the year after Hurricane Ike, Day said. His wife survived breast cancer, twice. As he rebuilt again, he told Day something that has stuck with him.
He said, “A sailor doesn’t become a master sailor in smooth waters.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.