A&E Exclusive: ‘We Woke Up to the Bayou’: Inside Hurricane Harvey Recovery Efforts

An inside look at how the industry continues its recovery in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

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On Saturday, August 26, the rain came. Hurricane Harvey was predicated to make landfall across the Texas coast along the Gulf of Mexico. But hurricanes are unpredictable. For awards and engraving manufacturers and retailers in the area, there was no reason to expect anything out of the usual.

Jim Spearman of Plastic Dress-Up Company (PDU) has been the territory manager for the south and Gulf Coast Texas region for 30 years. From the moment that Hurricane Harvey was on the radar, Spearman began to contact his customers in the area from San Antonio to Lake Charles. “Everybody was hunkered down for the most part trying to survive,” he recounts. “Most of them stayed and rode it out.”

“But this one was different,” Spearman notes.

“Get the Kids and Go”

Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas-a small town near Corpus Christi. Texans kept a watchful eye. Despite meteorologists’ predictions regarding the storm’s eventual stalling over the coast, many residents had never experienced flooding in the Houston area. In fact, many of the regions that weathered the brunt of the devastation were not officially in flood plains.

Humble, Texas-based retailer Custom Built Awards began preparing for the storm on Friday. It wasn’t until Saturday that the area began to feel the first drops of rain Custom Built Awards Graphics Coordinator Kristi Power recalled how the business prepared for the incoming storm-placing equipment, computers, and technology as high as possible, bringing thousands of dollars’ worth of assets into the middle of the business, hoping to place them out of harm’s way.

But Hurricane Harvey stalled, dumping torrents of rain for days while the water rose in areas that are not designated flood zones.

“There was no preparation. On Saturday, there was nothing. There was no expectation for this. All we knew was that Hurricane Harvey hit Corpus-it was just another hurricane,” says Custom Built Awards Production Manager Taffaney “Tuffy” Moore. “Then, suddenly, we hear they’re opening the dams. On Sunday, we literally woke up to the Bayou.”

Moore and her family had 30 minutes to gather what they could and get out, “My thoughts in those moments were just to get the kids out. That’s it. Everything else-it is what it is. Get the kids out and go because it was that quick.”

The family evacuated to Power’s house with the clothes on their back. “They’re like family and this is our city; Houston is our home,” Power tells A&E magazine. The group weathered the torrent of rain Monday, watching as the flood waters rose throughout the neighborhood.

By Tuesday morning, according to Power, the rain gauge read 31 inches and the tempest was unrelenting throughout the day.

That Wednesday, August 30, the group sat around a table playing cards, which, according to Power, “is about all you can do in that situation,” when the clouds opened up, letting sunshine into the bleak sky above them.

The Moore family stayed with the Power until the following week.

“Pictures Do No Justice”

This wasn’t the first time the Moore family home has experienced flooding. In 1994, Tropical Storm Allison struck the family home-the first and only time the area of her home has flooded. Following Tropical Storm Allison, Tuffy Moore’s father raised the elevation of the home up to 4 feet. “Obviously, it wasn’t enough.”

The home, which is partially located in a flood zone, is also situated in front of what locals refer to as Lucy’s Bayou-a body of water connected to Lake Houston and other bodies of water. When officials planned to strategically control release of the dams, residents had little notice. “They opened up the dams, but it was too late to get everyone out,” Moore laments. “They were trying to do a controlled release, but they made it worse. Pictures do no justice. What everybody is going through is complete devastation. There are a million of us going through it.”

Moore would soon see that she would be among those displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

On Thursday, she had the first glimpse of the home her father built from the ground up. “My first thought when I saw the damage for myself was, ‘Everything is gone. Everything,'” Moore reflects. By Friday, the group was able to access the roads as the water began to recede. “Where do we go from here?” was the question on everyone’s mind.

Step one, Moore says, was to get everything out, assess the damage and go from there, “We have no insurance. From what I understand, FEMA’s not helping. So, what do you do? It’s a family home. My dad built that home,” Moore explains.

When Moore first assessed the damage to her family home, it was just the beginning of both devastation and an outpouring of support from her community yet to come. The flood waters engulfed the house, pouring into the attic and swallowing the home her father built with his own hands. “I decided on Saturday that it would be the day all the mud and the water should be out of the house and it would be the day to get what we can out and start gutting,” she explains.

But on that Saturday, over 50 church members, friends, and family showed up to stand on the foundation of the home that was lost. “My church family showed up, my friends showed up, and we gutted the entire house.” The debris was hauled aside for insurance purposes.

A Flood of Support

But as the mud and rain waters subsided from the neighborhood, another menace loomed-looters. “Now that the water is down and the roads are drivable, looters are taking things that they can’t even use-things that we need to keep for FEMA and insurance,” Moore argues, explaining how one neighbor, a man at the end of the road, was allegedly lurking around the property, snatching up what he could.

Despite the ongoing strife and struggle, she is still inspired by the outpouring of support in other ways. Custom Built Awards Owner Pamela Deats set up an Amazon Wish List for others to help out both the Moore family and another employee affected by the storm, Paula Gurka. On Monday, the Gurka family began the process of picking up the pieces of their home in the Houston area. “(Gurka) lost everything in (Hurricane) Ike, so this is her second go-around with this,” Power notes. “It’s been quite devastating.”

In light of the ongoing situation, customers and vendors have reached out to Custom Built Awards, donating supplies and funds, while also contributing to Gurka and Moore’s Amazon Wish List. “When vendors and customers call in, we reference their names so they can help out that way.”

Several awards and engraving manufacturers have launched initiatives to help others in the industry as well.

“Texas is Strong”

Arlington, Texas-based distributor Engraving Concepts has been reaching out to its customers throughout the entire ordeal, while also coping with the damage sustained to the company’s Houston location, which reopened its doors for Jimmy DuBose’s semi-monthly seminars as early as September 5. “We were able to get the smell out, which was the worst part,” says Engraving Concepts General Manager Jeanette Brewer-Richardson. “It was really bad and it’s still not perfect yet; the carpet has to be replaced, but (DuBose), a Baton Rouge native, has it up and running.”

Since the deployment of the company’s newsletter soliciting responses from customers on the status of their safety, as well as their businesses, Brewer-Richardson has heard from approximately 45 different customers. “With the exception of two customers who are safe, but had some damage to equipment, they have all said their equipment is up and running as they try to help customers, employees, and attend to their own home,” she reports. “So far, it’s been pretty good from most folks.”

Engraving Concepts has also launched an effort to coordinate with industry professionals across the country who may be willing to lend a hand. “We actually have 50 folks from across the country who have replied to the call to action-anywhere from, ‘I’ll do (orders) at my own expense, I’ll do the engraving, I’ll do the printing, whatever they need’-all sorts of different replies asking how they can help, which isn’t surprising in our industry,” Brewer-Richardson remarks, expressing her admiration for the awards and engraving community as a whole.

“That’s just the type of businesses and the type of people that are in our industry,” she adds. “I’m not surprised a bit and I’m thrilled that so many people reached out and offered to help.”

Industry veteran Spearman of PDU has also been reaching out to customers in the Gulf Coast region. “I’ve been in that territory for almost 30 years and have touched based with 25 or so customers located between San Antonio to Lake Charles from beginning to end,” he says, adding that PDU’s Houston warehouse also sustained inconsequential damage from a broken window and reopened its doors four or five days after closing. Since then, he’s been doggedly attempting to track down customers that have not reported the status of their businesses or homes.

“There are a couple of shops (in the Beaumont and Port Arthur) area that I haven’t been able to get ahold of, but everybody I spoke to is fine. Other than some damage and flooding, there hasn’t been any major losses or loss of life,” Spearman says. “The industry’s reaction has been very positive. Texas is strong, so they’re always jumping to pitch in and volunteer with donations and stuff.”

Several other manufacturers have pitched in monetarily with the relief efforts. After opening the doors to resume operations on Tuesday, September 5, at its Houston warehouse, JDS Industries launched a company-wide initiative to raise money for relief efforts. “We’re asking for donations from employees,” says JDS Marketing Specialist Brenna Walsh. “Any amount an employee gives, JDS is matching those funds, which I believe will be in place for both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma victims.”

JDS Director of Human Resources Wendy Knecht adds, “JDS will match every dollar we raise. These dollars will be divided equally and put on gift cards to send.”

Coastal Business Supplies also joined in the efforts by pledging to contribute 10 percent of the net proceeds made from all online orders that were placed through September 5 to JJ Watt’s Houston Flood Relief Fund. The growing fund, organized by the Houston Texans football player, will provide financial assistance to those displaced by the flooding.

“We Have to Rebuild”

Federal, state, and city officials predict an arduous journey ahead-one that could last months, years, or even decades. But the resilient Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey plan to rebuild.

At the same time the county is allegedly offering proposals to those affected in Moore’s area, the local government has also made it clear by ordinance that rebuilding will require a permit-another hoop to jump through for citizens with heavy hearts. “I don’t understand it, but okay,” Moore says. “There’s nothing else I can do until the county issues that building permit.”

For now, there is no timeline and no government assistance in sight. “We are all at my mom’s house for the foreseeable future,” she chuckles gracefully. “But as soon as we get the permit, we will start to rebuild. We have to rebuild.”

This is an ongoing event. A&E will update this story with details from voices around the industry as we receive more information. 

Do you have a story you want to share about your experiences with Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma? Please contact us here.

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