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On Hurricane Harvey, checking in on Texas friends, how you can help

Mark Pitts' Sagemont neighborhood near Houston's city limits was engulfed by water over 4 1/2 feet deep, reaching his chest, and his wife's shoulders as they evacuated, with her mother riding in a kayak. | Provided photo

As Hurricane Harvey bore down, Chicago-area transplant John Eason and his wife wondered what to expect from this particular drawback of living on the Gulf Coast.

Elsewhere in Houston, Mark Pitts, also from ChiTown, hunkered down to ride it out with his family, joking to his wife, Relaine, that this would probably mean brand new hardwood floors.

And my good friend Hannele Rubin in College Station — 90 minutes from Houston and then believed in Harvey’s path — tied down everything outside her home on Frierson Lake.

That was Friday, Aug. 25.

By the time the storm passed, Pitts, 47, would lose everything, his home completely engulfed, forcing a treacherous walk by his family — mother-in-law in a kayak — through waist-high water, to rescue, a shelter.

Chicago native Mark Pitts, with his wife, Relaine, moved to Houston after graduating Evanston Township High School in 1988. His family lost everything in Hurricane Harvey. | Provided photo
Chicago native Mark Pitts, with his wife, Relaine, moved to Houston after graduating Evanston Township High School in 1988. His family lost everything in Hurricane Harvey. | Provided photo

“My mother-in-law has bad knees. We let her sit down in the kayak, pushed her out into the water. Then me, my wife, my son, niece, and wife’s stepfather walked side by side out of the storm. My wife is 5-foot-1. The water was up to her shoulders,” Pitts said on Thursday.

A week after a hurricane that broke a continental U.S. record — dumping over 50 inches of rain on Texas — Pitts and his family were camped at the home of his best friend, who picked them up from a makeshift shelter at Houston’s Dobie High School. Pitts has returned home to take stock.

“Everything I’ve worked for the past 20 years is out on the curb,” said the electrician, who moved to Houston with his father after graduating Evanston Township High School in 1988. “I’ve never ever experienced anything like this.”

On the other end of town, Eason and wife Lisa Ellis had huddled in an upstairs bedroom with their 11-year-old. The 44-year-old Evanston native left Chicago after earning a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2008. The family just moved from College Station into a three-story townhouse in Houston on Aug. 12.

Chicago native John Eason, here with wife Lisa Ellis, had moved to Houston only two weeks before Hurricane Harvey. His neighborhood in Houston suffered only downed tree limbs. | Provided
Chicago native John Eason, here with wife Lisa Ellis, had moved to Houston only two weeks before Hurricane Harvey. His neighborhood in Houston suffered only downed tree limbs. | Provided

“That Friday, I’m up all night carrying furniture upstairs … We had bottled water, but filled the bathtub and lots of pots and pans with water, just in case. I checked all windows to make sure they could open if we needed to be rescued,” he said.

“The worst we got was that heavy, sideways rain coming in through the patio door,” added Eason, whose Montrose neighborhood in Houston’s Neartown area suffered mostly downed tree limbs.

The storm left huge swaths of the nation’s fourth-largest city and the Texas coast ravaged by unprecedented flooding. Friday, more than 30,000 remained in shelters; the death toll, at 39, is expected to climb as the search for the missing turns up bodies trapped inside waterlogged homes and submerged cars.

Eason, a professor at Texas A & M University, hasn’t been able to get to work this week; Interstate 10 is still submerged. He hopes the waters will recede by Monday.

Hannele Rubin, here with dog Rufus, attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and now teaches at Texas A & M University in College Station. | Maudlyne Ihejirika | Sun-Times
Hannele Rubin, here with dog Rufus, attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and now teaches at Texas A & M University in College Station. | Maudlyne Ihejirika | Sun-Times

I’d driven to College Station for the first time a few weeks ago, spending a few days with Rubin, my bestie from our grad school days at Evanston’s Northwestern University. She now teaches journalism at Texas A & M.

It was the first time I realized how huge Texas is — gigantic swaths of rural and urban cloaked in Gulf of Mexico humidity. I spent four wonderful days with Rubin and kids Arden and Calla in their home on the shore of Frierson Lake. When Harvey hit, I, like many Chicagoans, worried for loved ones in Texas.

“That Friday, we went to the grocery store for water and propane. Aisles were packed; water, sold out. People drove up to College Station from Houston an hour and a half away to get supplies,” Rubin, 56, said Wednesday, as the sun shone across Texas for the first time since Harvey.

“When it hit, it sounded like a hailstorm, with really strong winds … literally pounding on the roof all day and all night through Sunday,” she said. Rubin, of New York, moved to Texas three years ago.

“Remember the lake 20 feet out from our back fence? Well it rose 20 feet, submerging everything, and came up into our backyard,” she said, my mouth falling open as I recalled the calm beautiful lake now creeping ruthlessly toward her home.

A lake behind Hannele Rubin’s home was far away in July; flooding after Harvey brought the waters much closer to her College Station home. | Flooding photo provided; July photo by Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times
A lake behind Hannele Rubin’s home was far away in July; flooding after Harvey brought the waters much closer to her College Station home. | Flooding photo provided; July photo by Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

When her family finally emerged from their home on Monday, news of the devastation 90 minutes away left them horrified, said Rubin, phoning Houston friends, like Eason.

I made my own phone calls to Houston, to a high school friend I grew up with in Downers Grove, now living in Pearland. She texted: “Our streets are flooded but not our home. We have electricity, water, food and heat. We are blessed.” The text accompanied photos of her neighborhood under water.

AccuWeather estimates the cost of the disaster likely will reach $160 billion. We can help. From restaurants and bars committing a portion of their sales to organizations collecting donations for truck envoys to Houston, there are myriad opportunities.

Rainbow PUSH Coalition will accept new clothing, bedding, non-perishable food, personal hygiene items, baby supplies and pet and cleaning supplies, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at its 930 E. 50th St. headquarters, and then daily next week, the same hours Tuesday through Saturday. Volunteers are needed to sort, package and load trucks.

Zakat Foundation of America will accept similar items Saturday at its Bridgeview headquarters, 7421 W. 100th Pl. Its trucks leave at 3 p.m., and Zakat welcomes anyone else wishing to join its caravan in delivering donations.

A former Downers Grove area resident texted friends pictures showing residents of her flooded neighborhood in Pearland, Texas using kayaks to get around. | Provided
A former Downers Grove area resident texted friends pictures showing residents of her flooded neighborhood in Pearland, Texas using kayaks to get around. | Provided

Then there are local and national groups collecting donations. As my high school friend said, we are blessed. Here are some organizations to consider:

The American Red Cross: https://www.redcross.org/donate/hurricane-harvey

The Salvation Army: HelpSalvationArmy.org

The United Way of Greater Houston: https://www.unitedwayhouston.org/flood

Greater Houston Community Foundation: https://ghcf.org/hurricane-relief/

Houston Food Bank: http://www.houstonfoodbank.org/