Growing up in Florida, I’ve experienced my share of hurricanes. After the battering of brutal winds, the fury of flooding and the unnerving emptiness of a community silenced by nature, the rebuilding efforts would begin. For those who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey, this is proving more difficult than expected. Last week, I spent four days in Texas, where I witnessed the devastation up close, met with local leaders and explored how United Way Worldwide could continue to choreograph support. It was an incredibly moving and somber experience, and one I will never forget.
Throughout the trip, my colleagues and I engaged with local United Ways and the communities they serve. Our hotel—a destination for first-responders—was connected to a convention center where hundreds of displaced people sought shelter; new neighbors bound by grief and futures deferred. These people lost their homes, cars and jobs. These are the people United Way fights for. Nearby, NBC’s “The Today Show” was filming the loading of supplies into 18-wheelers by residents—destination: Houston. At one point, a high school soccer team loaded a truck with goods collected at a football game. It was a reminder of how lives can change and communities can strengthen through heart and hard work.
That afternoon, we drove to Austin to meet United Way of Greater Austin and learn about their 2-1-1 efforts. I listened in on a few of the calls, and I recognized the selfless spirit on the other end of the line. On one call, a neighbor was expressing her concern for a family of four that was displaced and living in their car. This woman was more concerned with her neighbors’ wellbeing than her own. And I knew in that moment that, amid the rubble and filth, the lingering water and debris, that hope would not be suffocated by the damage wrought by Harvey.
We also visited Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, all areas impacted by the hurricane. As we were driving to meet the staff of United Way of Beaumont and North Jefferson County, I saw the flood waters up close. There was water as far as the eye could see, and it made me wonder what was there before Harvey blanketed the community with torrents of unforgiving rain. When we arrived in Beaumont, we were met with piles of debris; detritus of nature surrounded the shells of houses and businesses. Once places of work, homes filled with happiness. The community still lacked clean water. The students were unable to return to school. Life was paused. And yet, there was optimism.
In Orange, we watched service agency and community members help those in need, even though their own homes were destroyed by Harvey. They came forward so others could move forward. That selfless spirit is sparking a renewal throughout the city, and others like it. Whether it was in Orange or Port Arthur, where we met with United Way leaders to discuss their community response, hope is beginning to flourish as people begin to embrace a new normal. Watching strangers support each other, despite the decisiveness of the country, reminded me that we will always find catharsis when we come together as a community in pursuit of the greater good.
Since this trip, we’ve turned our attention to areas of the Southeast U.S. and Caribbean affected by Hurricane Irma. I am confident that those communities will show the same resilience and selfless spirit I saw in Texas. Together, we will thrive. Because when we Live United, anything is possible.