My personal story on How To Help The Flooded has been shared 38,000 times since it was posted on Facebook on August 29. I was invited to share it here in hopes that it continues to help those flooded by Harvey, Irma and the unnamed storms to come.
To truly help, it’s important to first understand the emotional state of people who have flooded. With this knowledge, you can then focus on the detailed lists of stuff to bring, do, and share. Let’s get started.
Trauma Is Tricky
A flooded home is a traumatic event. Like any trauma, it is tricky to know how to help someone experiencing such a terrible ordeal.
My wife, three kids, dog and I experienced our first flood in Houston, Texas on Memorial Day 2015 (see photos) and again on Tax Day 2016. Our second flood came just days after completing the restoration and decoration of our house from the first flood. If cruelty was a color, we saw red for a long time.
Flood victims often experience what I liken to shell-shock meets heartbreak meets chaos. Toss in moments of exhaustion, terror and rage and you’ve got a pretty fair description of what’s in store.
When people wrestle with trauma like this, one of the last things they will ask for is help. But it’s what they need most.
Be The Tortoise
The good news is that if you want to help someone who has flooded, the best way is to show up.
Helping the flooded comes with an understanding that this is a marathon, not a sprint. They will need you more in the weeks after, when most have moved on and the adrenaline has worn off. So pace your help and pace yourself. Be the tortoise.
If you know someone who flooded, get out your calendar and pick a day or two a week for the next ten weeks or more and write down “show up.”
One day drop off something and say hi. Another day work for an hour or two. And another time have them over for dinner on a weekend. If you can only do one thing, one time, then do it. No act of showing up is too small. Dropping off a hot cup of coffee will be remembered for years to come.
As a rule, don’t just ask if they need anything, ask if they need anything else. Say, “I’m coming by with trash bags and lunch, need anything else?” This signals that you’ve already committed to coming by. They’re likely to tell you what else they need.
“When people wrestle with trauma like this, one of the last things they will ask for is help. But it’s what they need most.”
My wife and I will never forget when someone we hardly knew drove up to the side of our yard. It was so full of flooded belongings that the driver didn’t get out. She rolled down her window and handed over a giant bag of Chick-fil-A. She smiled, offered her sympathies and drove off. We were exhausted, caked in mud and heartbroken and in that moment, Chick-fil-A never tasted so good.
We promised we would remember how simple gestures like this meant so much to us at the time. They offered beautiful brief moments of normalcy in between many long abnormal ones.
Help of this kind is fairly easy. Try to work it into your weekday or weekend routines. Plan ways to make thoughtful gestures for anyone you know who has flooded.
Life On Mars
When you flood, you might as well be on Mars. Everything that was easy and familiar is now complex and foreign. You can’t find files, documents, cards, keys, devices... you name it. Simple tasks get sucked into massive black holes of work. It’s maddening.
Then there are the things of sentimental value: the drawings from the kids; the shoes they wore on their first step; the wedding album. Those treasures, they’re all gone.
People who haven’t flooded will say, “It’s just stuff, it can be replaced.” But make no mistake, sifting through the filthy wreckage that was once your life’s memories is brutal. You will have some good, long cries as you toss them out en masse. But you will get through it and you will be tougher for it. You may even become enlightened.
Those who survive the salvos of Houston’s floods enter a club that knows something about loss and have an appreciation for what matters most. For me, it brought a little less whining.
Be aware there is something unsettling that lingers for some club members. I suppose it’s a kind of PTSD that seeps in between the evacuations and ridiculous toil. When I hear the rain now, it’s no longer my soothing friend. It’s kind of a sinister thing that taunts me when I look outside to see what’s snaking its way up to the door.
It comes down to this: every thoughtful thing you can do to help someone recover from a flood is probably one less thing they’ll have to manage alongside their overwhelming grief.
So try to give the flooded a few moments of peace in what feels like a surreal unprovoked war.
Here are some practical ways to “show up” by bringing or doing stuff. Feel free to add to these lists in comments, it’s endless.
Stuff you can bring:
-Cups of hot coffee and cooler of ice cold drinks
-Cases of paper towels and rolls of packing paper/old newspapers
-Cases of toilet paper
-Cases of sanitizing wipes
-Battery powered camping lanterns
-Pop up tables to place and stage smaller important stuff
-Drop cloths and tarps for staging bigger, good stuff that protect it from wet floors or yards
-Hammers, crowbars, and blade utility knives (6-inch hand drywall/jab saws are nice too)
-Sharpees of different sizes and colors
-Good first aid kit (many cuts and scraps during clean up)
-Rolls of duct tape and packing tape
-Plastic bins/containers of different sizes with lids
-Cardboard boxes (small, medium, and large)
-Bags (contractor, trash, gallon zip locks)
-House cleaning solvents
-Bug repellent (mosquitoes are vicious inside a hot, muggy, muddy flooded house)
-Bring fast food. Forget the healthy stuff for the moment, it’s about convenience, comfort, and containers that you can eat from quickly and toss. Buy several kinds of fast foods and just leave it. Someone will eat it and be thankful.
-Boxes filled with easy to eat snacks (chips, bars, nuts, candy, and fun stuff) gives a happy break to long grueling days.
-Paper plates, plastic utensils, cups, napkins
-Prepared Foods are nice, but more complicated
-Gift cards for food (this is for a dinner after a long day, they can get take out at their hotel or temporary place instead of having to cook)
-Gift cards to Marshalls, Target, Walmart, Lowes (they can get clothes, supplies, and other needs)
-Clean old or cheap t-shirts that can be worn as throw aways during clean up
-Clean bedding sheets, blankets, pillows
Stuff you can do:
-Check electricity for hazards. You’re in a house where water and electricity have just been combined so be aware of a hazards of electrical shock and short circuiting. It’s hot, you need power for dehumidifiers and a gazillion other things, but think first and be sure before you flick the switch.
-Remove items destroyed by the flood and stage items not destroyed. This is an emotionally difficult thing and process. It’s understandable that you’ll want to believe some things can be saved and want to keep them, so keep them, reality will guide you soon enough. Just don’t bring wet things into storage units, they will stink up and destroy other good, dry things. No “bad apples.”
-Cut out wet sheetrock at least a foot above the water line. Wear a mask since there may be mold and other particulates you don’t want to breath. Use an anti-mold spray like the one listed in my first list of “stuff to bring.”
-Laundry (we loved this). People would come by and put a bunch of dirty clothes in a bag, wash, and return them folded to us. It was one of many life lines for us.
-Write tasks that need to be done on big post it notes and put them on the wall near the entrance of the house or on a pop up table so people coming in can grab one and do the task. Tell them to try to write a new task on the wall to replace the one they did for someone else to do... create an auto filling “to do” board.
-Pull out flooring/carpet (wear gloves and googles to protect from contaminated flood waters... mostly it’s the E.coli and fecal coliform that can get into open cuts, eyes, mouths, or noses).
-Position and maintain fans/dehumidifiers throughout house
-When sorting through good stuff from bad stuff our “general” rule is: if flood water touched it, it’s destroyed. But there are exceptions. Clothes for example can usually be cleaned. Photos and other documents can sometimes be dried out too.
-Haul what’s destroyed into piles in the yard for pick up by city
-Pack and label belongings that might still be good
-Stage “still good” boxes or plastic bin containers and load in a PODS container onsite; or on a rental truck for transportation to a fixed storage unit. We used PODS on our second flood and while it was a little more expensive, because it was onsite, it was much easier than traveling back and forth to storage units.
I remember the first day after we flooded. The father of my son’s girlfriend asked me what to do. I was still looking at all the loss so I struggled to give him any useful direction. He quickly realized the situation and said, “I’m going to separate good stuff from bad stuff.” I nodded and he and some other guys went to work. Hours later we had piles in the yard and the house was beginning to clean out. I have many examples of people who came from no where to help us in many ways, then left without ever knowing their names to thank.
After a flood, there is so much to do, just guess and you’ll probably be doing something really helpful.
Last, there is “stuff you can share” that takes more time and commitment but means a heck of a lot to someone who flooded.
-Share your car or truck for rides, pick ups/drop-offs, hauling stuff in and out
-Share your garage or home to store their stuff that survived
-Share your home for temporary living, food, showers or laundry (obvious, but important)
Remember that no one who has flooded wants to live with someone else or use their stuff. Understand how much it sucks to be so helpless, it’s dehumanizing. The best thing you can do is quietly insist and get to it.
For people who are too far away from Houston to physically show up, there are a number of places to donate money. I like this one by the famous Houston Texan football player JJ Watt. The fund has raised over $27M in only a week. Go JJ!
There is a lot to unpack here. For those who made it this far down the post, I hope you found it helpful.
There were so many people who opened their hearts, homes and hard working hands to us that I still get overwhelmed by their generosity. People are a lot of things, but what we witnessed in our hours, days, weeks and months of need was on the pure side of love. Know that it’s out there and it’s there for you.
For our friends who flooded from Harvey, no need to leave a light on, we’ll bring you a new one.