Dealing with Hurricane Harvey as a Texan expat living in Hamburg

When Sarah Lopez saw her hometown of Houston submerge under water last month, she felt the sense of despair and helplessness that comes with living thousands of kilometres from home when tragedy strikes.

Dealing with Hurricane Harvey as a Texan expat living in Hamburg
Flooding in Houston. Photo: DPA

I am a native Houstonian living in Hamburg.  

I watched from afar as my beloved hometown drowned in the fierce waters of Hurricane Harvey.  I watched my high school flood, my town’s post office fill with water, my church’s temple slowly submerge. People I’ve known my whole life were evacuated.

Although I wanted so desperately to reach out and help my friends and family members, I felt like all I could do was send well wishes via Facebook and pray. I consoled myself with the fact that I was doing something, but I decided it wasn’t enough.

The next day I marched into my children’s school, the International School of Hamburg, and asked the junior school principal if I could hold a bake sale to raise money for Houston.  

Within days I had the full support of the school staff. With only five days to plan, I sent out emails and Facebook posts, asking for help in this huge endeavour. People from all nationalities joined together to make it happen. During the course of our one-day bake sale, we raised over €1,500.

As plans were underway for the bake sale, a Hamburg friend contacted me and asked if she could send care packages to some of my friends and family members. She offered to send comfort food, sweets, and a handwritten card to offer encouragement to those who had lost so much.  

With the help of my mother in Houston, I was able to obtain the names and addresses of 30 close friends who have suffered severe damage to their homes. With my friend's idea and the help of other volunteers in the Hamburg community, we have been able to send care packages to nearly all of them.

Hundreds of hours of rebuilding

I already experienced two hurricanes while living in Texas.  The first was Hurricane Alecia in 1983 and the second was Hurricane Ike in 2008.  We lost electricity in both storms and suffered some roof damage.  But I’ve never seen anything like Harvey.  This was the storm of a millennium.

If you’ve never lived through a hurricane you probably don’t realize the amount of damage it can cause. Hurricane Harvey dumped 131.7 cm of rain on Houston in just six days.  

When the rain comes in, it fills the sewers first. When those overflow you have a health crisis on your hands. Flood water is sewage, mud, and rain all together. Combine that with Texas’ wildlife, like poisonous snakes and alligators, and you have a very dangerous situation for those stranded in their homes.  

Tens of thousands of homes were flooded, which means flooring has to be pulled out. Carpet must be lifted up and linoleum peeled off. All the rubbish must be bagged up and put outside for collection.

Walls have to come down. All walls in rooms that have been flooded must be removed to about 1-2 feet above the highest point where the water came in.

Spraying for mould comes next. Once the spray is dry, new sheet rock can be installed. That is if one can find it because everyone needs it. Then plaster is applied on top of that, left to dry, then painted over. That is hundreds of hours of labour and thousands of dollars in cost.

Then there is garbage collection. Trash is piled waist-high in front of every house. People are not only throwing away floors and walls, but also furniture, appliances, and other belongings.

The people in my hometown have rallied together. There are strangers helping strangers. People risking their lives to save lives of people they’ve never met.  And no one is getting paid for it. They are simply doing it because, as they say, “That’s how Texans do. We were raised that way.”

It makes me homesick. It makes me proud to be a Texan.

Sarah Lopez is donating 100% of every purchase at her Etsy shop “Scandalous Scarf” in the month of September to Houston families suffering from Hurricane Harvey.