How We Did It: Harvey Relief Muck and Gut Project

by Tawny Tidwell and Colleen Kennedy

As a record 52 inches of rain fell on Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, members of Houston DSA were online in our Mattermost prepping for the aftermath. By soliciting donations online through a GoFundMe, we raised over $120,000 in relief funds. After raising the funds, we immediately  incorporated as a 501c4 and opened an account at a local credit union to hold the money. We also learned that a comrade in Oklahoma City DSA was a disaster relief specialist, so we spoke with him by phone to learn the best ways for us to help. He told us that in the aftermath of a flood, the two most impactful ways we could help would be putting cash in people’s hands and assistance with muck and gutting.*

At the outset of our muck and gut operation, we created a spreadsheet to solicit volunteers and ask who needed help and where they were. These would have worked better as different spreadsheets, and translated spreadsheets in Spanish would have also been useful.

We borrowed tools at our local tool bank, and rented work vans to haul in all of our equipment. After several weekends of spending hundreds on rentals, we sent out an ask to our community for a cheap truck and secured a Ford Ranger for a few thousand dollars. Houston DSA hopes to eventually donate it to a family when the relief work is finished.

Respirators and similar supplies were difficult to find because the entire region had mobilized to do repair after the disaster. We created an Amazon wishlist for these supplies, other consumables like Concrobium (a mold killer to spray on the studs of a home), and tools. Given that the toolbank rentals would need to be returned eventually, having our own tools would become a necessity.

We sent out asks in our community through social media for space to store our tools and onboard volunteers each weekend. Bohemeos, a truly amazing coffeeshop and hangout in Houston’s East End, provided both. As of this writing, we still have about half of their coffee warehouse for tools and other equipment.They also provided us with keys to the shop to make coffee for volunteers every weekend and space on their outdoor patio for feeding volunteers breakfast. Breakfast tacos and kolaches, y’all!

We found most of the homes that we muck and gutted through Houston DSA co-chair Amy Zachmeyer’s connections with unions to locate union members in need, and were then asked by neighbors to assist on their homes next door or the homes of their friends. Eventually, we connected with West Street Recovery and Living Paradigm, similarly-minded groups who had links to the same community we were serving, additional volunteer resources, and time to blockwalk.

Initially, we worked two full eight-hour days on Saturday and Sunday, handling one or two houses per day. Now, the muck and gut crew only goes out on Saturdays to alleviate burnout and give crew members time off. We think an ideal situation would be having two alternating crews with overlapping leads, so Crew A is out on Day One and Crew B is out on Day Two, with at least one continuous crew lead to connect the work.

At the beginning of the week, we would call homeowners to firm up our schedule and get an idea of the work we would be doing, so we could decide if we had time for more than one house.**

Initially, we sent one or two teams out to homes in Houston, and another team on the two-hour drive to Beaumont to help homeowners we learned of through our co-chair’s union there. Eventually, however, our operation became a single Houston team.

At the outset of each day in Houston, we met at Bohemeos at 8 a.m. for breakfast tacos and coffee, introductions, and a basic safety talk with the volunteers (e.g., only walk where you can see the floor; masks on at all times inside; shut off electricity before tearing down walls in kitchens and utility rooms). Everyone helped load the truck at the warehouse, and new volunteers were fitted with personal protective equipment (PPE) and learn how to use it. After carpooling to the homes (parking is sparse on debris-laden streets), crew leads would tour the home with the owner, size up the damage, and make recommendations. Initially our crew leads were Houston DSA members who worked as contractors, but they trained up other volunteers to take their places.

We worked room by room, cleaning as we went, and always had people doing both tear down and debris-running to simultaneously ensure everyone’s safety and provide enough room to move about. We made sure people took frequent breaks for water and respirator-free outside-air, with the added bonus that this offered time for people to make connections across groups, communities, and DSA chapters. When a home was done, we would walk it with the owner, and make sure they received a $200 Visa gift card. Often we also replaced other items people had lost in the flood (e.g., car seats, water heaters). An entire other piece could and should be written by someone from our financial aid team on this side of the operation.

At the end of each day, we returned to the warehouse to wash our tools and gloves in a bleach solution, and disinfect respirators with Lysol cloths. After we were done, we would circle up on the Bohemeos patio, debrief, and relax. This was vital to building camaraderie and maintaining morale because it gave us a chance to talk through what we had seen, what was nagging at us, and build trust and friendship among our core team.

Finally, we want to note that anyone planning a program like this must think critically about the long haul. While I (Tawny) am now in New York, Colleen is still connecting with homeowners to muck houses over a year after the storm. This work will literally take years, and it is likely that we will get hit with new storms during that time. Think ahead about your limited resources (e.g., money, respirator cartridges, time), how you can make durable connections in the community or governance (for example, if you attend United Way meetings in Houston, you can get hooked into their drywall donation network), and how to maintain a volunteer base without burning everyone out. These large and thorny questions are beyond the scope of this article, but they must be confronted if we hope to continue improving the work DSA does.

In Solidarity,

Tawny (North Brooklyn DSA) and Colleen (Houston DSA)

*As this article primarily focuses on our muck and gut operation, you can read more about our three-pronged approach on the Houston DSA blog.

**Houston DSA did not work with renters because we had a policy against doing free work for landlords. We did, however, connect the few renters we encountered with pro bono legal representation when possible.