In the Eastend neighborhood of southeast Houston, humble one-story ranches quilt Sunnyvale St. Since the early 1950s, this neighborhood has witnessed the transitions of generations and cultures. Now, this largely Hispanic community is proud of what they have and what America has given.
It’s late spring and under the veil of a vibrant hazel sky, Gloria––born in Mexico and has lived in Houston for the past 25 years––stands in front of her newly renovated home. She beams as the sun above. Grateful. The home of Gloria and her family is once again back in her hands, returned from the grips of a hurricane named Harvey.
It was August 17, 2017 when Hurricane Harvey formed, eventually becoming a Category 4 storm. The hurricane churned in the Gulf of Mexico, absorbing the warm and humid waters of the Gulf, his eye set on a course for Houston and southeast Texas. With a population of over 2.3 million people––and sitting at 50ft above sea level––Houston is easy prey for hurricanes and tropical storms. Since 1980, 70 hurricanes and tropical depressions have made landfall in the state of Texas. What made Harvey so different from the others wasn’t its fierce winds: it was the speed of the storm, or, lack thereof. Harvey struck, then it wobbled. It was stuck in place, like a spinning top, continually fueled by Gulf waters. For a four-day period, torrential rains inundated the Houston area. Over four feet of water fell in many areas. An incomprehensible 19 trillion gallons of water. Viaduct systems and levees were no match; dams failed. Many neighborhoods in Houston––some of the poorest in the city––were struck in minutes and submerged under three feet of water. Even with preparation and warning, the damages were catastrophic and Harvey ranks as one of the worst natural disasters the country has ever experienced. One hundred and three people died from storm-related incidents; thousands had to be rescued; 336,000 people were left without electricity; storm damage estimates topped $125 billion.
Houston responded. America responded.
Federal rescue and relief organizations immediately were set in action to rescue those stranded, as well as comfort and assist people and the many families displaced. Americans watched live coverage as Texans were rescued from their rooftops and airlifted or ferried to safety. For the disaster response and humanitarian relief organization Team Rubicon, this hurricane was next in a long line of natural disasters they would face. And not just for the days, and months, of Hurricane Harvey disaster response operations, but for the years of recovery that lay ahead.
Founded in 2010, Team Rubicon is a veteran-led non-profit disaster and humanitarian response organization. Over 100,000 volunteers strong, their initial disaster response and flood water recovery operations were only the beginning of their commitment to the city of Houston and outlying areas. 48,700 homes were affected across Texas, 1,000 of those completely destroyed. As Houston slowly began to return to normal, thousands of lives were still displaced and upended. Many of the hardest hit areas of the city were in lower-income areas where resources were overwhelmed and answers just as scarce. Areas of the city with the least were in desperate need of the most.
Today, almost two years after Harvey’s initial impact, Team Rubicon is committed more than ever to rebuilding homes in Houston––and rebuilding lives. Team Rubicon has established a permanent presence in Houston, comprised of over 20 full-time members and rotating teams of hundreds of volunteers from across the country.
To date, they have restored 39 homes in the Houston area affected by Harvey, with a future goal of at least 100.
With assistance from partnering local community organizations, generous corporate and retail sponsors, this network of action and caring is hard at work––and working.
Brian Calcagno, who leads partnerships for Team Rubicon’s Houston rebuild projects, understands the power of building strategic partnerships. “Our disaster response operations grab all the headlines, but our long-term recovery work here on the ground is making just as much an impact,” says Calcagno. “These people really need our help and we can’t go it alone. It takes everyone to serve the one.”
Team Rubicon volunteers, or “Greyshirts” as they are commonly known, are a mosaic of cultures and backgrounds, and almost all have served our country in the armed forces. It’s a founding principle of Team Rubicon to help reintegrate veterans back into civilian life after service.
“I had a hole in my heart before I joined Team Rubicon,” Yusef Bishop, a veteran of the United States Army, tells with truth. “Many of us re-enter civilian life and can have struggles with it. There aren’t always a lot of resources for us to turn to, or, we just don’t want to admit we’re having troubles. Here, we find that feeling of serving our country and we also find our military family, again. We all enter Team Rubicon as strangers and we quickly become brothers and sisters. I have found my calling.”
Referrals of homes in need of repair come to Team Rubicon by local charities and community organizations––often their church. Those seeking assistance enter a thorough process before accepted. The challenges––past and future––for these people are often great. Many of the homes affected in Houston sustained two hits: the first being the floodwaters of Harvey and the second being contractor fraud that many vulnerable residents had suffered. These homeowners––many elderly–were defrauded of thousands of dollars, and those that did receive work, the work was often poorly done, unsafe and not to code. This was the case for Milka, an immigrant German who had lived in her home for over 30 years. Harvey brought three feet of flood water upon her home, but through the compassion of her church and Team Rubicon, her home is being restored. A strong woman of faith, Milka’s many prayers have been answered. “A trying rollercoaster” finally coming to an end.
An important element to the development and success of Team Rubicon is the Clay Hunt Fellows Program. The Clay Hunt Fellows Program was established to increase volunteer engagement and build leadership within the organization’s domestic disaster response initiatives. Founded after Clay Hunt (1982-2011), who served as a Marine and original Team Rubicon member, Fellows are expected to represent Team Rubicon in the spirit of Clay, holding the program and the organization in the highest regard while serving as an ambassador. Clay Hunt Fellows serve as team leaders on housing projects, rotating on weekly basis, and graduate upon a year of completion. They also help manage the many generous volunteer organizations and individuals that work at the side of Team Rubicon on these homes.
“This has been such a great way to keep serving my country, and the Clay Hunt Fellows program teaches me how to improve not only myself, but to mentor other members,” Erik Kallestad says, fighting back the sweat of a hot and humid Houston afternoon. “After my service was over, my primary job was helping raise my two kids, but then this opportunity came along and I knew immediately I was all-in. I couldn’t be more thankful for what I am doing and whom I am doing it with.”
The repair to the interiors of these homes is extensive from the flood water damage: drywall and flooring must be torn out and replaced; carpentry; painting; utilities restored and brought to code; new furniture and appliances either provided or donated. And all of this construction completed on a budget of about $35,000. Homeowners, many of whom grow close to their construction teams, are actively involved with the build and design decisions. Project timelines can last anywhere from one to eight weeks, depending on the extent of work.
Dylan Nuttle, a Clay Hunt Fellow and retired Marine Corps Veteran, leads renovations for the home of mother and grandmother, Schonell Sims, who supports her daughter and two grandchildren. Nuttle’s character embodies the Clay Hunt Fellows program: bold, determined, selfless, compassionate. His life passion is rooted in service to country. From service in Iraq and Afghanistan, to Cuba and New Zeeland, he now makes Houston home, and the Greyshirts his family. “The opportunity to serve again gives me the chance to bring hope to people that thought it was gone and give them strength for the future,” Nuttle believes. For all Clay Hunt Fellows, like Nuttle, the stories of their personal pasts are both arresting and humbling, marked by valor.
For Gloria, her welcome home event is a time for the Houston Rebuild team and their partners to come together. “These are the moments we hold onto,” Brian Meagher, a Team Rubicon Strategic Partnerships Officer tells with happiness.
There’s joy in the air; friendship flows in the hugs, through the meaning of this day.
These are the days Greyshirts sweat and tirelessly work for––for the fellow Americans they so want to help. For Gloria, her mother, her son and two grandchildren, an open door to their new home is met with so many open arms.
“I have my home back,” Gloria clutches her mother’s hand, her tears dancing in the light of the afternoon. “Thank you. Thank you, thank you,” she says over and over. The moment overwhelming even her undying strength.
For the Greyshirts of Team Rubicon, Gloria represents yet another mission of care fought for––and won. And tomorrow, the mission begins again: another home to rebuild, another life to better, and more heroes to be made.
To learn more about Team Rubicon Houston Rebuild, and how to get involved visit: teamrubiconusa.org