Coming Home From Harvey

Michael Hardy

More than two years after Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, a former math teacher returns home, with a special treat for the volunteers who helped her get there.

Gladys WyattGladys Wyatt walked through her southeast Houston home in early February in a daze, as if seeing it for the first time. And, in a way, she was. The home before her vaguely resembled the one she’d lived in when Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017. But, it had been completely rebuilt, from the floors, through the walls, to the ceilings. Volunteer builders had installed a new kitchen, new bathrooms, and new light fixtures. One showed the 77-year-old Wyatt how to close one of the new barn-style sliding doors. 

“I love it!” she exclaimed. “It’s a little different, but that’s okay.”

Wyatt had lived in the house since 1970, raising two children there while teaching math for 35 years in Houston public schools. The modest, one-story home was the center of family life, the place relatives stayed when they visited Houston. In time, it was where her grandchildren came to play. 

Then came Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, which Wyatt rode out with her brother in Houston’s Spring suburb. When she returned to her own home, she found the walls damp and water dripping from the ceiling. A neighbor said he had seen several feet of water lapping against her foundation. Wyatt didn’t have flood insurance and couldn’t afford to pay for repairs, so she tried living in the house anyway while applying for FEMA assistance. 

In the summer of 2018, nearly a year after the storm, Houston nonprofit BakerRipley agreed to clean out the mold that was growing in Wyatt’s home. It paid for her to move into an Extended Stay America motel during the remediation work, which ended up lasting another full year. After taking the home down to the studs, BakerRipley passed the job off to Team Rubicon, whose volunteers laid drywall, rebuilt the roof, and installed new electrical and plumbing systems. They installed wind storm clips and screws, part of a Hurricane Fortified build program—a methodology Team Rubicon began employing in 2019—to provide extra strength to the wall frame where it was exposed, which would further protect the home from future potential damage. Team Rubicon also took over paying for Wyatt’s motel stay, too. 

In early February, dozens of Team Rubicon volunteers—or Greyshirts—were on hand to welcome Wyatt home with a lively ribbon-cutting ceremony. It was the 100th home Team Rubicon had rebuilt in the greater Houston area since Harvey. “On this cold day, it’s nice to have someone with such a warm heart here,” said Azad Barazi, Team Rubicon’s client services manager. “Ms. Wyatt is a very proud, strong woman who really deserves this moment.” Overcome with emotion, Wyatt thanked the many BakerRipley and Team Rubicon staffers and volunteers who had rebuilt her home. 

“There were some days when I really wanted to lose it,” Wyatt said. “I didn’t know when I was going to set foot back in here. I thank God for the opportunity to walk back in. No leaks, no cracks, no scrunching when I walk on the floor. It’s just good to know you’ve been here, and that your hands and handiwork are all over this house.” 

As volunteers and reporters explored the renovated house, the smell of homemade gumbo—Wyatt’s contribution to the party, which she’d cooked in her motel room and carted to the party herself—wafted from the kitchen. It was another small indication that, two and a half years after Harvey, things were finally getting back to normal. 

“I can’t find the words to describe how grateful I am,” Wyatt said, standing proudly in her new kitchen. “It’s just a blessing.” 

As for the gumbo? It was delicious, the Greyshirts confessed. Wyatt, however, wasn’t giving up any secrets. “I just use a bit of this and a dab of that,” she said. “I cook it by sight and smell. Glad you enjoyed it.”

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