Kindness in the eye of the storm
Scattered amid the destruction wrought by the hurricanes that have ravaged the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico over the past several weeks are acts of kindness and generosity, carried out unnoticed by ordinary folks. AFP’s video journalist Katie Schubauer describes a few, which she encountered as she covered Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
HOUSTON, Texas -- It was only after about three hours of storm chasing that I finally began to feel pretty good. And why not? I started out my hurricane coverage anxious and alone, the rental car filled with video equipment, my knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel as I navigated through sheets of rain. And now I had done a live in the pouring rain; filmed, edited and sent two additional videos complete with interviews; I had driven through a Category Five storm for Christ’s sake. I was a goddamn Hurricane Master!
And just then, as my ego inflated ever larger, my back tire started deflating. Fast.
Panic set in. I was in the middle of Texas, not another person in sight, the rain beating down against my windshield and the menacing “No Signal” message on my phone.
Cue my exaltation upon seeing the spare tire in the back of my rented four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee. If only the spare had come with a manual -- driver’s ed class was years ago! Crouching on the cluttered pavement, soaking wet, fumbling with the crank -- or is it called a wrench? -- I must have made quite a sight. Hurricane Master reduced to naught.
Enter Mr. Gonzalez, a Corpus Christi city worker who pulled over in his pickup just then.
“Yer doin’ a fine job there, ma’am, but you look like you could use a hand.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here was this man speeding away from a monster storm, who not only stopped to help me change a tire for no other reason than to offer a hand to someone in need. He also had the subtlety not to try to make me feel like a mechanical moron for not being able to change a flat. His was just a few of the random acts of kindness that I saw as I covered the worst storm to hit the Lone Star state in years.
A day later, I found myself on a deserted Texas highway en route to Victoria. When Google Maps sent me by way of a waterlogged shortcut, I quickly pulled off the road to turn around. I would not fall victim to a flooded car! I ended up falling victim to the old car-stuck-in-the-mud situation.
This was it, I thought, listening to the tires spinning for nothing as I put the car in drive, then reverse, then drive again. I had gotten lucky with the flat tire and someone had come to my rescue. But surely, on this abandoned rural side street, I would be forced to leave the car and wander miles down the road only to be kidnapped and never heard from again. The end.
And then another angel came to save me, this time in the form of a policeman and the local tow-truck operator, who winched the car out of the muck and waived the $350 towing fee.
“I ain’t gonna leave you stranded. It’s a hurricane,” he said in his Texas drawl as he handed me a business card. “You git into trouble agin, you just give us a call.”
Of course, these minor glitches paled in comparison to the devastation, the sheer loss, faced by so many Texans that week. I watched people board boats holding their only remaining belongings; I saw the raw panic of people who could not locate friends or family members; I watched in what felt like eerie silence as police removed the bodies of children and their great-grandparents from a sunken van. And I pointed my camera. In those moments, I felt like a helpless bystander, my emotions itching to push past the wall of professional separation the journalist in me had been trying so hard to maintain.
But the more time I spent covering Hurricane Harvey, the more I realized that while devastation was rampant, kindness, too, was everywhere: It was the open restaurants giving free lunches to first responders and volunteers; It was the Houston mattress store turned evacuation shelter; It was the hundreds of civilians driving hours into the storm to launch their boats, jet skis, kayaks - anything they had - into flooded streets in hopes of rescuing even just one person.
Like Cory Moore, a Houston resident whose hilltop neighborhood was spared the disaster of flooding, but who had gotten stuck at a downtown office when the storm hit. I spoke to him on a Monday morning at a convention center being used as a shelter.
"We can't get home, we're stuck across the street in the Marriott and instead of working we're just coming and volunteering," he said as he handed out blankets to arriving evacuees. "I haven't been able to get home since Thursday."
Like Andrew Brennan, a volunteer rescuer from Louisiana who drove more than 12 hours with his dinghy in tow to get to Houston. The day I joined him in his craft, he rescued several families.
“With all the racial issues going on right now, it’s just nice to see everybody coming together as one and not be focused on statues, you know? We’re all trying to just help each other,” he said.
Whether he was rehearsing for a reality TV show audition (Keeping Up with the Hurricane Heroes?!) or speaking off the cuff, it’s hard to tell. Either way, that line was both poignant and refreshing.
Everyone was trying to help each other. And these acts of kindness -- in addition to granola bars, portable car chargers, rain pants and pounds of beef jerky -- are what kept me calm in an otherwise chaotic scenario. They will be what I remember from Harvey.