Sitting on a bench in downtown Houston, 65-year-old David Greene watched as shelter guests waited until nearly midnight Friday to enter the George R. Brown Convention Center.
The guests appeared to be voluntarily waiting in front of the shelter, Greene thought. Situated across from a Marriott hotel, the shelter’s cots and Red Cross volunteers contrasted sharply with the hotel’s glass-walled sports bar and big screen TV’s.
“It’s not bad in there; entering at curfew is surrendering to the reality of what’s happened to them,” Greene wrote. “I don’t blame them.”
For nearly two weeks, Greene, a York County resident and emergency medical technician, has been volunteering with the American Red Cross in Houston, treating scrapes, bruises and respiratory issues caused by Hurricane Harvey’s damage.
On Monday, Greene flew home to Virginia. The Red Cross required him to return home after he found out he had kidney stones, a treatable medical issue.
When Greene sat on the bench outside the shelter Friday night, observing the world around him, he reflected on what he had seen in Houston.
Watching the different types of people – either entering the shelter or Marriott – illuminated what privilege and poverty mean when disaster strikes, he said.
“How strange when just inside a few steps from my peaceful bench, so many have found shelter + some semblance of respite from the calamity that is now their lives,” Greene wrote. “What a cruel dichotomy… with the valet-parked ultra-luxury cars prominently placed about the entrance.”
When he was in the shelter, Greene often talked to guests to see how they were doing and what their next steps were.
One of the first things guests would disclose was about their employment: They were working, they just got off work, they were headed to work, he said.
Children, using their new surroundings as opportunities for imaginary play, called themselves “Princess Leia” or “Cinderella,” Greene wrote.
“These folks are Houston’s most vulnerable, a storm-induced concentration of people who, through lack of resources, have no other option,” he added.
The emergency medical technician within Greene wanted to reach out to shelter guests and help, he wrote, although he also recognized that his “protocols don’t cover” some situations where the damage is not physical.
“It’s hard for me to be emotionally detached in these situations,” he said. “I feel bad, but I don’t know that feeling bad is the appropriate response. So I actively listen + try to hear what these folks want to tell me.”
Greene said he has seen dozens of people move to more stable housing or return to their homes in the nearly two weeks he has volunteered in Houston. As hurricane survivors leave the shelter, he has seen other shelters consolidate and close their doors – progress in hurricane recovery, he said.
The destruction is still evident, especially in certain parts of Houston, he said.
“The sights + smells + the looks on people’s faces just say it all,” he wrote. “All engaged in the activities about cleaning out flooded homes. Their lives piled on the street, front yards heaped with everything that used to matter… Now gone.”
“As hard as it seems at the time, ‘relief’ is the easy part of disaster ‘response,’” he added.
The destruction is still evident in Houston, however, as well as surrounding areas, he said. On a day trip last week to Galveston, Greene saw flooding in the bayou that still covered the highway.
During the trip, Greene stopped at a small gas station and met “genuine Texas cowboys + girls,” hardworking men who had been feeding the cattle that survived Hurricane Harvey.
In one journal entry, Greene wrote of seeing cattle “bunched-up” on a patch of high ground to escape the flood waters in their pasture.
The strangers also told Greene they had been helping neighbors, delivering hot food, Greene wrote.
“Because ‘that’s what we do around here,’” Greene wrote, quoting the “cowboys.”
Update noon Tuesday, Sept. 12:
David Greene returned to Virginia Monday night after spending nearly two weeks in Houston, Texas. Greene documented his disaster response experience over 32 pages of journal entries.
On the plane ride home, Greene reflected on what he had seen while volunteering with the Red Cross. With thousands of volunteers, Greene said he was confident the “good” would overwhelm to “bad” following Hurricane Harvey, despite the extent of the disaster.
“Disasters show us how vulnerable we are, how misplaced our priorities are, how valueless the things we valued are,” he wrote.
Greene said he knew he would feel welcome if he ever returned to Houston because he shared the experience of Harvey with the city’s residents.
“One thing is certain, no matter where I went, nor who I spoke to, under any circumstance, everyone expressed heartfelt thanks for having shown-up to try to help,” Greene wrote Monday.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on our sister publication, WYDaily.com.