Locals Lend Huge Helping Hand to Texas
On Saturday, August 27, Maria Sotolongo, her husband and her three kids, left their home on the west side of Houston, Texas, not knowing what Hurricane Harvey had in store. “We live right by the bayou. It’s my backyard. We knew we could be prone to flooding, but had never flooded before. What happened in Houston was historic flooding. My neighbors and I believe we were flooded in part because the dams were released. There were heavy rains when we left Saturday, but it wasn’t much. We looked at the forecast and thought it could get bad on the street. We never thought our house would flood. We didn’t want to get stuck with the kids, so we left Saturday night thinking we could come back and get a few things. On Sunday night, the city decided to open the dams and that was when our area was heavily hit,” Sotolongo explained in a phone call to The Rockaway Times.
With nowhere for the water to go, Sotolongo’s home and street remained flooded for days on end. “We couldn’t get back to our house. It was flooded from morning to night,” she said. Sotolongo couldn’t return to her home until September 10—13 days after she and her family evacuated. Watermarks showed her one-story home had been inundated with five to seven feet of water. Everything was destroyed.
“We were lost. We didn’t know what we were going to do. We were so overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start,” Sotolongo said.
Then she got a phone call. “A friend called to tell me some gentlemen from New York were on their way to help us. I said, ‘what are you talking about?’”
About an hour after Sotolongo returned to her flooded home, Rockaway locals, John Carlin and George Johnson pulled up to her house. “I was in a white suit with a mask and gloves and boots on, just thinking I’d be there to take some photos for FEMA, and they pull up and I just broke down crying,” Sotolongo said. “They got out and hadn’t said a word and I just hugged them. Then they told us that everything was going to be okay and that they knew what this was like since they had gone through it with Sandy and they said they were ready to help us and would be here ‘til Thursday. I felt relief. My husband and I couldn’t believe it. We’re strong believers in God and we thought, this is heaven sent. There was no doubt it was divine intervention that brought John and George to us. We felt peace just by looking at them.”
About a week earlier, as the images from Texas circulated national media, those in Rockaway felt their pain from 1,600 miles away. Knowing what those in Texas were experiencing, after living it firsthand through Hurricane Sandy nearly five years before, many in Rockaway began to act. Local groups and organizations immediately started to collect donations in the form of gift cards, cash, necessities and supplies. Some made the decision to go right down to Texas themselves, to take what they had learned from going through Sandy, and pay it forward. Among some of them were Adam Smith along with Richie Gwillym, Ed Shevlin along with Leslie Mahoney, and John Carlin who teamed up with retired firefighter George Johnson.
“I got an email from Jim Mullen of the Graybeards who said Adam Smith was going to Houston. I wanted to go with him, but I needed to make arrangements with work, so the timeline didn’t work for me. So I came up with an idea to drive down after them and Adam suggested I call George because George is always up for a road trip,” John Carlin, who works for Verizon, said. “I called George and he said he’d get back to me, he had to run it by the boss.”
“I had to get my wife, Peggy’s permission,” Johnson said. With the wives’ support and time off granted by Carlin’s boss, the guys were heading to Texas.
“We saw what happened when Hurricane Katrina hit and most people thought, ‘wow, that’s bad.’ But it was over there in Louisiana and you think, there’s nothing you can do. Then we got hit by Sandy and we understood,” Carlin said.
“We had people come from all over the country to help us in Rockaway. We felt we had to pay it back,” Johnson said.
“When Harvey hit Texas, I felt I needed to do something. It bothered me to such an extent that I felt just sending money was not the cure all. We didn’t do it for the accolades. We just felt we had to do more,” Carlin said.
Carlin came up with the idea of buying a vehicle to make the trip down to Houston, packing it with donations, helping out those in need, and then leaving the vehicle with a family that could use it, before flying back to New York. “Bryan of Bryan’s Auto made it happen for me. I told Bryan Bernath my idea and he walked me through the process and helped me find a quality used car that wouldn’t break the bank and he took care of all the work and made sure it was tuned up and ready to go. That really got the ball rolling,” Carlin said.
On September 5, Johnson put out a request on Facebook to his friends and family, explaining the plan and asking if anyone would be able to donate gift cards, cash and supplies, with a promise that it would make it to those in need. Word spread quickly. “It took us 12 hours to pack the car because my doorbell rang every five minutes, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., with people dropping stuff off. We collected $15,000 in gift cards and cash from the community just in one day,” Johnson said. The community came out strong to support the effort, but one donation in particular stood out to Johnson. “Terrence Marten is a 15-year-old whose house burned down during Sandy. He heard I was going down to Texas and said he worked over the summer and wanted to contribute. He wrote a letter to the recipient and explained his situation and how he felt the need to help. He gave me that letter with $250 worth of gift cards in the envelope,” Johnson said.
On September 7, the men hit the road. “People were still stopping by my house with stuff after we left,” Johnson said, adding that his wife was able to put the donations in the bank so he could retrieve them and pass them along while down South. After a three-day trip that included a stop in Kentucky where Johnson had dinner with a young man that he had donated bone marrow to in 1996, a slight vehicle malfunction that required fixing, and a dinner with Smith and Gwillym in Memphis, who were on their way back to New York after taking care of things down in Houston, Carlin and Johnson arrived in Texas themselves.
The men didn’t head down south without a destination. Peggy’s cousin offered them a place to stay in Katy, Texas and Johnson’s sister-in-law, Kate Johnson guided them to a direct contact in the affected area. “Kate had a roommate from college living down there, Samantha,” Johnson said. “We found that Samantha’s house was okay, but her mother’s house was flooded, so that was going to be our original destination. However when we got there, we found Mormon Helping Hands had beaten us to it and took care of everything. So Samantha directed us to one of her high school friends—Maria Sotolongo.”
“They immediately started. I was lost but they said, ‘here’s what we’re gonna do,’” Sotolongo said. The men found a table and chairs in Sotolongo’s garage, which they cleaned and set up as a staging area for her to lay out valuables and things of importance, so they could determine what was salvageable and what would need to be tossed. “Having them there for that first day after entering my home was the greatest gift I could have gotten. But the gift kept coming,” Sotolongo said.
Over the next few days, Johnson and Carlin were not alone. “That first day we were carrying out wet furniture and bedding so we made a call to a contact we got from Adam, to the guys at Rugbyrelief.org. They sent us three barbarians that worked like animals. Here we were slipping and sliding in our work boots and they showed up in cowboy boots and got to work,” Johnson said.
“It wasn’t the first rodeo for these Texans,” Carlin joked.
“The next day, a guy name Trey Wakefield from Saint John Vianney Church showed and he brought a generator and fans, shovels, tools, bleach, and another guy and they worked like animals,” Johnson continued.
“We thought we’d get there and it wouldn’t be so hard, but we had a lot to carry out and the mold was unbelievable. The task before us was daunting, so the timing couldn’t have been better with these guys showing up. Every day our crew got bigger and bigger. It was great to see the community come together,” Carlin said.
Over the course of five days, Carlin, Johnson and the crew that had formed were able to remove all the flooded contents of the home, plus rip out tiled and hardwood floors, walls, bathroom fixtures and more. “They really made us progress a lot faster. We’ve seen other neighbors’ homes and they didn’t make as much progress as we did and it wouldn’t have happened without the help of John and George,” Sotolongo said.
In between helping out the Sotolongos, Carlin and Johnson found time to distribute the donations from those in Rockaway to neighbors, including Sotolongo’s brother who lived a few doors down, local church groups, schools and others in the hardest-hit areas of Houston. Margaret Buckley, a friend of Johnson’s wife also put them in touch with Christine Langeland, the assistant principal at St. Ambrose Catholic School in Houston. “Christine said their school wasn’t flooded, but we gave her about a thousand dollars in gift cards and she brought it to those at St. Francis of Assissi, which had four feet of water and the students there won’t be able to return for a year,” Johnson said.
On Thursday, September 14, Johnson and Carlin had to board their flight back to New York. Before leaving, they left Sotolongo with some donations, including the letter and gift cards from Terrence Marten, plus an extra special gift. “The last day they were there, they tell me they’re giving me the truck they drove,” Sotolongo said, adding that her family had lost both of their cars to the flooding. “I’m standing by my six-foot high pile of belongings on the curb and they tell me this. I thought I was going to faint. I was overcome with the most unbelievable feeling of joy,” she said.
“They were such a strong source, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. They were ready to help in any way possible and we had no doubt in our minds that they knew what they were doing. They were so humble and brought so much humor to the situation and everyone that met them was touched. They really brought life to the whole community. My nieces told me that they want to be just like them one day. I can’t tell you the effect they had. Even though they’re not here in Houston, we feel their presence. Everybody is talking about John and George,” Sotolongo said. “It was amazing to be one with your community of Rockaway. We feel Rockaway here in Houston.”
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