The devastation of Harvey has neighbors and strangers helping one another. Brigades of volunteers have come to Texas. They’ve loaded up their boats for rescues and packed trailers full of food and water to help people who no longer have homes.
In his hometown of Orange, Texas, Epi Mungui is overseeing a makeshift distribution center in the middle of a sweltering hot strip center parking lot.
“We got water. People have been bringing canned food,” he says, pointing to boxes where the goods have been sorted. “We’ve got diapers. They keep coming in, they keep going. We’ve got baby food, formula,” Mungui says.
This parking lot is where the National Guard and volunteer rescuers first brought people displaced by floodwaters — a sort of hub for evacuations. Mungui says word spread, and donations started pouring in.
“It’s heartbreaking, but you know what, it’s amazing to see people come together in a time of distress,” he says. “I wish we could be like this all the time.”
Orange is near the Louisiana line, and the so-called Cajun navy has been in full force here. People like Van Lorena.
“We rescued this neighborhood Wednesday morning,” he says. Then they came back with basic necessities.
“We brought everything from tampons to batteries to diapers — you name it,” Lorena says.
He’s from Denham Springs, La., which was devastated by a flood last year. He says it was an easy call to come help Texans in the same fix.
“You couldn’t not,” Lorena says. “I’m not the kind of guy who could just sit there and watch it on the news and not do nothing.”
More Louisiana folk are in the kitchen — really just a trailer and a tent stocked with a grill, a smoker and a giant gas-fired kettle.
To get ready for lunch, they’re using a big metal paddle to stir onions, bell peppers and seasonings for a jambalaya. The smell wafts through the humid air, and people are lined up by midmorning.
Randy Melerine says they’ll fly a blue Louisiana flag atop the tent to signal when the noon meal is ready — the jambalaya and pulled pork sandwiches.
In the meantime, he hands out cake and fruit.
“You want some cake, baby?” he asks 70-year-old Rita Deal, who takes a slice.
“Got water in my house,” she says. “I’m hungry. [I] live alone.”
She’s a cancer patient, and has been staying in her soaked home with no electricity ever since the water woke her early Wednesday.
“I heard something go blub, blub, blub,” she describes. “I live at the end of the sewer line and it was coming up through both commodes.”
She’s weary at the thought of mucking out.
“I went through Hurricane Rita and lost everything and here I go again,” Deal says. “I’m too old to start again.”
After lunch, she sorts through boxes — getting a toy for her dog, some bottled water and packs of crackers to take back home.
More supplies are coming, says Gary Hill, who manages the Market Basket grocery store next door. He’s become the unofficial commander of this operation.
“This parking lot has been a control center,” he says. “All we’ve been doing is coordinating with the fire department, the police department, the Cajun navy, the best we can. And everybody who is coming to our parking lot.”
Hill’s been sleeping on a bean bag chair at the store. A tear rolls down his cheek as he talks about all the officials and volunteers who have come to help in Orange.
“They’re taking care of us, really wonderful people,” he says. “It’s about working together as a team. Cause you know what? We’re all the same in the eyes of God,” Hill says.
Neighbors, including the hairdresser who owns the salon next door, have come to stock empty shelves so the Market Basket can open to the public once power is restored. In the meantime, the grocery store has been cooking what food it has for the local police and sheriff’s departments, working on a backup generator.
Outside, Troy Hueschen is overseeing the makeshift kitchen, which has served thousands of hot meals in Orange. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
He owns Southern Traditions, a cooking trailer that can be hired out for tailgate parties. Now he’s working with two Catholic men’s clubs from Slidell, La., just outside New Orleans.
“We been through it with Katrina, so we here to serve the people. And so we all need to stick together,” Hueschen says. “That’s what Americans do.”
Flood victim Charles Sam is having lunch.
“I appreciate it,” he says. “I appreciate it to the fullest. You don’t find this too much many days. You know most the time everybody’s out for themselves.”
He’s stuffed a black plastic garbage bag with his medications and a few personal belongings, and is waiting here in the parking lot to be evacuated to an emergency shelter in Alexandria, La.
“This is my first time evacuating,” Sam says. “But I can’t stay.”
Because like communities all across southeast Texas, his neighborhood is uninhabitable.