A letter from Houston

A letter from Houston

The Facebook page of a good friend in Houston has been full of entries like this over the past few weeks:

“A mom collapsed into my arms sobbing today after we spent three hours waiting together to get her into an apartment provided by Harris County. She will get a furnished one bedroom starting tomorrow (yay!) but she lost everything in Harvey. She is considering this a fresh start.”

The post, from University of Illinois alum and former News-Gazette reporter Dorothy Puch Lillig, included a list of needs for the woman and her two daughters, ages 4 and 1.

The family moved from a shelter to the apartment Friday afternoon before the furniture arrived, so they faced a weekend or more sleeping on the wood floor with no blankets or pillows and only one towel. “They didn’t have a single plate, fork or cup, or even toilet paper, soap or food,” Lillig wrote.

She and her network of friends responded with a carload of blankets, pillows, towels, toiletries and food to get them through the night. The next day they dropped off inflatable beds, a couple of folding chairs, books and clothes for the girls, a shower curtain and a broom, plus a microwave, television and a Barbie doll from “one very generous little girl.”

“I told the mom she has friends all over the world helping her,” Lillig wrote in her post, thanking people who had donated items or gift cards from as far away as Illinois, California, Florida, Canada and Germany.

Lillig and her family escaped Hurricane Harvey unscathed, but, like thousands of others in Houston, they’ve spent much of their time over the past few weeks trying to help those who weren’t so fortunate.

A little over a month ago, Lillig and her husband Dan, also a UI alum, had just dropped off their first-born at the UI for his freshman year. They had driven to southern Illinois on the way to see the full solar eclipse, and later drowned their sorrows with friends in Champaign after saying goodbye to their son.

That all seems like a lifetime ago.

“So much has happened since then,” she said Sunday. “There’s so much need. It’s just overwhelming.”

Estimates indicate more than 100,000 homes in the Houston area were damaged or destroyed by Harvey, plus apartments, businesses, schools, even the acclaimed Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera, she said. Some schools will be closed for the year.

Next door to Lillig’s suburb of Bellaire sits Meyerland, a neighborhood on Houston’s southwest side where 80 percent of the 2,300 homes flooded.

“It didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, as Harvey and the flooding that followed destroyed low-income housing and mansions alike,” she wrote to me last week. “Mountains of home debris line our streets with nowhere to go as the landfills are full.”

Like the need, the relief effort has been enormous, involving thousands of volunteers, government agencies and nonprofit groups. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency is overloaded, responding to multiple disasters. Houston is doing its best, she wrote, but “in a city where affordable housing was already scarce, the storm left many of our city’s most vulnerable with few options.”

So Lillig and others do what they can on an individual level. Besides the heroes who pulled out boats to rescue people after the storm, hundreds showed up to donate supplies or help distribute them at shelters.

“Strangers donned masks and went into flooded homes to remove contents and soaked Sheetrock, hopefully before the mold started to grow,” she wrote. “At one point, my husband found himself at the home of someone he didn’t know going through their family treasures, helping make decisions on which water-logged items to keep or throw away.”

The NRG convention center, just 15 minutes from Lillig’s house, was turned into a huge shelter. Nearly four weeks after the storm, 2,000 people were still calling it home, she said.

Many were poor to begin with, or on the margins, and lost everything in the floods. Lillig and a friend spent days helping them get assistance. Sometimes they were reluctant to ask government officials for help, having been turned down before, and just needed an advocate.

“You realize that a lot of these people just need a little boost to get their lives back in order, and they don’t know how to get it,” she said. “They literally have one Rubbermaid container of stuff.”

Last week, as the NRG shelter was closing, one family who wasn’t lucky enough to get a new apartment was about to be bused to a new shelter in a vacant shopping mall across town. As the mother packed their few belongings in plastic garbage bags, Lillig tried to distract her 7-year-old daughter by asking what she liked to do for fun.

“Well, when I have books — and I don’t have any here — I like to read,” the girl said.

Lillig remembered the stack of chapter books in her car from someone who had donated them a few days earlier. She dashed out to the parking lot, picked out 10 she thought the girl would like, and brought them back before the family left.

“She grabbed them from my hands, and plopped down into her brother’s stroller and started organizing the books, and said, ‘Mom, which one should I read first?’” Lillig said.

On Friday, Lillig picked up a bag of donated items for the young mom in the empty apartment. They were from a friend who had lost everything in a flood two years ago and is still rebuilding but wanted to help. Her 5-year-old daughter donated one of her treasured toys for the little girls: a favorite Barbie.

“What’s the little girl’s name I’m giving my Barbie to?” she asked Lillig. She was pleased to learn their names both started with “M.”

When Lillig dropped off the items, the 4-year-old immediately started trying on the clothes. Dorothy sent the donors a photo of her in a ruffly, neon pink dress and socks, clutching the Barbie.

Lillig said she feels lucky to be able to help and knows it’s important for people to see where their donations go. She writes about the experience on social media to connect people with the need and thank those who have supported the families so far.

“The one positive to come out of this huge ordeal has been the outpouring of love and support from people everywhere,” she said. “People continue to ask daily how they can help.”


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.


Nearly a month after Hurricane Harvey, debris is still piled up in some streets in  Houston. This photo was taken Monday (Sept. 25, 2017) in the southwest surburb of Bellaire, Texas. Dorothy Puch Lillig

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