LUMBERTON, Texas —Irma went after Florida, but Harvey is still trying to kill Texans.
Deadly black mold threatens lives and will destroy thousands of Harvey-ravaged homes within days if they aren’t cleaned out quickly. On Saturday and Sunday, more than 10,000 Mormon Helping Hands volunteers mucked out the homes of anyone who asked.
"Our chance to save people’s homes is in the first 30 days," said Elder J. Devn Cornish, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "After about a month, the studs in houses rot, and renovating a house is no longer an option. The house is lost."
Armed with mold-repelling masks, volunteers traveled from San Antonio and Austin in the west, Dallas in the north and Baton Rouge and Jackson, Mississippi, in the east and spent Saturday and Sunday mucking out homes in the greater Houston area and east to the Louisiana border.
They worked all day Saturday, then slept in tents on Little League fields, in schools and outside LDS meetinghouses. On Sunday morning, they participated in abbreviated worship services at 8 a.m. and went straight back to work.
An estimated 10,000 volunteers worked on Saturday and 11,000 on Sunday.
"Our target is 10,000 people per weekend for the first month," Elder Cornish said. "We’ve got to help people save their homes."
The LDS Church is among dozens of groups coordinating help through the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, including Texas Baptist Men, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Catholic Charities and Habitat for Humanity.
The Helping Hands groups fanned out throughout the region, divided into 10-person crews. Each crew generally can clean out three or four homes in two days, said Monica Jarrell, who prepared crew assignments in Vidor, Texas.
Naomi Brown found out about Helping Hands on Facebook. She called and requested help, and two crews converged Saturday on her home. One crew was made up of Louisianans, some of whom had lost their own homes in August 2016. The other crew was local.
The Browns’ home was submerged in water. Like a nonswimmer’s nose, only the tip of the roof stayed above water. Naomi and her husband Jeremy and their two children lost all their belongings.
"It’s very critical it gets cleaned out now and sanitized now," Jeremy Brown said, "because in a few weeks it would all have to come down if we wait."
Brown gave the number for Mormon Helping Hands to his next-door neighbor, Chester Britton. He called in for help and his home was added to the database, a pattern repeated throughout the region.
"We’re not just the keepers of our brothers in the church, we are our brother’s keeper," said Elder Daniel W. Jones.
Jones said Mormon Helping Hands volunteers gave an estimated 200,000 hours of service over the weekend.
Hopeless to hopeful
The Browns’ other next-door neighbor, who got far less water than the Browns and Brittons, sought an estimate from a professional cleaner. It came back at $16,000.
Brown said the work done by Mormon Helping Hands would have taken him months to do by himself.
No one has months. Wet walls become giant petri dishes. On Thursday, news reports said a man was suffering from flesh-eating bacteria.
Wet walls are abundant. About 60,000 homes in Southeast Texas flooded after the region received 52 inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey. The affected area stretches 160 miles from the west end of Houston to the Louisiana border and nearly 200 miles from the north end down to the Gulf Coast.
"The real issue here is black mold," said Stirling Pack, regional disaster coordinator for the LDS Church in Houston. "If you breathe it into your lungs, it could be fatal.
"Timing is critical. If you don’t get the drywall out, the insulation soaks up the water and pulls it into the wall. You have to get that insulation and drywall out and spray the walls to control the growth of mold."
Port Arthur, right on the coast, is one of the places ravaged by flooding. “We have no hope left,” one woman there told Pack.
"We have to help people like that," he said.
Mormon Helping Hands crews claim work projects entered in a database.
On Sunday morning, Bishop Jordan Marcks of the Village Creek Ward in Lumberton, Texas, held a planning meeting for his congregation, which provided three crews.
He encouraged them to work hard but to rest when needed.
"It’s a marathon," he told them. "It’s not something that will be done this week. I know we want to close homes, but we can’t close homes at the expense of your health, your backs and your bodies."
Since Harvey departed, not a drop of rain has fallen. That’s good news because Naomi Brown and others say their stomachs churn at the thought of another raindrop.
Cleanup workers say they are enjoying what for Houston is a cold front — temperatures in the high 80s, with humidity at about 85 percent. Clear blue skies dominated Saturday and Sunday
"God has been blessing us because it hasn’t been ridiculously hot while we’re in jeans and rain boots and masks and gloves all day," said Sister McKenna Fairbanks of Alpine, Utah, who is serving in the LDS Church’s Texas Houston East Mission.
She and her mission companion, Sister Hannah White, spent five days in their apartment, riding out the hurricane and subsequent flooding. They studied scriptures, baked bread, practiced headstands and learned to crochet from a woman in their complex.
'As soon as we were out of lockdown, we volunteered at shelters," Fairbanks said.
A helpful birthday
Then they put on their yellow Helping Hands shirts and joined the mucking crews. Sunday was the pair’s eighth straight day of hard labor. Wednesday was Fairbanks’ birthday.
“Today is my birthday," she wrote in her journal. "Today we mucked out the Boyle’s house. We worked for nine hours. We came home and crashed. It was a good birthday. It’s a birthday I’ll never forget."
“The days have all meshed together," Fairbanks said with a broad smile.
"Because they’re all the same," White added.
"More to come," Fairbanks said. "We love it. We’re exhausted, but we love it. It’s so fulfilling."
In all, 53 LDS stakes (a stake is a geographic group of congregations like a diocese) mobilized over the weekend. The goal is to have them arrive by the thousands without draining any local resources, church spokesman Doug Andersen said.
Church leaders put stakes in the region on notice that help would be needed for three or four weekends.
About 2,900 Houston-based Helping Hands volunteers drove to Louisiana to help flood victims last year. Now the Louisianans are returning the favor.
"When we went on standby, we started asking where everything was that we used last year," said Bishop Bruce Pomeroy, who leads a congregation in Zachary, Louisiana.
"We brought all the tools from last year’s command center in Louisiana: masks, gloves, crowbars, sleds, wheelbarrows. Even our yellow shirts, we had those left over.
"We’re totally self-sufficient. We never went to the command center here. We just went straight to work Saturday morning."
Pomeroy brought three of his daughters — Mady, 20, who lives in Ogden, Utah, but extended her vacation to help; Hannah, 18; and Sydney, 12 — to Lumberton for the weekend. They'll make the three-hour drive to do it again next weekend, joined by Pomeroy's wife and another daughter.
The Pomeroys stayed with the Marcks family. Most camped out. Many hotels are either shelters, now, or full of other displaced people and responders.
'We've got to'
Many of those working with Mormon Helping Hands are displaced. Avery and Kimberly Goldman and their two teenagers lost everything when their rental home got 11 feet of water. It will be demolished. They said they are staying in a La Quinta Inn in Lumberton.
"A picture popped up on my Facebook page from a year ago when my husband and son went to Louisiana to help people after the floods,” Kimberly Goldman said. “It’s interesting now a year later we’re the ones who’ve needed help.”
They spent their weekend working with Mormon Helping Hands.
"We’re going to work," she said Sunday morning. "We’ve got to. My parents taught us if we all forgot about ourselves and helped everyone else, all our needs would be taken care of.
"We feel all the prayers," she added. "We feel the strength that wouldn’t normally be ours. We feel others bearing our burdens with us."
Chris Linn’s Houston-area home flooded last year. Mormon Helping Hands volunteers helped clear out the debris.
"When you’re going through this and people are helping each other, you see the bright light of humanity setting aside their differences and helping each other.
"It’s a really humbling experience."