When a natural disaster stikes, people generally turn to the government for assistance. During the horrible fire that ravaged the Texas counties of Montgomery, Grimes, and Waller, we saw the opposite. Communities banded together to take care of each other in a way that is truly rare.
When FEMA rolled in to take over the fire fighting operations, the local community clashed with the government representatives and forced them to stay out of their way.
I was present and saw the hard work that the local citizens put in first hand, and I recently received a few emails that documents the generous efforts put forth by a community that preferrs to take care of it’s own. Here are some excerpts from those emails:
Here are some stories you won’t hear about the Tri-county fire in Montgomery, Grimes, and Waller County the weeks following Labor Day, 2011. Although Kenna promises to write a book.
My neighbor across the road has a sister named Kenna. Memorial Day, when she saw the huge column of smoke over our homes, she left a birthday party at my neighbor’s house to meet with her friend Tara at the Baseball complex in Magnolia. She called the owner of the complex and got permission to use the warehouse there as a staging area for donations for the fire fighting effort.
They put a notice out on facebook that they were going to be taking donations on their facebook pages. That night as they were setting up tables and organizing, News 2 Houston came by and saw the activity, investigated and left with the phone numbers and a list of suggested donations. The facebook notice propagated faster than the fire. By dawn they had 20 volunteers, bins, forklifts, and donations were pouring in. I stopped by with my pitiful little bags of nasal wash and eye wash, and was amazed.
There must have been 20 trucks in the lot, offloading cases of water, pallets of Gatorade , and people lined up out the door with sacks of beef jerky, baby wipes, underwear, socks, and you name it. School buses and trailers from many counties around were there offloading supplies, students forming living chains to pass stuff into the bins for transport to the command center and staging areas. If the firefighters had requested it, it was there. What do you give the guy out there fighting the fire that might engulf your home? Anything he or she wants. Including chewing tobacco and cigarettes.
Kenna moved on to the Unified Command Post at Magnolia West High school . She looked at what the fire fighters needed, and she made calls and set it up.
Mattress Mac donated 150 beds. Two class rooms turned into barracks kept quiet and dark for rest.
The CEO of HEB donated 2 semi trailers full of supplies, and sent a mobile commercial kitchen at no charge to feed all the workers, but especially our firefighters, 3 hot meals a day.
David Riddle and Matt Hoffpauir, owners of the gourmet coffee fundraising company – Pips Coffee, set up coffee brewers and made hundreds of gallons of coffee for the fire fighters, displaced families and supporting volunteers.
An impromptu commissary was set up, anything the firefighters had requested available at no charge. As exhausted firefighters (most of them from local VFDs with no training or experience battling wildfires) and workers came into the school after long hours of hard labor, dehydrated, hungry, covered with soot and ash, they got what they needed. They were directed through the commissary, where they got soap, eye wash and nasal spray, candy, clean socks and underwear, and then were sent off to the school locker rooms for a shower. HEB then fed them a hot meal and they got 8 hours sleep in a barracks, then another hot meal, another pass through the commissary for supplies to carry with them out to lines, including gloves, safety glasses, dust masks and snacks, and back they went.
One of the imported crew from California came into Unified Command and asked where the FEMA Powerbars and water were. He was escorted to the commissary and started through the system. He was flabbergasted. He said FEMA never did it like this. Kenna replied, ”Well, this is the way we do it in Texas .”
Fire fighting equipment needed repair? The auto shop at the High School ran 24/7 with local mechanics volunteering, students, and the firefighters fixing the equipment. Down one side of the school, the water tankers lined up at the fire hydrants and filled with water. Down the other side there was a steady parade of gasoline tankers filling trucks, dozers, tankers, cans, chain saws, and vehicles.
Mind you, all of this was set up by 2 Moms, Kenna and Tara, with a staff of 20 simple volunteers, most of them women who had sons, daughters, husbands, and friends on the fire lines. Someone always knew someone who could get what they needed- beds, mechanics, food, space. Local people using local connections to mobilize local resources made this happen. No government aid. No Trained Expert.
At one point the fire was less than a mile from the school, and everyone but hose volunteers were evacuated. The fire was turned. The Red Cross came in, looked at what they were doing, and quietly went away to set up a fire victim relief center nearby. They said they
couldn’t do it any better.
Then FEMA came in and told those volunteers and Kenna that they had to leave, FEMA was here now. Kenna told them she worked for the firefighters, not them. They were obnoxious, bossy, got in the way, and criticized everything. The volunteers refused to back down and
kept doing their job, and doing it well. Next FEMA said the HEB supplies and kitchen had to go, that was blatant commercialism. Kenna said they stayed. They stayed. FEMA threw a wall eyed fit about chewing tobacco and cigarettes being available in the commissary area. Kenna told them the firefighters had requested it, and it was staying. It stayed. FEMA got very nasty and kept asking what organization these volunteers belonged to- and all the volunteers told them “Our community”.
FEMA didn’t like that and demanded they make up a name for themselves. One mother remarked “They got me at my boiling point!” and suddenly the group was “212 Degrees”. FEMA’s contribution? They came in the next day with red shirts embroidered with “212 Degrees”, insisting the volunteers had to be identified, never realizing it was a slap in their face. Your tax dollars at work – labeling volunteers with useless shirts and getting in the way.
The upshot? A fire that the experts from California (for whom we are so grateful there are no words) said would take 2-3 weeks to get under control was 100% contained in 8 days. There was so much equipment and supplies donated, 3 container trucks are loaded with the excess to go and set up a similar relief center for the fire fighters in Bastrop .
The local relief agencies have asked people to stop bringing in donations of clothing, food, household items, and pretty much everything else because they only have 60 displaced households to care for, and there is enough to supply hundreds. Again, excess is going to be shipped to Bastrop , where there are 1500 displaced households. Wish we could send Kenna, too, but she has to go back to her regular job.
And that’s the way we do it in Texas !!!
This side of the story will only be told by the men and women that were in the middle of the action, helping their fellow citizens out in their greatest time of need. When disaster strikes, the government is not always the only place to turn for help.
This disaster has brought this community closer together than ever before. That’s the way we do it in Texas!