ORANGE, Texas – The garbage truck had come to pick up the remnants of the hurricane. It rolled to a stop in front of its next pile.
In one swoop, the massive metal claw grabs two full-size leather couches. They crunch the same way twigs do on the sidewalks in the autumn time. Water, leftover from the hurricane, drips out of the cushions and onto the grass below.
Pieces of the storm are everywhere.
The destroyed belongings are lifted away by the truck, like the Angel of Death carrying away souls.
“It’s not just stuff. It’s a life on the street,” homeowner Bruce Alexander said. “I’m watching all of my stuff being taken away, but otherwise, it’s just sitting outside, smelling bad.”
Alexander is one of the thousands of Texans who have returned to their flooded homes to begin recovery. One of recovery’s first steps is cleaning everything that was damaged during the hurricane and piling it on the curbside for FEMA to take away.
Two Ole Miss alumni who are members of the First Baptist Church in Oxford made the trek eight hours southwest to spend a week helping with relief efforts in Orange, Texas.
Before the sun fully rose and the Sunday church bells rang, Lannie Shackelford and Harold Wilson packed their silver pickup truck to the brim with construction gloves and goggles, respirator masks and their Bibles. It was time to depart.
This was the second post-Hurricane Harvey trip for Shackelford, who has a background in construction and has worked abroad on mission trips multiple times before.
Wilson, on the other hand, had never experienced anything like this.
“I have lived a really privileged life,” Wilson said. “Not talking about being wealthy or anything like that. I’ve just lived a very easy existence.”
Before moving to Oxford four years ago, Wilson ran a wholesale women’s clothing business out of Dallas and had a showroom in the World Trade Center.
Reports of the turmoil Hurricane Harvey wreaked on his home state kept him up at night.
“I think it was God’s way of saying, ‘Harold Wilson, get off your lazy butt and make a contribution. Do something for somebody other than yourself,’” he said as tears filled his crystal-blue eyes.
Ten minutes past the bright green “Welcome to Texas” sign and a few left turns later, the men pull into the North Orange Baptist Church. This would be their home for the next week.
They take their bags upstairs to a Sunday school room and prepare their FEMA mattresses for the night. Then, it’s dinnertime: six o’clock sharp every night with a briefing before.
Thomas Nix, a quiet worker, is one of the leaders of the Mississippi Relief Team, a Southern Baptist Convention agency. He runs around headquarters all day, making sure all of the volunteers have what they need and the other workers from the convention are good to go. It’s a busy job, but someone has to do it.
All of the volunteers get to know Nix because he leads the discussions each night and the devotion every morning. His low voice fills the room with hope for the people of Texas and a love for Jesus.
After prayer, everyone eats.
Shackelford retrieves a stack of stapled papers. It’s his and Wilson’s project assignment. Handwritten pages list off the homeowner’s information and the damage the house endured.
Job in hand, the men head off to bed. Tomorrow’s an early morning, and there is work to be done.
The first house
First you smell it, and then you see it.
The odor of moldy walls, soggy insulation and lost belongings lingers in the air. Everything that was inside their homes now sits on the street. Memories are all they have left.
John and Sybil Fortenberry have been married for more than 46 years. They’ve been in Orange that whole time. They’re high school sweethearts, finish each other’s sentences and lead the Calvary Baptist Church together down the road in Deweyville, Texas.
They had planned to weather the storm because their town had never flooded before and they were never told to evacuate.
Once the rain began Friday, no one was sure when it would stop.
Three nights later, as they were falling asleep, John and Sybil could hear the water lapping at the doorways.
“We knew as the night went on and those storms kept coming through, we thought, ‘Well, that’s not going to be good,’” Sybil said. “Then, we literally were trapped in the neighborhood. There’s only one way in and one way out.”
The rain was getting heavier, and so were their hearts. It was time to take action, and they retreated to a neighbor’s house on higher ground.
They came home as the sun was rising the next day to find 4 inches of water sitting in their hallway. Water should not be underestimated, though; inches can destroy an entire house.
The couple doesn’t have a timeline for when its walls will be rebuilt and its house will once again become a home to move back into. John said they’ve just got to get it done.
“Got to recover. Got to rebuild. Got to work on it,” John said. “Got to get your boots pulled up high, get your gum in the center of your mouth and chew hard and get after it.”
Shackelford and Wilson pulled their goggles up to their eyes, hooked their masks around their ears and pulled on their gloves.
Hammering and buzzing noises filled the house with sounds of progress.
Back to headquarters
Back at the fellowship hall, workers in yellow shirts keep busy. Texas and American flags hang on the wall, and the blue painter’s tape pasted on the glass door at eye level reads, “You are now entering your mission field.”
There are phone calls to be answered, food to be cooked, laundry to be washed, a Lord to be served.
Over chicken and dumplings and brown-sugar-bacon-topped green beans, volunteers shared the stories of the work they did and the lives they touched that day.
While the volunteers had been at their assigned houses, the Southern Baptist Convention workers were at headquarters, busy behind the scenes. They were filling out charts and forms, taking calls and updating the list of completed projects.
The kitchen staff works throughout the day, cleaning up from breakfast, which they woke up at 4 a.m. to prepare, setting out lunch options for volunteers to pack their sandwiches and cooking dinner to feed the hungry stomachs after the sun sets.
Outside, the laundry trailer continues running. Workers clean the dirtied clothes using a meticulous washing process, including mixing vinegar into the detergent to rid the clothes of any mold they might have collected throughout the day.
Next door, hot steam rises from the shower trailer, which is fully equipped with soap, shampoo and towels. Here, volunteers can wash off the dirt and sweat from the unforgiving Texas sun before they sit down for dinner.
There’s something rejuvenating about a full stomach, fresh clothes and a clean body.
Volunteers do their best to help take care of Orange’s homeowners, and in return, the people of Southern Baptist Convention do their best to take care of them. If you ask why they do it, they’ll tell you, “Jesus.”
Another neighbor affected
At night, North Orange Baptist Church serves as a place to bond and a place to rest.
During the day, elementary school-age kids from two of the local schools that were damaged during the storm fill the hallways and classrooms.
Taylor Willis, a teacher from Little Cypress Elementary School, has relocated her classroom to the church. But every afternoon, after class is finished and she sends her students home, her day doesn’t end.
She leaves school and goes home to continue working on fixing her house so she and her husband, Josh, can move back in from the RV in their driveway.
Fans hum in every room, making sure every last drop is dry. The walls were already cut 4 feet up so new chunks of drywall could fit in with ease.
Peering through the openings were the still sturdy studs. Members of her church had visited earlier in the week and wrote Bible verses along some of them.
“But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Joshua 24:14” was written in black ink on the stud next to a door.
“I wrote that one,” Taylor said, pointing to the top of the doorframe. “It used to hang right there.”
Taylor remembers the Tuesday night when she knew the rain wasn’t going to stop. When the water first started leaking in, Taylor and Josh piled towels at the doorway until they were sopping wet. Then, they realized there was nothing they could do to stop the water.
“It just rushes in,” she said. “At one point, it felt like a river was going through our house, and we just had to sit back and let it come in.”
Josh was sick, and their dog, Cova, was lying on the kitchen island because she was scared of water. Taylor sat in a chair. She felt the water creep up past her ankles, and all she could think of was the possibility of the water levels eventually hitting her waist.
She called 911. No answer. There was nothing they could do until morning.
When the sun rose, Taylor slid on a fluorescent vest she’d found and sat on top of a ladder at the foot of the driveway next to the mailbox. She knew daylight meant rescuers would be coming through.
Boats made small ripples in the water as they slowly passed, each already on a mission to rescue someone else but promising to come back. After more waiting, it was her turn. Taylor, Josh and Cova loaded into a car and watched their neighborhood grow distant in the rearview mirror.
“I just looked and my husband, and he was like, ‘I just feel so hopeless,’” Taylor said.
It was four or five days before Taylor could come home. When she did, there was no time to grieve. It was time to get to work.
“I wanted to just bawl my eyes out but didn’t have time to do it,” Taylor said. “It was an overwhelming feeling seeing our house like that after the flood. It’s incredible what water can do over time when it sits.”
Taylor, like many other Texans, has also had to deal with the mental and emotional toll the hurricane left in its tracks.
“It’s depressing when everything in your life falls apart and you can’t go anywhere to find just somewhere where you can be normal,” Taylor said.
Although these weeks have been tough, Taylor said even if they didn’t have the walls in their house, they had each other, and everything would be OK.
“I don’t like the sound of rain. It used to be relaxing, but not anymore,” Taylor said.
Wilson said that all he could think about while he lay restless in bed the night before he and Shackelford left Oxford was how he could get out of going to volunteer in Orange, Texas. He’s glad he didn’t, though.
“I got to tell you something,” Wilson said. “It’s been two of the greatest days of my life.”
As hard as he tries, he can’t find the words to describe the experience to his wife when he talks on the phone with her each night.
“She said, ‘Why are you so emotional about it?’ and I said, ‘Because their life is out on the street, and what’s not on the street, that’s what Lannie and I are going to do in the next week,’” Wilson said.
Wilson said his life changed in the last month. He was baptized again the Sunday before he left for Orange.
“It’s me having to learn that on a scale of 1 to 10, I’m not the 10,” Wilson said. “I lived my life thinking I was the 10, and I’ve come to realize that I’m the 1.”
He’s trying to develop a servant’s heart, as his wife calls it.
Wilson used to throw money at a problem, thinking that would make it go away. Now, he sees that’s not the case.
“These are born and bred Texans, and they’re wonderful people, but they need help,” Wilson said. “They need money, but they need people. They need volunteers.”
For Shackelford, when he retired in January, he knew he would set out to do some sort of mission work.
“I’ve done a lot of this, and I knew when I retired I was going to do as much of it as I was physically able to do,” Shackelford said. “So, it wasn’t something that came overnight.”
He said no one can witness a disaster area and it not have any effect on him.
“You’d have to have blinders on,” he said. “It changes everybody’s perspective on life, basically how short life is, how things, possessions, can be gone overnight.”
Shackelford has learned that taking care of others is everyone’s responsibility.
He doesn’t mind the long days and hard work much, because he knows it needs to be done.
“Myself and Harold are close to the same age, so a long day is hard, but it’s a difference in what you do during the day that makes it more or less worth it,” Shackelford said. “I’ve never regretted it. I might be tired, but I’m not that tired.”
– Lana Ferguson