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On Harvey’s Heels

With floodwaters receding, Houstonians reach for their bootstraps
Photo by: Paula Murphy
To sort through product efficiently, the Houston Food Bank uses a rotating contraption more often seen in automotive factories.

Posted: Sep 19, 2017 2:00pm ET

By Emma Balter

As we watch Hurricane Maria barrel through the Caribbean, I'm reminded of my recent trip to Houston. My planned vacation to visit a friend looked dire when Hurricane Harvey hit southeast Texas, but when airports reopened later that week, to my surprise, I managed to fly in. The city's residents were slowly coming out of their homes, trying to get back to normal and move forward amid the unprecedented damage.

Late one morning, locals at Last Concert Café, a Mexican restaurant in Houston's Warehouse District, were abuzz with storm stories, catching up over enchiladas and queso. Portable fans were airing out the back room; a mustiness pervaded. When I asked my server, Esteban, how the restaurant had fared, he bent down to indicate the water level with his hand against a banquette. Just a few inches, he said. "I feel bad for people who lost everything."

A couple of blocks down, on the opposite side of Nance Street, Theodore Rex had not been so fortunate. After a successful "friends and family" pre-opening party, the restaurant was preparing to open to the public when Harvey hit. Nearly 2 feet of floodwater swept through the dining room and kitchen.

A week later, the space was, understandably, a mess. Furniture had been pulled away from the walls, or brought outside to dry. Contractors were at work. Chef-owner Justin Yu was standing in the kitchen, trying to stay in good spirits. "We're lucky that we're safe. But some days it's a lot to take in," he said. He lost two coolers, and a transformer that powered one of his ovens had to be replaced. "Most of the furniture was OK, although it's wood. It's something we have to take a look at over time, to see if the wood is structurally sound," he said.

Yu hoped to be open for good in another month. He wants to make sure they're "a safe business to be cooking out of." As I walked out, I ran into the furniture maker. Since the storm, he had been checking in on all of his clients—some businesses and some individuals. Most were OK, but those who were hit were hit hard, he said.

I traveled closer to Buffalo Bayou, where the water levels were still higher than usual. Spaghetti Warehouse, a red-sauce Italian chain, sits on a slope on the bayou's banks. The receding waters appeared to have taken some of the restaurant's stucco with it. As I approached the front and tried to peer inside, someone called out to me: "Closed! There's no one in there!" The man worked in the kitchen, and was standing there with two other employees.

They said the damage was very bad inside; they sounded overwhelmed and defeated. The first floor of the restaurant had been submerged, and they had no indication when they would have jobs to return to. Spaghetti Warehouse issued a statement saying they were committed to reopening, and had set up a fund to help their employees in the meantime.

The main concern of the Houston restaurateurs I spoke with was staff safety and security. All agreed that the curfew (since lifted) put in place by Houston's mayor to avoid looting was a big thorn in business owners' sides. When I dined at Coltivare, in the Heights, owner Morgan Weber was vocal. His staff was out of work for five days after the storm, he told me, and to close shop at 10 p.m. meant they couldn't make the tips they needed to get back on their feet. But overall, he felt grateful that nothing worse had happened to them.

Being in Houston so shortly after Harvey was eerie. The whole city had been affected, but I was struck by the flood's indiscriminate path. Along the highway, some neighborhoods looked untouched, only to reveal cars and houses submerged to their roofs on the next block.

Photo by Emma Balter Photo by Emma Balter Photo by Paula Murphy Photo by Paula Murphy

Picking Up, and Helping Out

Two words echoed often during my trip: "survivor's guilt." Houstonians who'd survived the storm relatively unscathed were all hands on deck. For many, that meant pitching in at the Houston Food Bank. Stepping inside the massive warehouse, I found myself surrounded by palettes stacked high with packaged foods and fresh produce. Volunteers scurried from station to station, sorting supplies and loading trucks.

"As part of disaster relief, a food bank typically continues its mission in distributing massive amounts of food into the community," chief communications officer Betsy Ballard told me that morning. She estimated that they distributed over 100 million pounds of product last year. In Harvey's aftermath, they'd been distributing up to 1 million pounds a day. As of last Saturday, the organization had welcomed just under 13,000 new volunteers, totaling over 44,000 hours of work.

"It's very important to us to provide good nutrition when we're distributing product. Especially now," said Ballard of their efforts to include fresh produce among the usual non-perishables. "We need good nutrition during high-stress times."

The restaurant industry is helping out too. Houston Restaurant Weeks has been extended through Sept. 30, with proceeds benefitting the Houston Food Bank. Area Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners Brennan's of Houston, Brenner's Steakhouse, Del Frisco's, Eddie V's Prime Seafood, Fleming's, Ill Forks, KUU Restaurant, Kiran's, La Table, Masraff's, Morton's, Perry's, Prego, Rainbow Lodge, Robard's, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Seasons 52, Smith & Wollensky, Sonoma Wine Bar & Restaurant, the Capital Grille, the Palm, Third Coast, Tony's, Vallone's Steakhouse, Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse and Willi G's Seafood & Steak are participating.

Ballard thinks this will be the largest disaster she's yet seen. "I [was] here for both Katrina and Ike. I suspect that this is going to go on a lot longer than Ike, because of the sheer scale of homes that were affected ... People will have trouble feeding themselves for months to come. That's where we'll be."

You can follow Emma Balter on Twitter, at twitter.com/emmabalter, and Instagram, at instagram.com/emmacbalter.

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