In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Southeast Texas, devastating much of the Houston area with high winds and flooding. At the time, Digital Check pledged to donate $1 to Harvey relief efforts for each new scanner we sold through the end of that year – eventually amounting to tens of thousands of dollars all told.

Houston Harvey rebuilding

Tearing down and restoring a bathroom in one of the Eight Days of Hope houses. A year after Hurricane Harvey, tens of thousands of buildings in Houston still remain unlivable.

Last week, we followed through with some hands-on effort, as several members of the Digital Check team were in Houston volunteering with the same charities to whom we had sent our donation money a year ago. These were Eight Days of Hope (8DOH) and SBP (formerly Saint Bernard Project) – two grassroots organizations that both formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and have stayed active in disaster recovery and rebuilding efforts ever since.

Why did we pick these two charities specifically? One reason was that we wanted to find organizations for whom our contribution could make a noticeable difference. The “standard” thing to do would have been to simply write a check to the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity and be done with it.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, though: We’re not a giant corporation making million-dollar contributions. While those organizations are certainly appreciated by all those affected, our five-figure donation would be a rounding error by comparison.

So, for a company our size to make its contribution really count, we looked for local and regional organizations who depend on the kind of support, both monetary and otherwise, that we could offer. These charities have specific projects that you can “see” and “touch,” helping individual homeowners and businesses get back on their feet long after the floodwaters have receded.

Eight Days of Hope breakfast Houston

Shortly before 6 a.m., hundreds of volunteers had already gathered at the Eight Days of Hope site before heading out to their assignments.

Our first project, with Eight Days of Hope, is a flood-damaged house in League City, Texas, about two-thirds of the way from downtown to the Gulf of Mexico. At 6 a.m., 1,500-plus 8DOH volunteers gather at a church for breakfast and a message of encouragement, before heading out into the city for their various assignments. Most of the volunteers have come in from other states, traveling at their own expense and sleeping on cots in the church and a vacant big-box store rented out for the purpose. Before we go, the group leader makes a plea for any experienced tradespeople to raise their hands and volunteer to lead individual teams; we’ll soon find out why that’s important.

One thing that’s striking as you drive through the neighborhoods is how “normal” everything looks from the outside – houses all still standing, a dark waist-high line on some of the buildings serving as the only external indicator that anything is out of place.

Once you get inside, you see how misleading that is. In this particular house, we’re trying to get the bathroom plumbing hooked up so that the water can be turned back on, an important step toward making the house occupiable again. The older wood inside the wall framework shows where the high-water mark was; everything below about knee height is new, as is the flooring, the drywall, the electrical outlets, and the appliances. It looks as if the entire bottom three feet of the house has basically had to be rebuilt in place, a huge undertaking by any standard.

The house next door appears normal from the outside as well, but volunteers from 8DOH are there, too. Repeat that for each building for miles in every direction, and you begin to get an idea of the scale of the disaster we are dealing with.

Houston harvey relief - pipes

Reconnecting the tub and shower pipes before the water can be turned back on. Notice the new wood framework toward the bottom.

We are fortunate enough to have teamed up with a former contractor from Illinois, who goes to the same church as one of our employees. His direction (and his van full of tools) proves invaluable. This is one part of volunteer work that many people probably don’t realize until they actually participate in a rebuilding project: You can have all the manpower and enthusiasm in the world – but if you’re trying to install a toilet main with your bare hands and no experience, you probably won’t get very far. Every plumber, carpenter, roofer, electrician, or other skilled craftsperson is a huge advantage for a volunteer rebuilding team, making all the other people on the team into much more effective workers.

Eventually, we get the bathrooms re-piped, and the water turned back on, with a leaky shower valve the only mishap. With any luck, the family will be ready to move back in a week or two. That evening, the workers regather at the same church we met in earlier that day to have dinner and to hear from some of the homeowners about what these investments of time, talent, and resources means to them as they hope soon to be back in their restored homes. It is encouraging to see the people who are being directly impacted by this effort.

The next project is a house closer to downtown; since it was outside the usual flood zone, the SBP team leader explains, the owners didn’t have flood insurance, like many in the area. Despite being elevated on concrete supports, the house was flooded and needed to essentially be gutted and restored. There’s still no water or electricity, so all the lighting and tools must plug in to portable battery packs. Today we’re helping to lay flooring; after we’re done, someone else will install fixtures and counters, finish the plumbing and electrical work, and finally move in furniture. This family is a much longer way from moving back in.

As we’re finishing up with the living room floor, the SBP team leader explains that the process of fully rebuilding from a hurricane takes years, not months. It’s a fitting message to end our project.

Houston Harvey relief day 1 end

The Digital Check team after a day of work at one of the Harvey relief projects.

Some people have asked us, “Why are you still focused on Hurricane Harvey? There have been other hurricanes this year, and those are more recent!” The answer is that – just like our team leader said – the recovery isn’t over as soon as the bulldozers have cleared the streets and the TV cameras have gone away. It’s easy to think that’s the case from afar, but in truth, the immediate cleanup is just the first step in a very long process. We learned that Houston is short by 60,000 skilled contractors necessary to complete the restoration work from Harvey. That means that tens of thousands of people are still displaced from their homes.

In other words, the beginning of the process gets all the attention, but the rest is no less urgent. In fact, finishing the job might be the hardest part, since so many people have moved on to the latest emergency in the news. But if everything gets halfway done – nothing gets all the way done.

Just as we preferred to give our time and money to organizations with “hands-on” results, we also think it’s important to see things through. That is perhaps the most important message from our Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, and one that we hope will inspire others in the future.