Jeremy Dunford, a 2017 graduate of the Jesuit School of Theology, had just accepted a position as a theology teacher at Houston’s Strake Jesuit College Preparatory and moved to Texas in July. Before August was out, he found himself amid North America’s single-most devastating rain event in recorded history.
Even though Dunford hails from California (a state Texans erroneously believe is beset with near-constant earthquakes and wildfires), this was Dunford’s first disaster. “I grew up in the Sacramento area,” he says, “and we’ve been pretty far away from major earthquakes, and even with the wildfires in recent years, my family has always been pretty safe. But to move to Houston and just months later be hit with one of the worst natural disasters in history was a little unsettling.”
Not to make light of its devastation or the physical, mental, and financial sufferings of its victims, but it can be said that Tropical Storm Harvey was likely the most tedious natural disaster in American history. It rained really hard, and then it rained even harder, and then it rained even harder, and just kept on doing so for days and days.
“Boring is a good way to put it,” Dunford says. “There was no thunder or raging winds. It was just ‘When is this going to stop? When will these clouds finally run out of water?’ But it just kept coming down for five days.”
If you’re a veteran of Gulf Coast storms, as I am, you can’t help but start to assess them in aesthetic terms. Take 2008’s Hurricane Ike: It was downright operatic—in mere minutes Ike’s mighty storm surge erased whole coastal communities from the map, inundated Galveston, and pushed hundreds of boats miles from their moorings. Heading inland, Ike tore off rooftops and ripped apart trees whose limbs and trunks snapped most of the power lines in the region, leaving millions of Texans without electricity for weeks or even months.
As a Category 4 hurricane, Harvey came ashore on Texas’ central Coastal Bend area with even more force than Ike, and towns like Rockport and Port Aransas suffered Ike-like devastation. By the time the storm made its right run toward the northeast, taking dead aim on Greater Houston’s 6.5 million inhabitants, its fury had abated. But even though it had been downgraded to a mere tropical storm, its capacity for devastation was undiminished, though it was now of another sort. It had become a gargantuan doom-laden, slow-moving freight train of rain bands that stretch the bounds of the spectrum of colors weather forecasters use to represent severity. Ike did not linger. Harvey most decidedly did, its monsoon downpours seemingly never-ending.
“Just looking out the window and seeing it never stop—that was one of the most disconcerting things,” Dunford remembers. By the time the last rain band moved off to the east, and the last few drops of the storm’s total of 27 trillion gallons—the weight of which depressed the earth’s crust by 2 centimeters— were falling elsewhere, it was clear that Strake’s 1,100 young men would not be back at their desks anytime soon. With 10 to 15 percent of them displaced from their homes, it was decided to shut down for two weeks, in part to alleviate stress on the students and their parents, but also to free up the entire student body for volunteer work. Never has the school’s mascot—the Crusader—been more apt.
“That was cool to see: an army of 1,100 guys out working in the community,” Dunford says. “Some had lost their homes. They were still out there working, saying ‘If I can’t do much to help my own family, I want to help those who can be helped.’” Such is the Jesuit credo—Be men and women for others. “That’s right,” Dunford says. “That’s what we do.”
Dunford joined in himself. It is estimated that all or some of more than 100,000 Houston-area homes needed to be “mucked”—meaning knocking out drywall, pulling up floorboards and ripping out carpets, and hauling waterlogged mattresses and sofas out to the curb. It’s arduous and unpleasant work; old mattresses steeped in floodwater reek to high heaven, and Houston is infamously hot and humid in September. But despite that, and despite Dunford’s lack of experience in anything remotely related to this field, he enlisted in Houston’s ad hoc Muck Marines.
Battlefield promotions came early and often. At his first house, Dunford watched closely a man who appeared to be utterly in command of the skills Dunford lacked. He asked him if he was a contractor by trade. No, the man said, this was his second house. And that was how it was all over Greater Houston: dentists, grocery sackers, office clerks, laid-off petroleum engineers, and even California-bred newly minted theology teachers—all learning on the job.
After working a few houses, Dunford found himself in the role of drill sergeant, imparting his skills to the next wave of green recruits. “I was able to tell people what to do, to assess damage, to see what had to go and what could be saved. It was a steep learning curve, but that was what happened.”
Houstonians and Texans pride themselves on their toughness and the ability of the wildly ethnically diverse city to come together in the aftermath of disasters, and Dunford was very impressed seeing those traits in action. “It was just very special to see, and that is what has allowed them to make so much progress over the last five months.”
Dunford was so happy to have been a part of it all, he says, and he feels like he has now been initiated into a new tribe.
“I felt like a real Texan after that,” he says. “I was waiting to put on my Texas license plate on my car, and after Harvey—that was the time.”
JOHN NOVA LOMAX is a senior editor with Texas Monthly and, we should note, a graduate of Strake Jesuit College Prep.