Operation Penny.

 

Sandy Hill Drive is a quiet street situated just west of Houston’s city limits, in a development called the Villages of Bear Creek. Two- and three-bedroom homes housing a mix of retirees and young families fill the neighborhood. For the most part, this community has always been quiet, but on weekends a chorus of lawnmower, power saws, and nail guns interrupts that stillness. Volunteers scatter across a dozen homes on Sandy Hill Drive. Their commander is a woman decked in hoop earrings, running shorts, and a tank top with a suede tool belt swung around her hips. She reaches into the belt and pulls out her most useful tool, her phone. She uses it to keep track of construction teams and documents their progress on Facebook. Her name is Penelope Moore. But the families of Bear Creek call her Penny, or, their Harvey Angel.

When I sat down with Penny in the living room of her Cypress, Texas home, I asked her to introduce herself for our documentary crew filming her. She simply stated, “My name is Penny Moore and I live in Houston, Texas.” Over the several days I spent with her, I came to realize that statement might sum up how she views herself – a Houston-area mom with nothing special to offer (her words) - but that’s far from accurate.

“I don’t have my college degree. It’s always been something I’ve been really embarrassed about,” said Penny. “I have nothing really to bring to the table… I don’t have any magic skills.”

If you spend even an hour with Penny, you will not come away with that same assessment. To more than a dozen Houston-area families, she is not only magic, she’s divine.

Act of God

Penny and the Bear Creek neighborhood intersected a year ago. She lives nearly an hour away but what led her to this community is what insurance adjusters call “an act of God.” 

On August 25, 2017 category 4 Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas. Three days later the Army Corps of Engineers released the dam at the Addicks Reservoir, which is situated just below Bear Creek. By the next morning, rain had yet to let up and the reservoir’s dam could not release water fast enough. It began to back up, sending water upstream to Bear Creek homes. Leon Blazer lives on Sandy Hill Drive and remembers August 29, 2017.

“I saw water coming in to the streets the wrong direction, and that’s when I realized we had about an hour [to escape],” said Leon. Leon and his wife Jessica loaded a few belongings, their dogs, and their kids into the family’s minivan. They were leaving to look for dry land when Jessica ran back in the house to grab something. “I brought floaties for the kids because I was prepared to swim,” said Jessica. When Jessica and Leon saw their home again a week later, they arrived by boat. “To see that much water in the house, that was probably the most devastating moment,” said Jessica. “[I] just bawled for hours.”

Also making her way to Bear Creek around this time was Penny. Penny’s home in the suburb of Cypress escaped Hurricane Harvey unscathed, so she went to Bear Creek on a goodwill mission for a friend of a friend. The friend had asked Penny to check on someone’s home a few houses down from Jessica and Leon’s.

“We get over to this neighborhood and immediately it was just different,” Penny recalls. She knew the families were going to need help so she helped, and she’s still helping a year later. Along the way, she said she “adopted” a dozen more families on this street, including the Blazers. “Penny has brought us our sink. Her volunteers did our shower. Our grass was donated,” Jessica said, continuing on with a list of things around her home that are there because of the help from this stranger.

Lights are a Victory

Over the past year, Penny has learned how to navigate all the red tape around governmental and non-profit disaster aid. She learned how to clean out mold and how to hang sheet rock. “We literally YouTubed how to put up walls,” said Penny.

The disaster non-profit Heart for Texas supplies Penny with many of the materials used to rebuild the families’ homes. The organization was founded solely to help the 135,000 homes destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Penny has relied on them to help her help the Bear Creek families. On a hot July day, I followed Penny and Heart for Texas’s Laurie Holleway through a large warehouse in Humboldt. Penny and Laurie met after Harvey but they chatted like old friends. As they walked by towers of donated sheetrock and bathtubs, they caught up on each other’s families. Penny was telling Laurie about her daughter’s new job as they sifted through a box of light fixtures. I interrupted. I wanted to know if people were still in need of something as basic as lights a year after the storm.

“To be at the place of needing lighting is a victory,” said Laurie. “That’s a win because for so long it didn’t seem like we were going to get to the finish. There are so many people who do not understand that even a year later we have homes that are still shells. We have people that are still living in hotels.”

After walking the warehouse, Penny loaded a bathtub and a few cleaning supplies into her pickup truck. It’s all headed for Bear Creek. As Laurie watched Penny pull away, she described her for me. “Penny is an angel. Angels are messengers of God and that’s what Penny is,” she said.

A Hard Reminder

The following Saturday, Penny was back on Sandy Hill Drive, tool belt on her hip, phone in her hand and another friend by her side. This time it was Sarah Maney. “Sarah is a volunteer just like me, who showed up and then stayed and decided that she was in this for the long haul,” said Penny.

Coincidently, Sarah lives just a few streets over from Penny in Cypress. Shortly after Harvey, they ran in to each other in Bear Creek as they were helping families tear out mold from their homes. I went with Sarah and Penny to unload the bathtub Penny picked up from Heart for Texas the day before. Inside the home, Sarah showed me a filmy line across the homes window, about six feet off the ground. It was the water line left from the flooding. “It’s a hard reminder,” said Sarah. “That was only a year ago.”

The house next door to the one that received the new bathtub is empty, save for the furniture toppled over and resting right where it landed when the water finally recede. Black mold climbed toward the ceiling and paint peeled from the walls. Whoever lived here before the storm, never came back. This scene is repeated all throughout the neighborhood. As some houses are rebuilt, others sit in decay. “There’s a lot of people who left and didn’t come back,” Sarah tells me. “There’s a lot of people who sold to investors for pennies on the dollar. I think some it was being very overwhelmed, not knowing where help was going to come from.”

The Harvey Effect

I rode with Penny and Sarah through Bear Creek. It was hard to remember we’re a full year removed from Hurricane Harvey. Debris and trash still lined the streets. Most families are rebuilding their lives room by room. But all this rubble represents something other than despair.

An artist who lives across the street from Jessica and Leon Blazer explained this idea to me best. Masoud Farshchi tried to stay in his home when the flooding began. As the water reached his neck, he climbed to his roof. He was rescued but thought all of his art was lost. He thumbed through photographs he was able to find when he returned home. The edges were water logged and the colors had run. Masoud believes the damaged photographs are now more beautiful. He called this the Harvey Effect.

“Even something that we call disaster, is part of creation,” Masoud explained. “As powerful as Harvey was, I could see people’s power as strong as Harvey. The full force, they came, rescued us and helped us… and God bless America. This is what we should show the world, that this is what we do.” Another neighbor down the street echoed Masoud. “My husband said it best, (Penny and Sarah) turned our neighborhood into a community,” said Hilary Trammell.

A Tough Year But Something Special

On July 4th, Penny met the Blazers at their house. Their 4-year-old daughter Kaylee was excited to show Penny her bike she decorated for the neighborhood’s Fourth of July parade. Penny and Jessica walked together and watched Kaylee pedal her purple bike down the street with other Bear Creek kids. It started to rain but parade participants pedaled on, determined not to let the rain dampen the holiday. But as the rain picked up, families became noticeably nervous. The route ended at the subdivision’s club house, still boarded up since the storm but the porch was useable. Parade organizer Jaime Givens addressed the crowd.

“It’s been a tough year for this neighborhood but to see all of you guys being here is truly something special,” said Jaime. The rain started to pour just as the neighborhood party ended. Parts of Houston flooded that day but homes in Bear Creek stayed dry. “I think when it started raining it was a little bit emotional for some of us but just to be with them and to see them living life again was also very hopeful,” said Penny. “That’s what our effort’s all about, is for them to keep on.”

She’s made this mission her full time job. Though it’s not one that comes with a paycheck, Penny said the families in Bear Creek gave her something priceless. “I don’t think we could ever be the same as who we were [before Hurricane Harvey], said Penny. “But I think they’ve made our life richer.”