Spartans Will in Houston
As hurricane winds swirled miles off the coast of Houston, daunting and yet unbeknownst in scale to scores of meteorologists and experts, Courtnie Mathis was in Missouri on vacation.
She didn’t know if flood waters would leak into her house, unsure of what possessions would fall victim to the waters.
When Hurricane Harvey made landfall, pelting Houston and surrounding areas with forces akin or worse to what devastated New Orleans at the hands of Katrina, Mathis was days away from returning to MSU to start her senior year.
She left family and friends back home. Her parents still living in the flooded house in Houston; the city they’ve called home for 10 years.
She saw pictures of the devastation of her home, heard stories of friends venturing out in boats to help rescue survivors. She prayed for their safety.
“You worry about them going out but you’re glad they are at the same time,” Mathis said.
But she couldn’t shake it. She wants to go back and help with the rescue efforts, but that is nearly out of the question.
And five days after she left, amid questioning over what was left of hers, under the cover of night, she did what she felt she could from MSU.
Rolling paint into the form of the Texas state flag, swathed over a fraternity recruitment ad, she and one friend, painted Houston Strong onto the Rock’s base and a link to donations at the top.
“I don’t think it’s really getting quite the attention it should for the disaster it is,” Mathis said. “Houston is the fourth largest city in the country and whole thing is underwater.”
The Rock has served for years as MSU’s rallying point, a gathering spot for mourning and celebration. Usually, its latest message is scrubbed over within 24 hours.
Nobody moved to wipe it and add something new this time. It’s been a week since Courtnie Mathis painted it.
It still stands.
Mathis wondered about the scale of impact her actions would have on the MSU community, even if the message only at least raised a sliver of awareness to the daunting recovery efforts ahead for Houston.
In the hours that followed, freshman Rachel Powell was riding the bus when she spotted the Rock. She immediately got up, walked over, tears welling up.
“It was such a touching moment as being so far away and not feeling like we can do anything,” Powell said. “Knowing that the university cares and that there’s people here that care and that it’s a supportive community is really great.”
Powell is a hospitality business freshman, born and raised primarily in Houston. She’s grown up with Houston, washed in the ever-present Texas spirit those from the state are adamant is different from just about anywhere else.
Her lone item of decor is her lone star flag, which she hangs in her dorm room. She says y’all; even in tweets.
She’s seen much of what Houston has to offer, its culture and people. It’s home. And for her to be gone as Harvey hit her hometown, she couldn’t shake it.
“I’ve been feeling really helpless a lot of the time, I’ve been seeing texts and Facebook,” Powell said. “I actually tried to stay off of Facebook the day that it hit and the day after just because every single thing was friends and family posting pictures of water pouring into their house or pictures of boats, Snapchat especially.”
The storm shut down airports, flooded the roads into becoming rivers and poured into homes leaving still untold damage in its wake. Powell’s parents were stuck in East Lansing, holed up in the Kellogg Center as flights to Houston were shut down.
“Our area was in a suggested evacuation and our neighbors tried to leave but they couldn’t because the roads were impassable but our neighbors house is dry,” Powell said. “The water came up really close but their house is dry so we’re hoping ours is dry as well but the roads around it, even if they could have gotten a flight back they wouldn't have been able to physically get back to the house.”
Many in Houston share similar predicaments, having to battle the elements which encompassed their homes. It became an uncharted battle, many seeing the landscape and the cityscape drastically altered.
The destruction has become nearly unfathomable, as many have found a lack of words sufficient enough to describe the damage. For Powell, pictures shared through social media and friends are what made it feel all too real.
“Someone graffitied 'Be Someone' on one of the bridges really high up,” Powell said. “To see pictures with the water so close to that and understand the depths and know what was really happening that was, that was hard.”
Powell said a friend sent a picture of her house, completely destroyed. She wants to help, clean up, yearning to go back and do what she can. But with school and short holiday breaks, it’s nearly impossible to go home.
“A lot of us were hoping to go back Thanksgiving, reconvene, get together and just be back and I’m not going to,” Powell said. “I probably won’t be back to Houston until December, and I expect that there will still be people cleaning up.”
There’s something to be said about the spirit of Texas and it’s palpable with Powell. She talked about it a lot, relaying stories of friends, family and acquaintances, venturing out to help those less fortunate.
The brother high school of her all girls school had freshman and sophomores venture out on kayaks. Her former school nurse, a nun, volunteered to help the next day. Her favorite teacher’s house flooded and there people there the next day ripping out things and replacing them.
“These are people that maybe have some damage in their house but it’s minor and they're not even focusing on that,” Powell said. “They’re going out and helping other people. And that, that’s the spirit of Houston.”
Spirit of Houston
By David Astrein’s count, more than 2,000 MSU alumni reside in Houston. And judging by his rehashing of the days leading up to and during the storm, not one expected what Harvey brought.
“It was pretty crazy being here during the storm thought I mean, I’ve never seen rain that heavy for that long of a period of time,” Astrein said. “I mean it was just pretty hard to comprehend.”
Astrein is the Vice President of the Houston Spartans, the group of MSU alumni residing in Houston.
His property was largely unaffected save for a few roof leaks and fixable damage from the rains. Flood waters however did surround his neighborhood, coming within a few blocks of his house for the span of two to three days.
But not all the alumni were as fortunate. The Houston Spartans Facebook page, as the storm grew, saw posts asking for help for those affected and their friends.
“We really thought it's on us and on our group to help people that were affected,” Astrein said. “What we’re trying to do now is gather the Spartans that we have in the area. We’re setting up donation drives for canned food, water, toiletries, clothes.”
A friend of his lost nearly his whole house except for a couple mounted TVs, which weren't touched by the nearly four feet of water much of the neighborhood saw.
“It’s just kind of surreal when you go out there and you see the damage that some of these places actually took,” Astrein said.
Astrein and President Misty Staunton, largely unaffected by the storm knew they needed to help in anyway they could. And so they did.
“I think right away we knew this was going to be a flooding event,” Astrein said. "Hey, we’re looking to help others, but I don’t think any of us knew the size or the impact it would have until we were in the middle of it.”
Astrein said members of the alumni Facebook group offered places to stay for those flooded out of their houses and tried to find people able to help with cleanup efforts.
Much of the efforts are focused on donations for fellow Spartans. The Facebook page recently thanked many for donating during the recent game watch party.
Efforts continue in Houston as the days turn to recovery. Nearly two weeks after Harvey made landfall, Spartans continue trudge on. Helping each other, as they always have.