Occasionally, throughout the first eight years they owned their home in Martindale, Texas, Azenet Arellano would drop hints about renovation projects to her husband, Benjamin. But she was in no hurry. She assumed they’d tackle home improvements and updates as they could afford them. Then, the unimaginable happened. In 2015, two devastating floods ripped through Central Texas, dislocating thousands of residents and killing 20 people. In their wake, the floods left the Arellano home a muddy, uninhabitable ruin.
The second flood hit the hardest. After months of cleaning and repairing their home from the first flood, which hit on Memorial Day weekend, the Arellano home was filled with new furniture, clothes and beds for the family of five when the second flood happened on Oct. 30, 2015. The flood damaged the foundation and destroyed the home’s plumbing, electrical and drywall.
It was everything we owned, our whole life savings, but it's still just stuff. We're still here. That's what matters most.
Despite having flood insurance, the Arellanos didn’t have all of the resources they needed to rebuild after the second flood. “People say, ‘why don’t they just get up and go?’” says Azenet. “It’s not so easy. We have a mortgage. We can’t ask for another mortgage.” After back-to-back floods made the home unlivable, they couldn’t exactly put the house on the market and move, either, she says.
Now, with the help of the SBP (formerly St. Bernard Project), a New Orleans-based nonprofit launched in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Arellanos are rebuilding again.
“You have to convince yourself, it’s just stuff,” Azenet says, walking through her home where SBP volunteers are busy installing drywall and wiring electrical sockets. She inhales and exhales slowly, fighting tears. “It was everything we owned, our whole life savings, but it’s still just stuff. We’re still here.”
1 in every 5 families do not have enough flood insurance coverage when they need it most.
In recent years, SBP has set up rebuilding operations in several communities post-natural disaster. They were in Joplin, Missouri, after the tornadoes pummeled the region in 2011, and on the scene after 2012’s Superstorm Sandy devastated Sea Bright, New Jersey. At SBP’s temporary office in downtown San Marcos, Texas, disaster resilience and recovery specialist Autumn Lotze describes the work of getting the Arellanos’ home and hundreds of other flooded houses in the area rebuilt. The national nonprofit has developed into a leader in post-disaster recovery by mobilizing a huge volunteer workforce and providing free resources to help disaster survivors navigate the recovery process, including guides and checklists for avoiding contractor fraud and understanding how to file insurance claims.
“Our number-one mission is to reduce the time between disaster and recovery,” says Lotze. “We’ve cut the amount of time it takes to rebuild a home from 120 days to about 62 days.” It’s a complicated process, she says, fueled by ingenuity (applying Toyota’s Production System to efficient home building) and the hard work of a massive volunteer labor force.
“We keep the pipeline filled with tens of thousands of hard-working and selfless volunteers from all across the country,” says Reese May, SBP’s national director of recovery. Volunteers come from all corners — students, church groups, and businesses such as Farmers Insurance, Toyota and UPS lend employees everywhere SBP operates, says May. “SBP’s model doesn’t work without volunteers. It’s how we achieve construction at a fraction of traditional subcontractor pricing for families who cannot afford market-rate construction.”
SBP’s Disaster Resilience and Recovery Lab is also eyeing disaster preparation — from elevated construction to drainage and diversion. “We spend around $12,000 per home right now, but the cost of elevating a home in this flood zone is $25,000 to $30,000” says Lotze. “We’re studying the problems now and contributing to the conversations the city of San Marcos is having, to see where we can make it work.”
SBP is helping the Arellanos recover with dignity and as little bureaucratic hurdling as possible. “They didn’t ask for this,” says Peveler.
Almost one year to the day after the Memorial Day Weekend flood, SBP had made progress restoring the Arellano home — an old-fashioned, one-story clapboard with two covered porches under the shade of pecan trees. With most of the SBP volunteers done for the day, Azenet heads inside to show off their work. It was drywall day. The rooms look like rooms again. Nail-studded, white walls with so much promise were a stark contrast to the gutted skeleton of studs that stood for months. Construction materials are stacked neatly along the interior walls, power tools lined up and charging.
The RV parked alongside the house is a reminder of how this family has lived for nearly a year — untethered. The volunteer rebuild of their home, funded and organized by SBP, kicked off in March 2016. Dionisia Peveler, a client services coordinator with SBP, has been guiding the Arellanos through the construction process. The physical rebuilding is important, she notes, but she’s focused on the Arellanos recovering with dignity and as little bureaucratic hurdling as possible. “They didn’t ask for this,” Peveler says.
Dignity and hope never in short supply if you rely on faith and reject self-pity, Azenet says. “When there was nothing else we could do [in our own home], my kids and I started volunteering at the donation center.”
Volunteering has provided a secure place where her kids learned how to give back, says Azenet. “They’ve learned humbleness. And we don’t feel so alone. They see everyone is going through the same thing,” she says. Every new donation delivery is an adventure in practical problem solving for the kids, Azenet says. “My kids are like, ‘Hey Mom, Mr. Pete needs this! Hey Mom, Miss Irma’s mom needs this wheelchair!” she says. Watching each of her kids help and cope differently, each showing a particular strength, Azenet has gotten to know them more deeply, she says — not just as her kids, but as individual people.
“When there was nothing else we could do [in our own home], my kids and I started volunteering at the donation center,” Azenet says.
Aimee, the Arellanos’ 15-year-old daughter, arrives from school and greets everyone with a shy smile, then hovers on the edge of the adult conversation, listening alertly. (It’s easy to imagine her, calm in a crisis, telling her mother, “I’ve got this.”) Later, a school bus wheezes to a stop at the end of the block. Eva, the family’s youngest daughter, bounds down the sidewalk, grinning, Aimee trailing behind her. The 8-year-old hurls herself into her mom’s arms for a quick hug, then hops to the front porch of the house. She peeks inside a window. The sight of fresh, pristine drywall thrills her. “Wow!” she whispers with eyes wide and a toothy smile. It’s a rare moment of near silence, says Azenet, for a kid who’s never at a loss for words.
Smiling again, she eyes the house, the volunteers wrapping up for the day, and Peveler, SBP’s client services coordinator, who Azenet calls her “Reconstruction Tia.”
“I know I asked God for a new house, but I wasn’t expecting it like this,” she laughs. “I would tell my husband, before the flood, ‘we’ve got to remodel the house, we’ve got to update it.’”
She laughs out loud. “God updated it all right.”
is a New Orleans-based nonprofit launched in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
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