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OU alumni rise to help Houston residents as water recedes from Hurricane Harvey

Correction appended.

Courtney Keen Vastine restlessly paced back and forth in her home in southwest Houston on the eve of Aug. 24. The TV channels were filled with news about the oncoming hurricane. 

Harvey, which is considered to be the most cataclysmic hurricane to hit Texas and surrounding regions in more than 55 years, touched shores on Aug. 25. The disaster claimed the lives of an estimated 50 people and uprooted more than a million people from their homes in a matter of a few days. The calamity finally died down last Tuesday.

As the City of Houston started flooding, residents were left to make the crucial decision of evacuating their homes or riding out the storm. Vastine, a 2012 Ohio University alumna who studied social work, said government officials initially classified Harvey as a Category 1 storm, but within a span of 12 hours, it escalated into a Category 4 hurricane. 

“We weren’t told to evacuate by any state or city official,” Vastine, an oncology social worker at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said. “We just thought, ‘let’s just ride it out.’ ”


OU alumni with other Houston residents helping rebuild the city after Hurricane Harvey. (provided by Mike Morgan)

Mike Morgan, a 1996 OU alumnus who studied recreation management, said even though the residents weren’t asked to evacuate, many of them started seeking refuge as early as Aug. 26. Morgan said he went north to Cinco Ranch where one of his friends invited him to take shelter.

As with the rest of the population of Houston that could not leave home, Vastine said she and her husband prepared for Harvey by stocking up on basic food items. The pursuit of surviving the next few days began with a few loaves of bread, milk, bottled water, some pasta and multiple sandbags. 

Vastine said the sandbags were used to prevent water from seeping into the house from the gap on the bottom of the front and the back door. Additionally, the couple used cushions and other materials found around the house to build another layer of obstruction.

“The water actually did not come into our house and that was our main fear, but we were first and foremost worried about our son,” Vastine said. “I had my 1-year-old son here. We were trying to stay positive for him. We were trying not to stress him out.” 


Amy Stafford's neighborhood was hit with high waters during Hurricane Harvey. (provided by Amy Stafford)

Amy Stafford, a 2012 OU alumna who studied marketing and international business, said a feeling of helplessness climbed into the crook of her chest and nestled itself as she left Houston for her fiance’s parents’ house to avoid the calamity. The reflection of her recently purchased house in the rear-view mirror of her Jeep haunted her of a possibility of a future without a home. 

“We just weren’t sure what was going on then or what we might come back to,” Stafford, who is the president of the OU Houston chapter, said. “The thought was devastating because we put so much work and thought into our home and to basically start from scratch. I was upset.” 

On Wednesday, as the sun splashed over the sky and made its presence known, so did the grey concrete of the freeways, which until then were drowning underwater. Open freeways were a sign that the calamity was dying down, Morgan said.

In the aftermath, Morgan, a parking manager at Rice University, said people filled the streets with donation boxes and started helping those whose houses were engulfed by Harvey. 

Morgan said he was lucky the water did not enter his house and damage any of his belongings, but some of the neighborhood houses were rotting away. A lot of the residents started helping those in need by “tearing out their dry walls, wood floors (and) carpets” from the damaged houses, Morgan said.

Vastine explained that the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, which was transformed into a shelter during the storm, was overflowing with volunteers starting Aug. 29. Some of the volunteer queues from the center extended for four blocks. 

“Houston people are filled with love. It’s a resilient city,” Vastine said. “(The citizens) really want to get back and help.”

Stafford said difficult times strengthen the bonds among people and the Houston chapter has grown closer after the disaster. There has been a constant exchange of location and of well wishes among the alumni of the OU Houston chapter during and after the deluge.

The OU Alumni Association reached out to alumni in the flood-affected regions, Ryan Boyd, assistant director for External Relations at the association said. They have also contacted the alumni association at the University of Houston and have plans to donate clothes, blankets and other essential items to aid the school. 

The annual barbecue event held by the Houston chapter will be free of cost to the attendees this year because of Harvey, Boyd said. The event is scheduled to be hosted by Stafford at her home on Sept. 23, Boyd added. It will be paid for by the OU Alumni association. 

“It’s just this outpour of love, well wishes, prayers and help that you get to see,” Vastine said. “It kind of reaffirms that you’re not alone, people are here and they are willing to help.”


Correction: A previous version of this report misstated Courtney Keen Vastine's marital status. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.

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