Neighbors cheered when the San Antonio Solid Waste Management Department trucks rolled into the Kingwood area on Sept. 4.
Kingwood had 3,000 homes damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Harvey at the end of August and mounds of debris was piled in front of those homes.
Houston City Council Member Dave Martin reached out to the City of San Antonio for help and at the end of the Sept. 1 workday, supervisors from the City of San Antonio Solid Waste Department informed employees of their decision to help Houston. They asked for volunteers and soon had a long line of employees waiting to sign up and help, even though they knew they would likely be away from family for several weeks.
Sunday night, the convoy of 30 big 18-wheeler dumpster trucks, 15 grapplers and many Ford F250 inspection trucks—about 60 trucks in total – rolled into Kingwood. Kingwood residents were definitely ready to see the San Antonio crew. The weekend before their arrival, neighbors set up one way traffic flows through neighborhoods and knocked on doors to recruit traffic volunteers and clear streets of extra cars to make way for truck access.
Additional San Antonio crew arrived in the days and weeks after. Their colleagues had been sending pictures back, and the debris was bad, but when they arrived, it was so much worse than they ever could have imagined.
Supervisor Salvador Ytuarte said, “We normally pick up stuff that people want to throw away. Here, people didn’t have the choice. It was hard for us to see personal items like family photos in the debris piles. It really hit us in the heart. People would cry when they saw us, saying that their trash had been in front of their house for two or three weeks. They had a hard time moving forward while it was piled up there.”
In the first four days, they had completed more than 200 loads of nearly 2,500 tons of debris from neighborhoods of Fosters Mill, Kings Point and Royal Shores. It was slow work. Debris from one home could easily fill a truck bed, and the long drive to the trash dump was equally arduous. The team also had frustrating setbacks of inaccessible neighborhoods and mobility challenges on car-littered streets. It took weeks to clear debris from devastated neighborhoods like The Enclave and Kingwood Greens where hundreds of homes were damaged.
Through the long, hot and humid 15 to 18 hour days, the San Antonio crew was surprised at the extra warm welcome they got.
“People brought my guys cookies, sack lunches and even hot lunches,” Ytuarte said.
For many residents, these men and women became a staple of the community, and it was sad to hear the news that they’d be leaving on Oct. 2.
That is when Kingwood residents Leslie Raffa had a wonderful idea. She happened to see a social media post by Stephanie Presas Diaz, wife of San Antonio sanitation supervisor R. Diaz III.
“This wonderful woman was thanking all of us for taking care of their guys. She actually thanked US for letting them come to help and was so appreciative about how kind Kingwood had been. My dad was in the military so I know what it’s like to be away from family. I thought Mrs. Diaz was amazing, but we should be thanking THEM. That’s when I knew I needed to do something to show our Kingwood appreciation,” Raffa said.
Like many who had seen a few trucks in their neighborhoods, Raffa had no idea how many from San Antonio were actually here. She made the daily trek from her home to her flooded Kingwood restaurant, Raffa’s Waterfront Grill, and barely drove anywhere else. “I thought there were maybe six trucks here, so I planned a small dinner for about 10 people.”
She soon learned that there were 75 San Antonians working in Kingwood, so Leslie and husband, Tony, geared up for a restaurant-scale gathering. Overwhelmed with her own flood situation, Raffa asked for help from neighbors one night on social media. When she woke the next morning, everything was taken care of. One neighbor was bringing beer; another was bringing garlic bread. They covered everything: chairs, baked goods, and even music. Raffa says she is embarrassed that people are giving her all the credit.
“I just had the idea, and in two days, Kingwood had this party DONE. It was amazing.”
Raffa says what was even more amazing was that they had to move the dinner later because the San Antonio crew heard about one more debris load they could help with. They waited until their entire crew could eat together, and they said a prayer before dinner. Then, they helped break down the tents and chairs that had been set up. “They are truly an amazing group of men,” Raffa said.
Martin echoed the community’s thanks. “The guys from San Antonio were just great. They met every morning at 6 a.m. to go through maps and plan the day. They were a well-oiled machine. They didn’t know Kingwood at all when they first got here but we used block walking maps and in a few days, they had it all figured out. They were staying downtown and yet were out here every day at 6 a.m. and worked until dark.They estimate they picked up 10,000 tons of debris. Hats off to them and to the City of San Antonio.”
Willow Creek and Oak Forest Elementary students wrote letters and drew pictures thanking San Antonio. One employee framed it and hung it in his office.
Community throws goodbye party with thanks
Albert Barrera became known as “the selfie guy” around Kingwood. He took selfies with everyone he met to create a photo scrapbook of his time in Kingwood.
“Before we leave we wanted to remind you all what a pleasure it was working for such a compassionate community. It’s going to be hard driving off after developing such a good relationship with you all and knowing that help is still needed. We will keep you and the rest affected by the hurricane in prayers. We will miss you guys. God bless,” Barrera said.
The trucks rolled out of Kingwood that Monday morning as planned, with an HPD police escort truly befitting of our San Antonio heroes. Many residents were in tears as the trucks rolled out of town.
Comments on social media were “Thank you guys for your sacrifice. You are a credit to the goodness of your community” and “I have tears of thankfulness and humility and appreciation. Even those of us that did not flood will have our lives forever changed by the events of the past month.”
As he left Kingwood to return to San Antonio, Ytuarte said, “The best part of all of this was everyone working together. If I could choose one word to describe Kingwood, it would definitely be ‘caring’. We will miss you.”
Cutline: Our San Antonio heroes rolled out of Kingwood on October 2.