Lessons From Harvey: The Art of Action

As the new year offers fresh beginnings, artist and instructor Laura Spector looks back at 2017 and her unexpected role in rescue operations during Hurricane Harvey.

Jan 09 , 2018

The Texas Army National Guard assists with citizen rescues during Hurricane Harvey. Wiki CommonsHurricane Harvey forever shaped 2017 and how our city and region will always remember it. Woven throughout feelings of fear, loss and sadness are examples of selflessness and love that showcase humanity at its absolute best. Among the many striking stories that our friends and colleagues experienced, few have been more riveting than those of Houston artist and Glasscock School instructor Laura Spector. She graciously agreed to share her first-hand account of assisting with rescue operations for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Laura, it sounds like you were in the Dallas area when Harvey became a full-blown threat?

Yes, two days before Harvey hit Houston, my husband and I decided to leave the city to stay with friends in Arlington. I was in New York City during 9/11 and also in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami, and my instincts were telling me to get out of the city.

On the night we left Houston, it was a 40-minute wait to get gas and yet no traffic on the roads out of the city. It was an easy drive north, and everything looked peaceful, making us wonder if we were leaving prematurely. Some friends thought we were being “jumpy” to leave so soon. But after we reached Arlington, Harvey struck much harder than anyone could have predicted.

Working with the Zello App during Hurricane Harvey.Working with the Zello app during Hurricane Harvey. (Laura Spector)

The Cajun Navy received extensive media coverage during Hurricane Harvey, and it sounds like you assisted their operations. How did you find yourself in such an unexpected role, all the way from Arlington?

During the hurricane, I was trying to keep up with news and friends on Facebook, and I read that the Cajun Navy was using Zello – a walkie-talkie app—to rescue people during the storm. I had no idea what the Cajun Navy was, but I was onboard to help anyone who was rescuing people.

A friend-of-a-friend put out a plea on Facebook that she and her elderly father needed to be rescued. I used Zello and felt a little foolish, wondering if anyone would even hear me. Almost immediately, a woman's voice responded and asked for details about the people needing help. Once I passed on their situation and location, my friend and her father were rescued within 30 minutes. After that I was glued to Facebook and Zello, trying to assist wherever I could.

You must have wondered when or if you'd be able to return to Houston. How did you cope with that, in the midst of assisting with long-distance rescues?

That was a very real concern. It seemed like Houston was completely devastated, and many of my students live in the areas that were hardest hit. I contacted Diana Pollak, the executive director for the Creative Arts Center of Dallas, because I hoped to find a class to teach. At that point, I honestly didn't know if I'd have work to return to in Houston.

Diana was incredibly helpful, and we worked together to organize art instructors for the evacuees who were going to be coming up from Houston to the convention center in Dallas. I worked with the Dallas mayor's office and spoke with dozens of artists and art educators as we developed an action plan for adult and child classes.  Local businesses and artists were amazingly generous in donating supplies. Every person I met kept asking, "What can I do?" Everyone wanted to help Houston.

And through all of this, you were still assisting with flood rescue operations?

Yes, because at that point, Harvey had moved over eastern Texas. The night the storm struck Port Arthur was the absolute worst point of the event for me. People were desperate, and people were dying. So many emergencies were being reported that Facebook began having glitches and skips from the volume of messages.

One post will stay with me forever. It was a photo of a penciled note on a wet piece of paper, giving the names and address of the people needing help. At the end it said, "My phone battery is almost dead. We're on the roof surrounded by water. I'm turning off my phone after I send this photo."

That night, I relayed information to the dispatchers until almost morning. I also cried more than once because it seemed like we just couldn't help enough people. Luckily, when I was too tired to keep going, friends in Thailand took over for me while I rested and then returned to my shift. Everyone around the world felt connected to Houston – the Internet is a remarkable tool!

Massive truck, used to deliver +600,000 bottles of water and conduct rescues in Florida during Hurricane Irma.Massive truck, used to deliver +600,000 bottles of water and conduct rescues in Florida during Hurricane Irma. (Laura Spector)

How did the evacuee efforts in Dallas take shape, and what were your thoughts as you watched the story unfold in Houston?

In just a matter of days, the convention center in Dallas was set up in a beautifully tented parking lot, but it took more time to coordinate with the mayor's office and help the evacuees. While I wasn't able to directly see the results, I continued to work with artists to help them get what they needed to create classes.

My experience in Dallas, Ft. Worth and Arlington is unforgettable because everyone wanted to help. Being in the midst of that kind of generosity only made me want to do more because helping people is contagious and wonderful. It wasn't a new concept, but I've never been part of such a mass emergency effort where there was so much to do.

I also watched from afar with mixed feelings of gratitude and sadness as fellow Houstonians put on rubber boots and gloves to begin the process of helping their neighbors tear down walls, throw away precious objects, photos, and pile memories of lifetimes on sidewalks to be collected by trash trucks. But as devastating as it was, no one was alone. It was beautiful to see everyone reaching out to help. I witnessed humanity at its very best.

What was it like to return to Houston in the aftermath of Harvey?  How did it affect the classes you planned to teach, and the art you planned to exhibit?

When I got back to Houston, I was supposed to have an exhibition at Houston City Hall. However, all of the artwork I created over the year couldn't be shown because City Hall was still reading at 98 percent humidity. I'm actually still looking for a venue for my exhibition, but I was so fortunate that emergency grants were available to me. Three foundations in New York City helped because they all want to see my show hung in 2018. As an artist, I cannot express what their support has meant to me.

Did you keep up your contact with the Cajun Navy after you left Arlington?

Absolutely. As soon as I got back to Houston, they contacted me to see if I could help with emergency efforts for Hurricane Irma, which was starting to brew in Florida. They asked me to work the graveyard shift (11 p.m. to 4 a.m.) to help a small team of volunteers. I didn't hesitate for a moment and signed into a five-year contract with the Cajun Navy.

My team had about a dozen volunteers working dispatch and three people on the ground. My main contact was a man named Irish who owns a massive truck – a military truck that holds other trucks on top of it. We created an information web by watching news and weather reports, mapping open streets and scanning radio feeds. The result of that planning was the delivery of hundreds of thousands of bottles of water into otherwise inaccessible areas of Florida that didn't have water for more than a week after the storm.

Were there any moments during all of this that seemed…well, surreal? And what are the lessons that will stay with you?

During Hurricane Irma, the mayor of Cocoa Beach, Florida, returned my call while I was standing in line at the Montrose Starbucks. We planned an entire staging area for Irish to deliver that massive water shipment that I mentioned, all while I was waiting for a soy latte several states away.

But through all of the feelings of anger, vulnerability and anxiety that Harvey and Irma created, the thing that got me through both experiences was seeing so much love. People you would never expect to speak to each other or work together set aside their differences and really came together. Every single community reached out to help, and it was wonderful to witness love in action – and so rewarding to be even a tiny part of it.

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We thank Laura for sharing her incredible experience with us, and we look forward to welcoming her back for our studio art classes this spring. Happy New Year, friends!

Banner image above: The Texas Army National Guard assists with citizen rescues during Hurricane Harvey. (Wiki Commons)

About Laura Spector

Artist and instructor Laura Spector
Laura Spector is a fellow of the New York Foundation for the Arts. She was an exhibitor at ArtPrize8 at Grand Rapids Art Museum in 2016, FotoFest 2014 and Lawndale Center for the Art’s “Big Show” in 2013. She has studied fine art at both the Flemish Classical Atelier and Virginia Commonwealth University, and she was a resident artist at AtelierHaus Hilmsen in 2016 and a presenter at the Representational Art Conference in 2014. Her artwork with her collaborator, Chadwick Gray, can be seen in exhibitions and collections around the world.