In the Wake of Harvey: Behind the Scenes With J.J. Watt and the Texans During an Unforgettable Week
J.J. Watt behind the scenes helping Harvey victims
HOUSTON — On Sunday morning, Aug. 27, with Hurricane Harvey bearing down on the Texas coastline, and his football team stranded in Dallas after their Saturday night preseason game against New Orleans, J.J. Watt plugged his email address into YouCaring.com, wrote a short description for a relief fund and sent the link over to the Texans’ head of media relations.
“I think I’ll just start this campaign and then others hopefully join in on it,” Watt texted Amy Palcic with a link to the campaign. “This is going to be the page.”
Safe to say, others joined in.
Nine days later, the relief fund for the greater Houston area has blown past the original goal of $200,000, of which Watt contributed the original $100,000, and as of Tuesday morning was approaching $20 million. Teammates pitched in. Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul pushed the fund over half a million dollars. Drake contributed $200,000. Ellen DeGeneres pledged $1 million. During the initial push that Sunday night, the rapid contributions overwhelmed You Caring’s bandwidth and crashed the site. Texans media relations staffers sat in a meeting room in a Plano hotel and scrambled to get hold of the site’s CEO. ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell provided five possible phone numbers for Dan Saper in San Francisco. One of them worked. Saper woke up and roused engineers to fix the problem, “and he’s been unbelievable ever since,” Watt says.
Six days later in Houston, Watt met Texans employees and volunteers at Lightning Logistics to plan a relief supply drop the next day at four locations across the city, an effort independent of his fundraising. Standing in a packed conference room at 6:30 p.m., Watt laid out the specifics of the plan: There would be food, water and sports drinks, and general supplies like kitchenware and candles. He preferred a drive-through arrangement, with Texans players and volunteers loading up cars as they came by. These aren’t the details you’d expect to see All-Pro defensive ends poring over a week before the start of the season.
“And let’s make sure we cut off the lines once we start running out of supplies,” Watt told the room, “just being as proactive as we can so we don’t have angry people waiting for two hours and getting nothing.”
Watt, returning this season from September 2016 back surgery, typically keeps a strict sleep schedule during the season, going to bed at 7:30 p.m. each night and occasionally making use of a bed in an equipment room for naps during breaks in the schedule of meetings and practices. Not this week, with the city reeling from historic flooding and the season opener against Jacksonville days away.
“It hasn’t happened lately,” Watt says of his 7:30 bedtime. “It’s more like 11:30 or midnight. You try to lay your head down, and a million thoughts go through your head. You’re just trying to make sure that you’re doing things right. I mean, that’s the biggest thing, is to do it right.”
This is the story of the Texans and the storm. Team employees and their families are but a small fraction of those affected by Harvey, and they were hardly the hardest hit. More than 40 people died in the floods that began after Harvey made landfall in Corpus Christi on the night of Friday, Aug. 26, and continue in parts of Houston as the contents of bayous are intentionally released so as not to overwhelm the system of levees built for the city’s flood-control plan.
Some Texans employees watched from a distance, like many Americans, and wondered what they could do to help. And a portion of them dove in head-first through gestures large and small, with ambitions that seemed modest and sometimes proved spectacular.
“You see disasters all the time, and you think, that’s so terrible—I can’t imagine what that’s like,” Watt says. “But then you’re watching on TV and everything is underwater, and you see the name of the street that you drive to and from work, and you’re like, this is real.”
The biggest misnomer when it comes to flooding is the liberal use of the word “water.” The stuff that filled homes and businesses and factories in Houston is water in the sense that Chicken McNuggets are chicken. It’s muck, stirred up from sewers and bayous and creeks. Some of it is colored fire-red by the central Texas dirt coursing through the Brazos River into the Gulf. And some of it is tea brown, tinted by the coastal silt. It’s the mountain of detritus we live on top of, stirred in a blender and poured into your living room. When it soaks into carpeting, breaks down wood glue, soaks walls and stirs with late-August Gulf Coast humidity, it creates a mildewy odor that seeps into the hair on your arms and doesn’t go away after the first shower.
“It’s funky,” says Texans rookie defensive back Treston Decoud. “It smells like a sewer, because all kinds of stuff get in that water.”
Decoud was stranded in Dallas along with the team after it redirected from New Orleans and rescheduled its home preseason game for Thursday in Arlington, the Cowboys’ stadium. The 22nd-floor Houston apartment where his girlfriend spent the storm never saw the flood, and neither did Decoud, but he knows how it smelled. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina took the home he was living in with his father and most of his possessions. He was 11, and embarked on a nomadic existence living in some of Louisiana’s poorest communities while his mother fought breast cancer.
Before Katrina, when he was living with his father near Bayou Liberty across the bridge from New Orleans, Decoud remembers even light rain creating flooding that seeped under the front door. The family would press towels to the gap and replace them when they were fully soaked and could hold no more. Then the storm hit. They packed up in a hurry, and Decoud headed for his grandfather’s home in Baton Rouge.
“I still think about Katrina, little things that remind you of what it was like before,” Decoud says. “I used to sit on the edge of the bed and play Madden. And then my dad would come in and tell me to go to sleep and I’d have to turn the game off and get in bed, and when he’d leave, I’d turn the game back on and play all night. I used to love that.”
Decoud’s Madden team was the Dallas Cowboys, because everyone in his neighborhood was a Saints fan and he wanted to be different. After a childhood spent creating himself in the game manually, he bought a copy of Madden 18 this summer and found himself on the Texans roster, with blonde-tipped dreadlocks, true to the real thing. He was about to fulfill another childhood dream by playing at Cowboys Stadium, but the Texans found a clear path home and took it, the game canceled so that players could reunite with their families.
RELATED VIDEO: J.J. Watt Continues To Surpass Hurricane Harvey Relief Goal — Over $13 Million & Counting
Decoud welcomed the news. His girlfriend had been trying to decide, before the storm hit, whether to stay at her own townhouse or at Decoud’s apartment. Despite the concern that a nearby construction crane might blow over and hit the high-rise, Decoud asked her to stay at his place.
“I know how powerful that wind could be, so that was a fear,” Decoud says. “But you just can’t control water. Once it’s in your house it’s in, and it’s deadly. That’s a powerful force.”
The Texans are an important part of a human countersurge against the deadly tide of Harvey, a tropical cyclone that is estimated to have cost more than $100 billion in property damage across the region, making it the second-most expensive tropical storm in U.S. history behind Katrina. The NFL team is fighting back through Watt’s efforts, the $1 million contributed by Texans owner Bob McNair, other donations from players and staff, and numerous acts of heroism and kindness in the harried first hours of the storm, acts that continue today as the team prepares to bring football back to the city this weekend.
On Sunday morning, Aug. 27, Texans assistant trainer Luke Klawiter was watching floodwaters run down Bellfort Street from his second-floor apartment southeast of downtown. The Sims Bayou had been among the first to overflow in Houston, and abandoned cars dotted the road for miles. A passerby in a boat told onlookers in the apartment complex that he’d seen an alligator in the muddy water.
Then, from his balcony, Klawiter watched as a recent-model Chevy Silverado attempted to ford the surge. With two elderly people inside, the truck lost traction and drifted over the median, then zigged and came to a stop against a fence across the street from Klawiter’s apartment complex.
The elderly man called out, “I need help! My wife’s blind and I’m on oxygen!”
Klawiter went to his room and grabbed a pair of swimming trucks. He was hosting the family living below him, whose apartment had taken on two feet of water and lost electricity. They asked him if he was sure he wanted to do this. He paused and thought about it for a moment.
“I’m saying, I don’t know if I should do this,” Klawiter says. “I know I’m a good swimmer, and if stuff goes wrong—my background and my athletic training degree, I’m first-aid certified. So I know if they need help, I don’t think there’s a person around here that’s more capable than me.”
So Klawiter descended the stairway of his building into waist-high water and climbed a six-foot spiked fence while one of his neighbors threw over an inflated air mattress. He swam across the street in chest-high water and assessed the situation. He guessed the couple was in their 70s. The man carried an oxygen tank for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). He chose the woman first, lifting her out of the car and onto the mattress, then floated her 30 yards to an opening in the fence, where neighbors waited to bring her into their apartment and give her dry clothes. Then Klawiter took the mattress and returned to retrieve the man. The whole process took about 40 minutes, he says.
“I held the truth from my mom until everything was done,” says Klawiter, a Michigan State graduate who is the first year of a two-year internship with the Texans. “I knew the reaction she was going to have. I said, Mom, I know you’re going to be mad at this, but this is what I did. She said, I’m not mad. If you’d told me before I’d have been mad.”
Klawiter lost his car in the flooding when it filled with water three feet high, but he feels he gained something from the experience. “You know, this was a terrible thing, a disaster,” Klawiter says, “but in a way I feel like it brought a lot of people closer together. I didn’t know any of my neighbors before this. Now I know all of them.”
Across the city, numerous members of the extended Texans family dealt with the question that faced that couple in the Silverado and hundreds of thousands of Houstonians: Stay or go?
As floodwaters filled streets and front yards, citizens across the coast grappled with the choice between riding out the storm and being evacuated by people in boats and helicopters to unknown destinations. More than a dozen high school boys holed up in defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel’s home with his wife, Jen. Theirs was one of the few on his block to avoid flooding. The boys ate the Vrabels out of house and home. Long snapper Jon Weeks, 31, stayed in near-constant communication with his wife, Amanda, who on July 6 gave birth to their first child, a daughter. Jon was able to spend two weeks with her before reporting to training camp in West Virginia, then a few more days when the team returned to Houston before heading to New Orleans. Then the storm arrived, and news anchors reported breathlessly from boats zipping down city streets.
“When the news is reporting on this, you’re seeing so much of the horrible stuff, the water up above stop signs, the houses underwater, and your mind starts to run wild,” Weeks said. “The water thought about getting into our house, but it stopped short. I was losing my mind. My wife is as tough as they come, and at the end of the day she kept me calm.”
If there’s a Texan who most identifies with the city of Houston, it’s punter Shane Lechler. The 41-year-old seven-time Pro Bowler grew up in East Bernard, Texas, an hour west, played college ball at Texas A&M and owns two homes in the area. He’s also a dead ringer for his brother, Derek Lechler, who also punted at A&M.
The pair began kicking as grade-schoolers attending varsity football practices when their father was a varsity head coach. They’d spend the first couple hours of August two-a-days tossing the football back and forth, then get bored and start kicking it to one another. In middle school they secretly experimented with soccer-style placekicking in the backyard, using the inner sole of the foot rather than the toes to strike the ball.
“There was a spot in the yard where the washing machine drained out and the grass grew tall and you could stand a football in it,” Derek says. “My dad told us, do not kick soccer-style. He was old school. My brother was the varsity kicker as a freshman when I was in sixth grade. Opening kickoff of the first game, he smokes it. And that was it.”
Derek’s career ended with a knee injury in 2000, the year the Raiders drafted Shane. The two were reunited geographically when the Texans signed Shane in 2013. Five years earlier Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast, filling Derek’s house in the Galveston Bay town of Kemah with six feet of water. He started a construction and realty company to service communities working to rebuild.
As Harvey’s floodwaters took hold of the region last Sunday, he says he woke up to a dry house and a community in need. Now living in Baytown, he called a friend, Jason Brumley, and loaded up his 16-foot Carolina Skiff with bottles of water and a roll of trash bags. In pouring rain, Derek figured the trash bags could serve as improvised waterproof jackets for evacuees. When he called Shane in Dallas to tell him what he was about to do, Derek could hear the pain in his brother’s voice.
“I just feel worthless,” Shane told Derek.
Derek was among the earliest responders in the communities affected by the Cedar Bayou, where tea-colored water filled the streets. He put the word out on Facebook that he was making house calls, but as requests piled up, water began collecting beneath the display in his phone, and he was forced to pocket it.
He rescued a man needing dialysis who hadn’t been treated in three days. There were rows and rows of modest single-story homes with families standing on their front porches in two feet of water, each waving down passing boats. Help came quickly; at one point, police stopped admitting boats into neighborhoods that became oversaturated with rescuers.
About 2 p.m. Sunday, Derek realized he’d forgotten to eat breakfast. A friend manning another boat passed by while enjoying a protein bar.
“This was the coolest thing. He’d eaten half of it, he looked at it and just pitched it to us,” Derek says. “I broke it in half and my buddy ate his half and I ate mine, and that was our meal for the day.”
In Hankamer, Texas, Lechler and Brumley found a home being used as a dog shelter. The owners were trying to evacuate more than 100 dogs in cages, each panicking as water flooded the home. Derek estimates they rescued about 70 animals, leaving other boats to finish the task.
“You want to talk about a bad smell,” Derek says. “Pheeewww.”
Police weren’t letting vehicles into the neighborhoods along the highway, but they made an exception for monster trucks and lifted pickups.
“I guess they put out an APB for every redneck in the county with a monster truck, let me tell you,” Derek says. “And one showed up with a cattle trailer hitched behind it. And I helped offload a guy who’d just had his foot amputated. He had his leg wrapped up in a bag.”
When it was all said and done, Derek estimates about 50 people rode his skiff to dry land. Once the water receded, he and friends went to the homes of more acquaintances and ripped out ruined carpet and insulation to hasten the drying process and prevent the spread of toxic mold.
As he recounted the story at the end of a hellacious week, Derek apologized for the stench of “wet asses” that filled his pickup. He wore a dusty ballcap and jeans, and peered through a spiderweb of cracked glass windshield. He worried about those who weren’t as fortunate as him and his brother. He talked about deciding when to offer his services for free in the future, and when he ought to charge.
When hurricanes have landed in years past, they’ve devastated small communities to the extent that residents don’t come back, and no one is left to rebuild. “I would guess 80 percent of the people who got flooded don’t have flood insurance. I’m going out on a limb, but I’m betting our foreclosure rate is fixing to go through the roof.”
Shane Lechler keeps a second home in Rockport, Texas, a community that could be without power for six months after the eye of the hurricane passed through it with devastating effect. Many families who leave as evacuees will undoubtedly put down roots elsewhere. Shane got back on Wednesday to a pair of dry houses, so he and his wife took their 12- and 9-year old daughters to help clean up the devastated suburb of Katy.
“You want to help, but you don’t know which direction to go, when so much of the area is suffering,” Shane says. “Because of the way we live as a family, I think it was important for my girls to go through that, to be able to help someone who has lost everything, to know that things can be taken from you in a heartbeat.”
Before they passed out supplies last weekend, before many of them contributed to Watt’s relief fund, and before they visited evacuees last week, Texans players took care of one another. Kareem Jackson’s wife and 20-month-old daughter were marooned in their home in Sienna Plantation by four feet of water that filled the streets, though not their home. They rejected an official order to evacuate.
When the team buses arrived at NRG Stadium Wednesday afternoon, Jackson asked teammate Alfred Blue if he’d give him a ride in Blue’s lifted truck to Sienna Plantation. What originated as a vanity purchase for Blue suddenly became a valuable tool in a crisis.
“We had about three to four feet of water in our neighborhood,” Jackson says. “My family stayed in the house because they felt a little more comfortable being there rather than evacuate and not know where they were going.”
When they arrived at the mouth of the community, police told them it wasn’t passable by car. Jackson insisted they could make it, and an officer offered to ride into the waters with them to supervise.
Says Blue: “As we’re going, I’m like, K-Jack, I don’t know if we’re gonna make it, and he just kept saying I gotta go home man! I gotta get back to my family! Luckily we made it.”
In the Bellaire neighborhood of Houston, near the team facility, flooding ravaged block after block of homes, including the single-story two-bedroom house linebacker Brian Peters rented for this season. On Thursday afternoon Peters joined hundreds of his neighbors in dumping stacks of ruined furniture at the edge of the front yard. His landlord, Scott Williams, 52, came to Peters’ house during the storm to salvage his soaked clothes and put furniture on cinderblocks—the house had flooded twice before in the previous 20 years while Williams and his family were living in it, but never more than six inches.
When Peters returned, dresser drawers three feet high were full of water.
At 1 p.m. Thursday, the cavalry arrived. Tight end Ryan Griffin, offensive lineman Greg Mancz and linebackers Eric Lee and Shakeel Reshad joined Peters in moving couches and ripping apart bed frames destined for the ubiquitous trash heaps. As his teammates clutched a dripping mattress and cajoled it outside, Griffin quipped, “If I’d known the house would end up like this I would’ve partied way harder in it.”
Peters surveyed his neighborhood, taking stock of the books and picture frames and antique furniture being discarded by his neighbors, deciding his predicament wasn’t a tale worth telling.
“This isn’t a story,” he told a reporter. “You probably shouldn’t be here. There are hundreds of thousands way more affected than me.”
That night, players got a taste of the real stories of Hurricane Harvey—the people who lost everything and spent their days and nights in shelters across Houston.
In a visit to the NRG Center, a convention space turned shelter across the street from the team’s headquarters, players met with evacuees, spreading some much-needed cheer to those who’d been displaced by the storm. The shelter was providing the evacuees’ basic needs, and now they were getting hugs and smiles—and autographs on donated t-shirts—from 55 Texans players. Undrafted free agent cornerback Bryce Jones tossed a mini-football with a couple of kids as they bounced on cots. “It shows me how blessed I am to be where I am and to be able to come out here and see the joy that we as a team brought them,” the Ohio native said. “It’s unmatched. It’s a blessing.”
Coach Bill O’Brien marveled at the scene. “There are guys here who probably won’t make the team,” O’Brien said, surveying the group, “but they’re here, sharing their time with these people and putting smiles on their faces.”
Sure enough, Jones didn’t make the final 53, though the Texans did retain him on the practice squad. Neither Lee nor Reshad, the linebackers who joined Peters that morning in his ruined home, made the team. Cut day was a sobering reminder for many on the roster that the season didn’t pause just because Houston was underwater.
“There are things bigger than football right now,” O’Brien said on Thursday night. “At the same time, 31 other teams won’t have a lot of sympathy for us. I think it’s important for us to do what we can this weekend, and then once Monday rolls around we’re focused on Jacksonville, and then when we have time off, to continue to help the city.”
Watt, the 6’5″ former Wisconsin walk-on who’ll have a highway named after him if 80,000 petitioners get their way, says he’s still working out on schedule and sweating the small stuff on the football field, all while his mind races around the possibilities for his charitable efforts.
“I think that having a [charitable] foundation has helped me now, in learning how to compartmentalize my time,” Watt says. “So I know I have a game on Sunday. I need to be ready for that game. I have to work out. As soon as I’m done I get back on my phone, I drink my shake after my workout, and I’m texting and calling people, making sure things get done.”
His breakneck pace paid off on Sunday, when most of the team gathered at NRG Stadium, then split up to four locations around the city to distribute supplies. Watt managed logistics, fielded donations from companies across the country, prepped teammates and their families and even helped pack the trucks.
He plans to hammer out some big-picture details for the fund this week with the hope that he can relax his mind and zone in on what would have been the undisputed No. 1 priority if not for the storm that brought a city to it’s knees: beating the pants off the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“It’s gonna be awesome,” Watt says of Sunday’s 1 p.m. ET opener at NRG. “I’ve said the whole time, this is so much bigger than football. But if we go out there and take peoples’ minds off of what just happened for three hours and give them one hell of a show to smile about, then I’ll be a pretty happy guy.”
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This article originally appeared on Si.com