When Democratic Camden County Freeholder Bill Moen was planning his trip to Houston to catch up with a friend who had relocated there to start a job, the idea was for them and other friends to see a couple of baseball games and maybe take in a few sights.
But Hurricane Harvey altered their plans. Moen, who arrived shortly after the worst of the storm, and his friends ended up spending one of their days together helping a needy family clean out a flood-ravaged home.
While Moen's friend's home was spared, others in the South Houston-Pasadena area of the Texas metro area were not so lucky. Neighborhoods there were among the hardest hit, with many flooded with four feet of water at the height of the storm. The flood ruined houses and left many residents without proper shelter, at least temporarily.
"You see the pictures and the live reports … but you just can't grasp the scope of what is happening there and what those people have ahead of them in terms of recovering from this," said Moen, who returned from the storm zone Monday after four days there. "I knew before I got down there that I wanted to spend some time volunteering to help out with the relief effort. But when I saw the devastation, it was obvious a lot of help was needed."
Moen is a South Jersey director for U.S. Sen. Cory A. Booker (D., N.J.), who has his own record of impromptu acts of service. When he was mayor of Newark, N.J., Booker once carried a woman out of a burning house.
Moen has been working with Hurricane Sandy victims for years to help them recover from the ferocious storm that hit New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012. The freeholder said he was almost too familiar with such tragedy — the abjectness after such a disaster, when thousands of people seem to walk in circles, unsure what to do next because of the enormousness of the task before them.
Among those people was Lina Hernandez, a single mother of three children, whose home was flooded by rainwater and raw sewage that had seeped up into the streets.
After being assigned by a local social service agency to help at Hernandez's home, Moen and three friends arrived to find that the house had to be emptied of Hernandez's possessions. Virtually nothing touched by the contaminated water was salvageable from the one-story house. But the biggest task was removing the bottom four feet of drywall in the entire 1,500-square-foot house. Removing the lower half of the water-damaged walls prevented mold from growing, and the house was prepared for another crew to come in and replace the drywall.
"I've lost everything," Hernandez said Tuesday. "But I have hope after Bill and the other volunteers were here. … Before they got here, I just didn't know where to begin."
Hernandez, who documented much of her harrowing experience on social media, said she and her children, including her autistic 16-year-old son, found an uncomfortable oasis upon their only dry mattress — perhaps the only dry surface in the entire house — for nearly a week.
"They kept saying they couldn't get us, that they weren't coming to rescue us, even though I told them that I have a special-needs child," Hernandez said. "It was really hard for me the whole time. … I didn't want to break down in front of my kids. I had to stay strong for them and get us through this. That was my number-one goal."
When the waters finally subsided enough for help to arrive, Hernandez said Moen and his crew were "like angels that came to help us."
Though her house is uninhabitable and she and her children are staying in a nearby hotel, Hernandez, a medical benefits coordinator, said she was closer to getting home thanks to the efforts of Moen and others who have come to her aid over the last week.
Moen said he hopes his trip to Houston will inspire others to help the victims in whatever way they can.