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First Look

Veterans repair Harvey-flooded Houston homes

Team Rubicon, a nonprofit made up of mostly military veterans, plans to repair 100 hurricane Harvey-damaged homes as they expand their work to include more long-term projects.

Team Rubicon construction site supervisors Teaira Johnson (r.) and Courtney Collum (l.) bring Estela Beuadreault into the new kitchen in her home on April 30 in Houston. Team Rubicon rebuilt her home, which flooded during hurricane Harvey.
Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle/AP
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  • Alyson Ward
    Houston Chronicle

The house is painted pale purple. Near the front door, a wooden sign adorned with flowers reads, "Live life in full bloom."

For more than 40 years, Estela Beaudreault had called this modest house in east Houston – 1,200 square feet, with tall trees and a converted garage – her home. But when it took on 2 feet of water during hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas last August, she didn't know if she could ever come back, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Ms. Beaudreault has been living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency-provided motel room since the flood that ruined her house and transformed her neighborhood. But now, thanks to volunteers who fixed up her place, Beaudreault is finally able to move back in.

Team Rubicon, a California-based nonprofit made up mostly of military veterans, spent six weeks making Beaudreault's home livable again. It's the first of 100 Harvey-flooded homes the national organization plans to repair with the help of skilled volunteers.

Monday afternoon, as Beaudreault took her first look at the house at a "Welcome Home" party, the tears started flowing.

"If you hadn't come to my aid, I don't know what I would have done," Beaudreault told a group of Team Rubicon volunteers in her front yard. "Seriously, I was ready to give up."

Team Rubicon got started in 2010, after an earthquake decimated Haiti. When established aid organizations were slow to get to Port-au-Prince, chief executive Jake Wood and a fellow ex-Marine gathered up supplies and volunteers and flew into the heart of the disaster just days after the earthquake.

Now, Team Rubicon has 80,000 volunteers across the country and has helped people rebuild after 250 disasters – wildfires and tornadoes, flash floods and mudslides, even epidemiological outbreaks such as cholera.

"If you've heard of a disaster in the past 10 years, we've probably done it," Mr. Wood said.

About 70 percent of Team Rubicon volunteers are military veterans. People who have served the country in the military often have a desire to keep serving even after their military careers have ended, Wood said, and Team Rubicon can use their skills to help people recover from disasters.

Beaudreault's house represents "the next frontier" for the nonprofit, Wood said. Typically, Team Rubicon moves in just after a disaster and stays for a week or a couple of months, he said. But the organization has plans to expand into long-term recovery projects, and hurricane Harvey is the group's first such long-term effort.

"We always say our organization is here to help people on their worst day," Wood said. This new effort, he said, allows them to "be there not just on the worst day, but in the long run."

With an enormous pair of scissors, Beaudreault cut a red ribbon and walked inside her finished home.

The last time she saw her house, it was underwater. Now, new vinyl flooring looks like gray-toned wood, smooth and clean. New laminate kitchen counters look like marble. Throughout, the homes walls are painted pale gray with white trim.

"Your house is all over my clothes," Courtney Collum told Beaudreault with a laugh. Ms. Collum, a Team Rubicon volunteer and a Coast Guard veteran, has been painting the woman's house for days, and paint has splashed onto every piece of Collum's clothing.

But it's been worth it, Collum said, to see what a group of strangers can do for a neighbor in need.

"All the volunteers have put sweat equity into her home to restore the hope in Estela's heart," she said.

A few of Team Rubicon's helpers, like Collum, are fellows or full-time staffers. Most volunteers work in their spare time or take vacations days from work. Team Rubicon has worked locally with the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit that set up an office in Houston after Harvey to help get damaged homes repaired and rebuilt.

Beaudreault's neighborhood is still recovering; a home across the street has been boarded up and abandoned, and neighbors have put out furniture and other debris on the curb.

Repairing 100 homes is "the proverbial drop in a bucket compared to the problem," Wood acknowledged. But Harvey, he said, is a prime example of how the need can last for months, maybe years, after a disaster occurs.

"You have an army of people who want to continue to help," Wood told Beaudreault on Monday.

In fact, Team Rubicon's next project is just a few blocks over.

More than just "sweat equity" and volunteer work, the project is building relationships.

"It's unbelievable how your house looks," Teaira Johnson, a Team Rubicon fellow and an Army veteran, told Beaudreault before they went inside. "It's my first time seeing it, too."

The "Welcome Home" event seemed too much like an ending for Ms. Johnson, who goes by "T-Bone."

"I'll be here to visit, though," she told Beaudreault. "Don't worry about it."

Beaudreault gave her a hug.

"Any time you feel like it," she said.

This article was reported by the Houston Chronicle.

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