August 27, 2017: I had just left my job four days before – a good one – not knowing why, but trusting that still, small voice of invitation would become more than an echo in my head.
It was a Sunday. I was sitting on my living room couch – probably in my pajamas, after a morning worship service… aimlessly poking around on Twitter.
Hurricane Harvey had just hit Houston, Texas a couple of days before. Up here in Minnesota, the word “hurricane” is pretty foreign. All we have to go on is a news report here and there. But this was different. The hurricane brought water… LOTS of water.
People were stranded on their front porches and rooftops, trying to reach 911, but not getting through. They started sending out SOS messages over social media…Twitter, Facebook, Instagram…others.
We weren’t ready. Social media wasn’t ready. NO ONE was ready.
My Twitter app pinged. You have that one friend, right? The one with experience running Emergency Operations Centers—EOCs?
This friend called five of us together into a virtual message room to see what we could do. We didn’t know. We saw what you saw… people screaming for help, in the only way they knew how: Mothers, fathers and children who knew a lot more than their parents about how to do that sort of thing. They were broadcasting their addresses—and even medical conditions… praying someone would find their notes.
For the first few hours, I tried to avoid the entire situation. I wanted nothing to do with the horror that was taking place six hours away by plane. I peeked into the message room repeatedly, seeing efforts from people braver than I. I got sucked in for a few minutes to do some graphic design. That I could “do” …something simple …something pretty …something through which I could help, while still maintaining some semblance of detachment from the horrors that were happening far, far away.
As it turns out, our organizer—our EOC expert—our muse—got called away for a few hours, and the job was left to those willing to stay.
I. Did. Not. Want. To. Stay.
We – those of us left in that Twitter room – started combing through those notes on Twitter and throwing them into a simple spreadsheet, with the intention of passing the information to someone certainly better equipped to handle that information than ourselves.
We slowly gathered more friends. Over the course of the week, we grew from 5 people, to 10, to 100, and eventually to 800: boaters, high water vehicle drivers, shop owners, neighbors, formal first responders, and other volunteer groups. We’ll *never* know who they were.
We ended up logging 8,000 SOS messages in that spreadsheet. I say “we,” but by that time, I had no idea who “they” were… the people combing social media feeds and calling hurricane survivors and directing rescuers. And “we” weren’t the only ones. Anonymous helpers across the entire globe organized themselves into groups such as ours – not asking for recognition, but simply doing the right thing.
A Houston community member states that by the end of the storm, civilian volunteers had rescued 35,000 people. Pajama warriors, we called ourselves. Just people… literally, in pajamas, eating bagels and drinking coffee… LOTS of coffee… morning and night… some not sleeping for days, sacrificing themselves for others. For three months, these groups provided support to first responder and emergency management personnel within FEMA and the Coast Guard.
We added spreadsheet experts, graphic designers, GIS mappers, translators, medical professionals, animal lovers, and a media team. After Houston and Florida, we shifted mission and course to map ground conditions and report on public health status in Puerto Rico.
People died. Surely, under our watch, people died. Many of our volunteers suffered the very real effects of post traumatic stress during and after this mission—including myself, enduring hours of self-doubt and countless warnings about the liability we had taken on, simply by getting involved.
I still cry heaving tears, some days.
Was Spirit there – a higher power, in whatever name or form?
Of course He was. She was. They were… in the faces and voices and love shared between those victims and saviors. Was it worth it? All I know is little by little, I let myself remember. Every time I do, my faith gets a little bit stronger and my witness—a little bit louder.
It’s all different now. I’M different now.
It started out as Sunday. Just – a Sunday.