The Hero We Need

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What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of

What the world needs now is love, sweet love,

No not just for some but for everyone.

We live in a confusing world these days. We dream of seeing stories and images of great love in our midst. We know it’s there. We’ve witnessed it in our families and with our friends, but we long to see a public figure who demonstrates a level of generosity and concern for mankind that seems to typify the kind of self sacrificing for which we are desperately searching. We witnessed acts of great love and heroism when my city of Houston was inundated with water. Images of strangers helping strangers inspired and uplifted us, sustaining our hope that mankind is still at the end of the day a force for great good in this world. We innately believe that underneath the rhetoric and divisiveness that has been tearing away at society there is a common yearning for decency and compassion. We just need that one person who has the capacity to represent each of us as a beacon of light in a world that has gone dark far too often of late. I believe that I have found him right here in the place where I live, and he is no doubt in my mind the real deal.

Who would have thought that a furniture salesman who jumped up and down on a mattress frenetically waving wads of cash would one day become one of the most beloved individuals in the city. Mattress Mack as all of us in Houston know him set up a furniture store in North Houston and garnered our attention with television commercials that appeared to have been filmed by amateurs. He made bold claims about his wares and the savings that he offered, but mostly he caught our attention with his cheesy spots that tickled our funny bones and our curiosity. “Who was this character?” we wondered even as we smiled at his antics. Over time his modest business thrived, becoming a local empire. When other furniture stores closed, Mack’s Gallery Furniture continued to thrive with retailing innovations like same day delivery. Soon enough we all understood that Jim Mcingvale was no joke, but rather a business genius whose sales acumen had made him a wealthy man. Even better was the realization that Mack was more than just an entrepreneur. He was also a humanitarian with a heart even bigger than his massive store.

Mattress Mack as we lovingly and respectfully call him slowly but surely began to show up all over town doing good works. He provided scholarships to students and hauled truckloads of free furniture to people who were devastated by personal tragedies. He remodeled teachers’ lounges and honored first responders and veterans. He seemed to be everywhere donating his time, talent and goodwill to the people of Houston. No request was too large, no task too difficult to handle. Mack was a fireball of energy and good intentions. We all cheered his success as his philanthropy became more and more legendary in our town. We began to collectively love this man whose heart appeared to be limitlessly huge. Before long he had opened multiple stores and his television spots took on a professional patina but the essence of Mack remained as down home and unpretentious as ever.

Mack let us into his most private world, sharing the personal journey of his family in caring for a daughter who is afflicted with a mental illness. He wanted us to understand how to see the signs of trouble and to know that there is help for those who are affected with various disorders of the mind as well as their families. He was not afraid to show his emotions and let us see his very human side. We learned about the courage that it took for him to take the risks that eventually lead to victories over his own struggles with confidence. He visited schools and spoke to students about taking charge of their lives. He encouraged them to go after their dreams and told them how to create plans that would make things happen.

We saw Mack everywhere spreading joy and hope in Houston and we really did love him, but we had no idea that we had not yet even tapped the surface of his remarkable character. It was not until the rains of hurricane Harvey began falling unrelentingly on our city that we began to truly understand that the inspiration for which we had been searching had been with us all along and his name was Jim Mcingvale, our Mattress Mack.

There was so much desperation when the homes in Houston began to flood. The waters were in the yard one minute and then gushing through walls the next, filling the rooms so quickly that there was little time for thoughts other than baling out to find safety. People understood that they had to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs or they might be hopelessly trapped in very dangerous situations. Many of those whose homes had been so rapidly rendered unsafe lived near the original Gallery Furniture store, and remembering Mack’s history of generosity they turned to him for help because they had no other place to go. Like the Good Samaritan, Mack invited them into his store. He gave them shelter from the storm and turned his place of business into a safe haven where they would have beds on which to find the comfort of sleep. He allowed them to relax in the recliners that he so often featured in his adds. He requested their presence at the solid wood tables for which he was famous where he sated their hunger with food and love. Before long the word was out that Mack had opened his stores for shelter from the storm, all because he understood that it was his duty as a fellow human to render aid in a time of great distress.

Now that the waters have receded and people are attempting to return to normal Mack is making another in his long line of incredible offers of good works. For the next twenty weeks he will provide an entire house of furniture and mattresses to individuals who lost everything in the floods. He is requesting that members of the community nominate worthy candidates for his largesse. What he hasn’t boasted about is the fact that he has already very quietly been donating items from his store. There is no telling what the true extent of his charitable nature has been.

Jim Mcingvale is the good soul for whom we have been waiting. He is the man who has been a bright light in a world that might otherwise have seemed so dark. He demonstrates the goodness of the human heart day in and day out and we love him. Mack himself will tell you that he is not a hero or a perfect man, but what he is to all of us is a representation of the most positive values that we all seek and cherish. He embodies the qualities of the kind of person that we want to be. We are so glad that he is among us, showing us how to be compassionate and what it means to live a life of purpose. Jim Mcingvale, aka Mattress Mack, is our hero.

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A Wedding, Two Funerals, and A Hurricane

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This summer has left me forever changed in ways more dramatic than I might ever have imagined. It began innocently enough with a visit to New Orleans with grandson Ian. He saw my favorite city with a new set of eyes that were innocent and inquisitive. It was the history of the place that fascinated him more than even the food and entertainment. He was particularly entranced with the World War II Museum which filled him with wonder and so many questions. I suppose that in many ways the day that we spent reliving the drama and importance of that era when was the beginning of a circle of life that left me profoundly different by the end of my journey through the warm lazy days that have heretofore represented fun and frolic to me, but would no longer be so simple to consider.

After our sojourn in New Orleans we travelled to Cancun for the wedding of two of our favorite friends, Tim and Dickie. We learned just how powerful love can be and that how it cannot be narrowly defined. We also went on a journey back in history to study the Mayan people and their glorious civilization that had been quite advanced in its time. It humbled us to learn of the ingenuity of mankind, but also to understand that the upheavals of life and how we humans react to them have the power to take down or raise up even nations.

We had scheduled so many more amazing travels for July and August when our world was shaken to its very foundation. My husband Mike had a stroke on July 3, and it was as though the earth itself had stood still. Nothing really mattered to me other than Mike’s health and I was thankful that he was still alive and that I would have more time to convey my feelings for him. I suppose that from that exact moment forward I quit taking anything for granted. I became more attuned to the colors and sounds and people all around me. I rejoiced each day when both Mike and I arose. I reveled in even the smallest bits of joy that came our way. Somehow I found myself caring little for things and greatly appreciative of relationships and love.

Mike and I shared a viewing of a partial eclipse of the sun rather than than the total one that we had planned to witness. I suppose that I should have been disappointed that we were not able to travel to Wyoming for the event, but having the pleasure of sitting with Mike in a park watching the little piece of wonder that we were given was more than ample for me. I felt that our day together was truly glorious just because we had the gift of being together. Whenever I thought of what might have been, I felt frightened but mostly grateful for my blessings. Each new day was glorious, but I had little idea that an even greater test of my endurance lay ahead.

As the summer drew to a close my two eldest grandsons readied to go off to college. We celebrated at our favorite Cuban restaurant, El Meson, in the Village area of Houston near Rice University and the Medical Center. It was a beautiful night in which we enjoyed knowing what fine young men our Andrew and Jack had become. It was yet another reason to be thankful and our hearts were filled with joy.

Later we had the privilege of having our twin grandsons Ben and Eli at our home while their parents helped their older brother to check into his dorm at Texas A&M. I was charged with helping the two boys to complete a project for their English class and we worked quite hard for an entire Saturday. I woke them up early on Sunday so that we might finish and still have time for some fun before their parents returned. Just as I had hoped we found ourselves with enough free hours that we were able to go bowling at the Main Event. Later that evening we played a rousing game of Scrabble with no holds barred, and Eli literally blew us all away with a remarkable score. We laughed and felt so good that I once again found myself silently saying prayers of thanks for such precious moments.

Then came the threat of hurricane Harvey. It seemed that because the eye of the storm would be so far away we would be in little danger. There were predictions of massive rainfall but somehow that didn’t seem to be much of a problem, and so we decided to stay in our home. On the first day after the hurricane made landfall we spoke of the hysteria of the forecasters because their promises of floods appeared to have been premature. We were much more saddened by images of the devastation in Rockport, Texas, one of our all time favorite camping spots. It was not until the evening that the rains began and kept going and going and going for three solid days leaving forty three inches in our neighborhood alone.

We began to hear dire reports of friends and family members whose homes were taking on water. The television stations showed us live pictures of familiar places that looked like ocean front property. More and more people that we knew were evacuating, sometimes in the middle of the night. Suddenly I became fearful because it was apparent that if my husband had another stroke there would be little that we might do to get the help that he would need. Those three days became a kind of terror for me. I watched the rain and the street in front and the yard in the back, ever vigilant and unable to sleep lest I might need to get Mike to a medical facility. I cared not about any of the things in my home, but only about my husband and his safety. I realized that I was going to do whatever it took to get him through.

When the rain finally stopped and moved away from our city after dumping fifty one inches across a one hundred mile wide area I was emotionally drained and filled with conflicting emotions. I cried for all of the souls whose worlds had been turned upside down. I sobbed for those who had lost their lives and their homes. I felt lucky that Mike had made it through the days and nights in good condition. I laughed that we had stayed home from camping trips and the eclipse lest he be in a situation in which he might not be able to receive immediate medical care, and ironically for three days we had essentially been trapped on a kind of island with so much happening all around us that we were actually quite alone. I had to praise God for caring for us and for giving me the strength and the calm that I had needed to weather the storm.

Last week our city began to attempt a return to normalcy in earnest. Children returned to school. Adults went back to work. There were actually days that felt so much like the glorious beginning of fall that has always made Houston a kind of Chamber of Commerce postcard. Only rides around town reminded us of the horror of what had happened. Still we had to be happy that we were able to meet with great friends for a brunch on Sunday. We were grateful that we got to visit Mike’s father on Monday and see that he was doing well. Then our week was punctuated with the sorrow and celebration of the lives of two incredible women who had died. I think that perhaps more than any other event their funerals impacted me with a realization of what is truly most important as we live out our days.

Both of these beautiful souls had lived through those harrowing events of World War II that we had studied in New Orleans with Ian. One of them had resided in England. She met her soulmate during that conflict, an American GI. The two of them fell in love and he took her back to his home in Texas where they had seven children that they raised in a home filled with love and goodness and faith in God. The other woman had been born in Italy but eventually immigrated to New Orleans where she too met the love of her life. They also wound up in Houston in the same neighborhood where I grew up. They had four children who would become dear friends of mine. Both women were devoted to their families and required very little in the way of possessions or wealth to be happy. They sacrificed for family and felt honored to do so. In the end they were in turn loved and adored by their children and their friends.

When I attended the two funerals I was accompanied by people that I had known since I was quite young. We had each accumulated a lifetime of stories and memories, but somehow we knew that those women had demonstrated to us how to truly get the most out of life. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of understanding that has all too often eluded me as I have fought to accomplish rather than to relate. I saw that these women had always realized that titles and bank accounts and possessions were not the things that define a life well lived, but rather the moments when we touch hearts. Somehow I understood that in spite of the topsy turvy nature of this summer, it had been magnificent because it had opened my eyes to how I need to embrace each moment that I have. Somehow I am all the better for what I have learned from that wedding, the hurricane and those two funerals.

Never Let Go

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So much has been said about the examples of heroism and unconditional love that were exhibited in Houston, Texas both during and in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey. Suddenly the entire world is beginning to understand what it is that we love about this place that is as flat as a pancake, a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, and has very little in the way of scenic views other than a downtown skyline that is quite beautiful on an autumn day. For years I have tried to explain our town to those who have never been here, and I suppose that I never truly made my point that this city is all about people. The view of who we are has suddenly changed as Houston has become the symbol of what is right with the human spirit.

Sure we have some basic problems with flood control and such, but what the attraction to Houston comes down to, is to be found in the generosity and determination of its citizens. As I travel from place to place I see so many wondrous sights and I find that the people that I encounter are generally welcoming, but nowhere do I feel as accepted for who I am than right here where I live. I always find myself feeling a sense of relief whenever I reenter the city limits. The outpouring of courage and unity and pure love that we have witnessed in the past few weeks has proven my lifetime contention that there are many great places to visit, but Houston is one of the best places to live.

I’d like to think that if any real good comes from this disaster that has so horrifically impacted so many in Houston, it will be the reminder that when all is said and done we are all brothers and sisters aiming for the same comfort and security in life. In the middle of the night during a storm when floodwaters forced a family onto the roof of their house the background of the savior who drove up in a boat to retrieve them from danger mattered not a wit. The reactions that we have when we don’t have time to think are often the purest and most perfect. The reality is that nobody who endured the terrifying days when fifty one inches of rain filled our streets even thought to consider differences. We were all just human beings lashed together in an horrific situation. Our only goal was to survive and to help others to make it to safety with us.

I suppose that politics raged on as usual during those days, but we weren’t even aware of the day or the time much less who was arguing with whom. My neighborhood received a bit more than forty three inches of rain. My only worry was whether or not the drainage system for my street would continue to operate. I silently prayed that my husband would not have another stroke because I suspected that we would not be able to reach the hospital that is only five minutes away if he did. I constantly checked to be certain that my neighbors, family members and friends were okay. When I heard of people who had flood waters entering their homes I was not able to rest until I knew that they had reached a safe and secure refuge. Mine was a scene that was taking place a million times over throughout the area, and we were all hoping for the best for one another. 

I’m not known as a fan of Donald Trump, but I was happy when he came to survey the damage and worked to speed the funding for the recovery of our city. He seemed sincere in his concern, and somehow my animosity toward him didn’t feel appropriate given the situation in which we found ourselves. I am thankful that he seems to understand our plight and that he is willing to do something about it. I have no criticism of his willingness to help.

I have been moved to tears by the outpouring of love from all parts of the country and the world. Our brothers and sisters in Louisiana were some of the first to render aide. The people of New York City understood our pain. Again and again I have heard of volunteers from Israel, Saudi Arabia and countries that may not have heretofore even thought of Houston, Texas. It has been simply amazing to me how wonderful we humans truly are and my faith in mankind has been bolstered.

I watched the Hand in Hand telethon earlier this week and when I saw the genuine concern of the arts community hoping to help us in some way I found myself shedding tears once again. There was Oprah Winfrey manning a telephone line. Tom Hanks and George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio  were there to help the people of my city. Usher and Blake Shelton sang so beautifully. Matthew McConaughey spoke eloquently of the road forward for the citizens of our city. Dennis Quaid wore his Bellaire High School shirt. George Strait led some of the best country artists in a beautiful rendition of Texas. I don’t think that I will ever again see any of the many people who gathered together for this cause without wanting to hug them in thanksgiving. They became as one with my city and they earned the key to my heart.

Beyonce, a native Houstonian, said it best when she noted that we have seen far too much violence and hatred of late. Houston has shown the world that love still exists. Houston has demonstrated that race and politics and social standing don’t matter as much as a willingness to stand toe to toe with one another in an hour of need. In our darkest and most frightening days it was the best of humanity that rose to the occasion. Let us pray that we will not let go of that ideal now that it has come to the fore. We need to join hands all across the world and never again let go.

  

Houston We Still Have A Problem

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I have a friend who is a widow. When she first lost her husband she was showered with attention, but as time went by she became more and more alone. It was almost as though she had simply been forgotten. She and her husband had enjoyed an active social life until he became critically ill. After his death the invitations and visits that she had always so enjoyed became less and less frequent.

I recall the same thing happening to my mother over time until she mostly relied on family to invite her out of the house now and again. She remarked that it was human nature to provide comfort at the beginning of a loss, but that people slowly become preoccupied with daily routines that sap their time and energy making them less likely to stick around. She was quite understanding and nonjudgemental of those who drifted out of her life. She adapted and made do with the help that was offered, and didn’t dwell on the friendships that withered away because her life had become so different with my father’s death.

As the sun shines, schools open and so many people return to a semblance of normalcy after hurricane Harvey I find myself worrying and possibly even panicking for those most impacted by the devastating storms. Most of them have all of their possessions piled in heaps on the curb along with mounds of sheetrock, flooring and carpet. The stench of mildew and rot fills the air around their neighborhoods. They await word from FEMA or insurance adjusters to tell them how much assistance they will receive in rebuilding their lives. They often wear somebody else’s  clothing and shoes. They rely on others for rides because their cars are gone. Their futures are so uncertain that they are numb. They sit in their yards or rented rooms staring absently into the distance. Everything feels so overwhelming, particularly as the interest of others wanes. They have been the disaster of the week, the big news headline, but now it feels as though so many begin to move on to the next big thing.

Even the people who still remember them and appear to understand their plight are being pulled and tugged by the everyday demands of existence. They have to schedule their voluntary hours and assistance now. There is so much pressure to get back to the usual grind and a pervasive feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish all that must be done, but the piles of rubble are still there. The shells of what were once rooms where memories were made await financing that may or may not come. Stressed out homeowners jockey to book overworked contractors to bring their dreams back to life. Word is that it will take months, maybe even years to make all of the needed repairs. What are the injured parties to do while they are waiting? How much debt will they incur? Is there really any way to help them to feel safe and secure once again? Will they eventually be forgotten, or should they expect to be mostly on their own? These are the questions that haunt them in their sleepless nights. These are the worries that fill their thoughts.

Harvey has already been pushed to the back pages of the news. Irma is the new kid in town, the tragedy of the hour. FEMA is moving some rescue efforts from Texas to Florida. There will be competition for limited resources and funds making frustrations even more intense. All the while we have to continue to support our neighbors in the long journey that lies ahead for them even though we too are tired. Still those of us who were lucky understand that we do not have the luxury of simply resuming life as though nothing has happened. Our neighbors are frightened and weary and just as psychologically scarred as their homes are physically.

Every part of town is feeling the impact of this horrific event. Harvey was an equal opportunity storm whose wrath made victims of the rich and the poor and virtually every race and ethnicity. We have rushed to provide stop gap assistance. We provided cleaning products, tools and the labor to clean out houses. We gave food, clothing and shelter to those who have been displaced. We took school supplies to schools and did our best to care for the personal needs of people of all ages. There have been untold heroes who have worked tirelessly and selflessly for days. Now comes the hardest part of all, the moment when we just want to have happy thoughts and forget about all of the pain. Unfortunately to do so would betray all of those whose fate might have been ours but for the randomness of the destruction.

In the coming weeks we must be certain that all of our neighbors get the repairs that they need to make their residences whole again. More than that though, we must insist that measures are taken to make our streets and neighborhoods safer. This may mean purchasing homes that are in harms way and repurposing them as green spaces. We may have to strengthen and build levees, create more retention ponds, get dams up to date, install pumps around town, build houses on higher freeboard elevations, improve drainage. We have the know how, but we also need the vision and the will.

Long ago Houston leaders had a dream of making what was then a small town into a major port even though it was landlocked. They dug a big ditch from the Gulf of Mexico all the way into the city that became known as the Ship Channel. Today it is one of the busiest commercial centers in the world. With a bit of imagination we built the Harvard of the South on the campus of Rice University and created one of the best medical centers anywhere. We need the same kind of willingness to use technologies and knowledge to rebuild a city capable of withstanding even the unthinkable. We showed the world that we are not a population of ordinary people. We Houstonians are quite special and its time that we translate all of our spirit into a victory over tragedy. Houston we have a problem, but we have found answers to other conundrums before. Now let’s see what we might do to unravel the complexities that caused the worst flood that our country has ever seen, and insure that we will be prepared if such an event were ever to occur again.

More Love Than Water

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Early during Harvey’s rampage across Texas a photo of elderly residents of a nursing home went viral. It showed them sitting in waist deep water waiting to be rescued. It was a vivid image of just how horrific the effects of that storm actually were. A second picture eventually made the rounds showing the same individuals safe and sound in a new location. They were nicely attired and smiling, and it made us all feel better about their fate. The sad thing is that even as we begin the recovery process, the toll that this disaster is taking on our oldest citizens is almost silently brutal. So many of our quite vulnerable elderly population were frightened and confused by a situation that they were too often not able to understand, and in far too many cases the consequences for them have been as devastating as the floods themselves.

I’ll be sixty nine in November and my husband’s birthday will be his seventieth later this month, but I’m not so much talking about people like us as those who are fifteen or so years older than we are. Many of them suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia and found themselves in foreign situations that made it difficult for them to adapt. One friend’s mother had to be constantly reminded of why she was not in her home, and why she would not be allowed to go back there until the rains ceased. She wanted to know who Harvey was, insisting that she knew no one by that name. It was an exceedingly stressful many days even for those caring for her, because they worried about her delicate condition.

Yet another person with whom I worked for years lost her mother. The woman’s death will not be counted among the victims of the storm, but she most certainly died because of the effects of the deluge. She lived in an assisted living facility because she too had Alzheimers. During the rains the home where she stayed flooded, and the patients were rescued and taken to a shelter. Sadly the sweet lady awoke during the middle of the night and was shaken when she did not know where she was. In her bewildered state of mind she began to wander in the dark, and in the process she fell and broke multiple bones in her fragile body. She was sent to a hospital where it was deemed necessary to operate, but first precautions had to be taken because she was on blood thinners. Unfortunately the poor soul did not make it and her funeral was this past Friday. Her family is heartbroken and, those of us who grieve with them wonder if but for the storm their beloved family member might still be alive.

This past week two of the ninety something year old mothers of high school friends of mine have also passed. I can’t help but think of how much the change in their routines must have affected them. They were such kind and loving women who had at one time been so strong that they would have tackled the beast called Harvey head on. This time they were too old and weak to adjust to the terrible demands that all of the devastation has placed on our city. I keep seeing such incidents being repeated over and over again, and it is beyond heartbreaking.

There are kidney patients who missed their dialysis appointments and then had to wait all day long, sitting on the floor for their turns to receive the life saving treatments that they needed. Surgeries had to be cancelled and chemo-therapies were missed. Some people lost all of their medications and had to go without them for days, risking lethal side effects in the process. It was and remains an incredibly trying time around here that none of us will soon forget.

The sun has been out for days. The temperature is cooler than it generally is in the Houston area. We spend our time attempting to help as many as we can, but sometimes we have to back off just a bit and rest lest we run out of steam before the job is done. In the meantime our elderly are dealing with so many after effects, not the least of which is a desire to be able to do more to help than they are physically able. In my own case I have received phone calls and messages from loving friends cautioning me to take it easy and get some rest. Somehow thus far I have been able to draw upon reserves of energy that I did not know that I had, but I can feel the weariness of the city setting in among even the youngest.

Everything looks and feels so different and we have had to learn how to relax again and return to routines that somehow don’t feel as important as they once did. As our children go back to school we worry about how they will be. How will they do homework and study without the comfort of their homes? What nightmares are they hiding from us? Are they as muddled as the oldest members of our hometown have sometimes been? How can we be assured that they are as well taken care of as they need to be?

I drove through an area of South Houston near the intermediate school where I spent the bulk of my career teaching. I found myself sobbing convulsively as I drove down one street after another in which every single home had been affected. The piles of debris made the scene appear to be a war zone. I know that most of these poor souls have never had much in the way of wealth other than hard working attitudes and pride in knowing that they have places of their own. I truly found myself feeling the pain of their suffering and then I saw a most amazing sight. At a local elementary school the children and their families were playing on inflatables. They were smiling and having a good time if only for a few moments. There were tents where people were serving food and handing out information on how to find help. I felt a bittersweet sense of hope in this glorious vision among the most horrific ruin.

I later worked at a school on Friday where a pantry had been set up for those who needed the most basic of necessities. The number of volunteers and the outpouring of donations were incredible, causing me to think of something that one of the victims of the torrential rains stated as he was rescued from his flooded home, “There is more love in this city than water.” Indeed that is the case, but we cannot be too quick to change the subject and simply move on. This has been a natural disaster that even a talented screen writer might never have imagined. Together with generous individuals from all across the globe we have tackled the initial challenges of our devastation, but there is still so much to do. I find myself praying that we do not just become the cause of the week, for even as things appear to be more and more normal the misery continues. There will be those so severely weakened both physically and psychologically that they will suffer for days and weeks and maybe even months to come. We have to remember them. We have to be ready to help them in every possible way. We have to prove that there really is more love here than there was water.