John Shepard has lived in Kingwood since the 1980s and has experienced several hurricanes and tropical storms. When Hurricane Harvey began to affect Houston, Shepard and his wife were are their second home in Wisconsin. He heard about the flooding in his neighborhood from a neighbor and he decided to drive back to Houston to help. He packed his truck with a generator, electric pumps, and waders and drove the 1400 miles back to Houston. When he got to Texas, he called his children who also live in Kingwood and asked for the best directions to his neighborhood.
He was only able to drive to a location near his house and had to walk the rest of the way through flood waters. Shepard says that his neighborhood was the location of a lot of rescue activities and helicopters were airlifting residents from their roofs. Shepard’s house is on a high point in his neighborhood and did not flood, but just down the street flood waters covered the stop signs. He was able to communicate and get news while he was in Houston because he had brought a generator with him, but he says that he was mainly focused on his own neighborhood. Shepard explains that the hardest part of the storm was trying to relate to neighbors, who had lost everything while he lost nothing. One neighbor was in South Dakota during Harvey, so Shepard and his neighbors worked to take out flooded material from the house. Many people in Kingwood did not have flood insurance, and Shepard remembers the process to get aid from FEMA was very complicated. He remembers a natural comradery, as everyone was helping in any way that they could. Shepard stayed in Houston for two weeks volunteering in his neighborhood before he returned to Wisconsin.
Interviewee: John Shepard
Interview Date: October 27, 2018
Interview Location: Kingwood Community Center
Interviewer: Isaiah Johnson
INTERVIEWER: Hello, today is October 27, 2018. My name is Isaiah Johnson, and I’m here today at the Kingwood Community Center with Mr. John Shepard as part of the University of Houston Center for Public History’s Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project. We’ll be talking today about Mr. John Shepard’s experience as a Hurricane Harvey volunteer.
IJ: Are you ready?
IJ: Great. Could we get you to please state your full name and tell us a little bit about yourself?
JS: My name is John Shepard. We moved to Kingwood and the Houston area in 1987. We still reside at our residence on Golden Pond in Fosters Mill subdivision in Kingwood. I retired from Anheuser-Busch in 2007, and we continue to make our home here. We have kids and their families in the Atascocita area as well as Belton, so [0:01:00] Texas is our home. And with the exception of hurricanes and things like Harvey, we’ve enjoyed it very much.
IJ: That’s great. And where exactly were you born?
JS: I was born in a small farming community in northcentral Iowa. And that’s the original family home as well as my wife. And my wife and I met at the University of Iowa, and that’s our roots. We’re both originally from Iowa. We call Wisconsin our home now. My family moved to Wisconsin in the early 60s. And we have a summer residence in northern Wisconsin, where we gravitate to. When it gets hot in Houston, we go to Wisconsin. And when it gets colder, we come back to Houston.
IJ: [0:02:00] What is the difference in growing up in Iowa and living in Wisconsin versus living in Houston?
JS: Well, I guess differences that come to mind immediately, the economies are somewhat different. The weather is certainly different. History, demographics, tradition are different. Not dramatically so, but they’re different. I doubt if you’ve ever gone sledding down a snowy hill in a corn shovel. See, you’re from Texas, and that’s what we did as kids. So things like that are different, but every place that we’ve lived — and we’ve lived around the country during my work career. We found that every [0:03:00] area had its own unique attributes and things that made it special. So we’ve never been disappointed in any place we’ve lived.
IJ: That’s great. I know you said that you were married. Do you have any children?
JS: We do. We have two kids, Jennifer and Mark. And they have two kids, so we have four grandchildren. And we’re blessed to have them close and in Texas as well. So it’s all good.
IJ: That’s great. I know that you said you spend the summers in Wisconsin, so I guess what I’m trying to say is were you here during Hurricane Harvey.
JS: We were not. We were in Wisconsin — northcentral Wisconsin. And we knew of the impending storm. And we were tracking it on television and on the internet. And our neighbors [0:04:00], Tom and Debbie — we live right across the street from Tom and Debbie — Debbie Harwell. And I would talk to Tom frequently on the phone as things got worse and worse in this area. And one particular Sunday night, I was talking to Tom. And he said, “It’s really, really been raining a lot.” And he said, in fact, his neighbor’s tree, a big giant oak tree, uprooted and fell on the house next to it and put a hole through the roof. And that’s all I needed to hear to conclude that I was in the wrong state at the wrong time. We have our residence here, and we also have our daughter and her family just 10, 15 minutes from our house. So there was a need for me to come back and to be here and make sure [0:05:00] things were okay.
IJ: Yes, sir. In talking with Tom and Dr. Harwell, did you feel that the storm was going to pass quickly? Was the measure of how big the storm was frightening to you?
JS: The concern we had was the property damage that Tom related to us and other folks. And having a need to — I guess, two-fold, to — you’re always interested in your personal property and residence. And then we also had our daughter and concern for her and her family. So it was important. I made the decision that Sunday night after talking to Tom that I needed to come back. And so that experience started at 4:00 A.M. on [0:06:00] August 28th. And at 4:00 A.M., I got in — got in the truck and started out to Texas. The night before, my wife, Sharon, had packed some food and clothing. And I had packed the pick-up with things I thought I might need here. I included electric pumps that I had up in Wisconsin. I included a set of waders. Do you know what waders are?
IJ: Yes, sir.
JS: Okay, boots and things and tools that I might be able to use, if needed, down here. And I left at 4:00 in the morning. It’s 1404 miles from door to door. And I drove straight through.
JS: I had [0:07:00] — I had probably two concerns. First of all, my kids told me, “Dad, don’t come. You can’t get here.” And I decided that I would — I would face that issue when I got to Texas. And then the other concern I had was the need for gasoline. And also, during that time, law enforcement was blocking roads. They’re not letting people in, so both those issues I decided I’ll address when I get to Texas. So when I got to Texas, I had been conversing with my kids on cell phone as I was driving. And when I got to Texas, I called them, and we had a conversation. And I said, “Okay, kids, get me to Kingwood.” And so as I was driving [0:08:00], I came across Arkansas to Texarkana and then down 59. And as we started that journey, the kids would get on the internet and then call me back and give me what was the best route at that point in time.
TXDOT and other resources gave us a good idea of what roads were open and what roads were not. And so I think, if I remember correctly, during the course of the journey from Texarkana down to Livingston, my route changed three times. Because roads were flooded, and they were no longer accessible. And so we made a change, and we made another change. And ultimately, I ended up going to Livingston and then taking, I believe it’s 149 over to Huntsville and then 45 — I-45 South into Conroe. And believe it or not, I was able to come [0:09:00] around Conroe on 336 to 1314 and 1314 into 59 and right into Kingwood.
And I arrived at 2:30 in the morning on Tuesday, yeah, right. So from 4:00 A.M., Monday to 2:30 in the morning Tuesday, that’s how long it took. Interestingly, a little sidelight, as I got off 336 in Conroe onto 1314, I came up upon a long line of taillights and traffic. And the first vehicle I came to was a bus. And I said, “Okay, I’m not following this bus all the way into Kingwood.” So my first opportunity [0:10:00], I passed the bus. Well, little did I know that I had just interdicted and cut into a military convoy.
JS: The big, big trucks and big tires that were coming to Kingwood that could navigate the waters and the floods. So I was part of a convoy, and I waited until it was a four-lane road, and then I took my turn again. When I got to Kingwood, I could not get into Fosters Mill. I tried two or three different approaches, and they were all flooded. And so I ended up parking the truck in Fosters Mill but close to Kingwood Drive. And then I walked to our residence. And I did put the waders on. The waders came up to here, and I needed every bit of it. [0:11:00] so I made the — I made it to the house about 4 o’clock in the morning. We had no power, and we had no water. But all I needed to do at that point was find a bed, which I did. And we got up the next morning and really got a first-hand look at what had happened and what was happening. I believe your records will show — at least, that’s our believe. We got 51 inches of rain in five days in the Kingwood area.
IJ: Yes, sir.
JS: Our subdivision, Fosters Mill, at one point in time, I believe it was the Thursday, perhaps the 30th of August, became the focal point of the greater Houston area. We had Black Hawk helicopters pulling people off roofs in our subdivision. Forty percent of the homes [0:12:00] in our subdivision flooded. And it became — it became quite a challenge for everybody.
IJ: Wow. I know you talked about the flooding impact, but how was your home impacted internally or externally?
JS: Because we’re at a high point in our — on our street, our road comes in low and comes up high and back down low. Homes were flooded at both ends of our street, but we’re at the precipice. And we’re at the high point, so we were fine. I had some flashing damage. Some water got in some windows, but by no means did we have any flooding whatsoever. People at both ends of the street did. And so everyone, day by day, hour by hour, started to deal with that. And the evacuation became the most important issue at hand. We had [0:13:00] the Cajun Navy in our neighborhood. We had — I spoke of the military and the helicopter lifts. And everybody that had an airboat or a flat-bottom boat was — even wave runners and personal watercraft were going around up and down.
IJ: And at the lower ends of the neighborhood, about how much water would you estimate feet-wise did these houses receive?
JS: I will tell you that at the intersection of Forest Garden and Kingwood Drive I spoke to a fellow on one of these personal watercrafts. And he drove down to the intersection. And he stopped in the water, and he was able to reach his hand up and touch the boom that [0:14:00] crossed the intersection with the stop lights — hanging stop lights. So he had to have been in maybe 15 to 20 feet of water.
JS: At the two ends of our street, the water was covering the stop signs. And I guess the stop sign is eight to ten feet, so it was significant.
IJ: And this flooding, did it occur just from the amount of rain that Harvey dumped? Was it there any other reasonings for this amount of flooding in the Kingwood area?
JS: The flooding occurred because of the immense amount of water over the short period of time and the fact that there was nowhere for that amount of water to go. And thus, we have efforts ongoing now for dredging of the San Jacinto River, dealing with the dam at Lake Houston, putting together [0:15:00] plans of action for Lake Conroe, and things like that. But there’s much, much work to be done in my opinion. And until Houston addresses zoning, I think that it’s a huge challenge.
IJ: Yes. And once you were home, how did you receive news updates about Houston or your neighborhood and surrounding areas?
JS: Well, I actually brought a little suitcase generator with me from Wisconsin. And I was able to fire that up, and we had a little old TV that gave me some news reports, cell phones, and word of mouth. Cell phones were not too efficient, because there was so much traffic. And it was very hard to get in and out, but word of mouth, networking, and stuff like that were good. And you know, really you are interested in what was happening [0:16:00] in your — where you were. You were concerned about other areas, but it was so overwhelming that, you know, you deal one day at a time.
IJ: Yes, sir. You talked about on the way home that you were communicating with your children through your cell phones. And after you got home, how did that communication expand or not expand with your family and your children?
JS: It kind of maintained the status quo. Sometimes we could talk on the phone. Sometimes we couldn’t. It was — it was four days, I believe, in Kingwood before the water receded enough where I could drive through it. And I’ve got a large pick-up, so that helped. But it was three or four days before you could get out and go anywhere. And when that happened [0:17:00], the Kroger on Northpark, I think, opened first. And the lines were enormous. And everybody was trying to get everything they needed, so things began to happen when the water receded. And people could move and resources could be redirected and come and go.
IJ: Have you experienced a hurricane or other natural disaster before?
JS: I think in the time that we’ve been in Houston, three hurricanes and then Tropical Storm Allison, which was — which was as dramatic as any hurricane, less the wind damage and the surge from — you know, from the Gulf. But as far as rain and flooding, Tropical Storm Allision was every bit as bad as any hurricane we’ve had, except for Harvey. Harvey was by far the worst [0:18:00].
IJ: In the post-Harvey phase of coming home and rebuilding, what was the most difficult part of that experience?
JS: I guess the most difficult part was trying to relate to what people that actually did have losses and how you could help. During those days that we were restricted to our neighborhood, we reached out and helped people with anything that we could. Interestingly enough, a lot of people in this area had generators, but they don’t run them except when they need them. Well, you know, just like any piece of equipment, it needs to be run and serviced. And many generators wouldn’t start, and [0:19:00] they wouldn’t keep running. So I have some affinity for that, and I was able to help get generators going.
And then when we would could actually leave our neighborhood, we have friends that live in the Barrington area of Kingwood. They were in South Dakota visiting family. Her — my friend’s wife’s brother was terminally ill with liver cancer. And that’s why they were in South Dakota. And when I talked to my friend, I told him what was going on down here. And they decided to make the journey back immediately. And after leaving the town in South Dakota, her brother passed away. So they had to turn around and go back. But I made it to [0:20:00] his house, and his daughter was there with a friend. And we began to dismantle his house. He had — he had to four to five feet of water in the house. And everything had to be — had to be dealt with.
You’re fighting a time constraint on mold and things like that. So we started to cut the sheetrock and get the sheetrock out. We tore up the floors. We took all their furniture and mattresses and everything out into the yard — out into the lawn. And after two or three days, some other friends came to help. And we had a pretty good cadre of — I think we had 10 people dealing with that house and actually [0:21:00] tearing it up and getting damaged goods out of the house. And they have moved back into that house now, but it took them — it took them about nine months to get back into the house, yeah. And back to our house on Golden Pond, we still have one house at the end of the street that has not been — they’re not moved in yet. They’re still constructing.
So the recovery became very challenging as resources — there weren’t enough resources. There weren’t enough qualified contractors. There weren’t enough materials to go around. And it became very, very challenging, I think, for people that were personally impacted to the point of, “What do we do [0:22:00]? When do we do it? Who do we get to help us? How do we qualify?” Very few people had flood insurance — very few. And those that did had to deal with the bureaucracy of FEMA and the federal government. And that was a very slow, painful process. So there’s really no good news there. It just — it just was overwhelming.
IJ: Yes, sir. In terms of your city’s response or neighborhood’s response to clean-up after the hurricane — because I know whenever you leave stuff out on your front yard or your lawns for a long period of time, that area is not very good to breathe in as well. How was that? How was the city’s response to debris clean-up?
JS: I think it — I think the state’s response, because I know Waste Management and other resources came from San Antonio [0:23:00] and other cities to help deal with that. It didn’t happen right away, I think, because logistically, getting the manpower and equipment and getting it tapped into and scheduled — it all had to be scheduled. It took time. But once it started, it flowed quite nicely from my experience — from what I was exposed to. But some of these — it was very — it was very challenging to really appreciate as you drove down a street and you saw every — imagine everything in your house is now out on your front yard — everything. And that was — we hadn’t been through that before — you know, not in our area [0:24:00].
IJ: Though Harvey was a very traumatic experience for many Houstonians, were there any light-hearted moments or any funny experiences that you had received during the Harvey or post-Harvey experience?
JS: It was very interesting in our neighborhood when speaking with people that were flooded and when working with them and helping them. There was a very light-hearted comradery if you will — people naturally helping people. And you didn’t know them. In many cases, they were strangers. And then when the first responders came in, such as the Cajun Navy and others, it was just [0:25:00] very — a very natural evolution. I will tell you that one of the — one group of guys brought in — they had a Deuce and a Half. A Deuce and a Half is a military truck — a troop transport — high carriage, big wheels. And that vehicle was able to go through the water and streets that others couldn’t. And they had a — they had a truck full. And others needed to go as well. And somebody said, “Are you coming back after these folks? You got these folks. You’re coming back, right? Right? You are, aren’t you?” And they said, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll be back.” And then this guy reached over and pulled up a six-pack of [0:26:00] Bud Light and said, “Well, I’ve got some Bud Light for you when you get back.” So anyway.
IJ: Did you stay in your home or in your neighborhood in the days following the storm?
JS: I was — I was in my home for — I was back in Kingwood for 14 days. After 14 days, I had done all that I could do. My friend’s house in Barrington had been — had been demolished to the point that it needed to be before sanitation process could begin — and new construction. And the waters had receded to the point that people were coming and going. So after two weeks, I returned to Wisconsin.
IJ: [0:27:00] And will continue to go back to Wisconsin during the summers in the future?
JS: Yes, we very much will.
IJ: From that experience of being away when a natural disaster hits, what lessons or what takeaways could you take from the storm for your visits to Wisconsin in the future?
JS: You really have to rely on neighbors and friends to tell you what’s going on and to paint an accurate picture of circumstance. And then you have to make that call. Me personally, I would not delegate that responsibility to a friend or a neighbor. They have their own issues. Looking after my property [0:28:00] in the midst of Hurricane Harvey is not something that I would feel comfortable asking somebody to do. And so that’s just me. That’s what I did. I came back. I was able to help other people and was blessed by the fact that we didn’t flood. And my daughter did not flood. She was good, too. So we still talk about it. It’s still something that’s very prominent in the greater Houston — we just had a — the bond issue was voted on. And we just had the anniversary, one year and two months now. I will tell you that I’ve intently watched the hurricanes that have hit Florida and the Carolinas this year and reflecting on what they’re going through [0:29:00]. But looks like it’s good for Texas this year so far.
IJ: Yes, sir. And how do you feel the City of Houston dealt with Hurricane Harvey?
JS: Well, I don’t know if I can pass judgement on it accurately. I think the city and the state — I think the state was instrumental in doing the right thing — state government making it possible to mobilize resources quickly and cut through the red tape. I think the city did a good job as far as we know. The issue with flooding in Houston is not been — the issue with flooding and the engineering and the zoning that I mentioned earlier [0:30:00] over all the years has become, in my opinion, a political issue that elected officials have been reticent to make that tough call — make that hard decision that says, “No, we’re not going to do that,” or “Yes, we are going to do that,” or we’re going to actually be proactive and start doing something.
There’s been taxation that’s been supposedly dedicated to flood control that’s been used in other ways — to pay down debt, for example, of the city. But I get that. Those are hard decisions, but I think if some of those decisions had been made, like they are now, that we would have fared much better. The lack of communication between [0:31:00] the City of Houston and the state, Lake Conroe’s impact on what happened to Houston, the Addicks Reservoir situation, I mean, that’s just — that’s just off the charts. Those people, the only reason they flooded is because they opened up the reservoirs. I mean, that — that was tough. That was tough. But it’s historic. I don’t think there’s any recorded history of that much rainfall in such a short period of time as we had during Harvey. That’s my recollection.
IJ: Yes, sir.
JS: So anyway, we move forward.
IJ: Is there anything else that you would like to add about your experience with Hurricane Harvey?
JS: I don’t think so. My experience with Harvey [0:32:00] was good and bad. Personally, we fared fine. We did not flood. I had the opportunity to help some friends and neighbors and a lot of gratification from that. But it’s really hard to see — to see a mom and a wife take their wedding pictures out of a soaked photo album and put them on the grass to try to save them. And those folks had a very difficult time. There’s a lot of people that just walked away. And they couldn’t deal with it.
The hidden — the hidden victims in a Hurricane Harvey event, I think, are the businesses that were closed and the jobs that were lost because they didn’t open up, the financial ruin [0:33:00] of families and couples, and the stress that was put on marriages and families, the health issues, people that had to move out and leave everything and really couldn’t afford to do it. Where do you go? Those are the real heartbreak stories that are out there. You know, the hammer and the nail and the coat of paint to get your house back together is — that can happen. That’s going to take time. But the personal side of it is life changing for me. Yeah, that’s the last one I want to go through. There’ll be others, but hopefully, we will be able to manage it better. Our infrastructure will — hopefully will be changed and improved. Our coordination and communication with government [0:34:00] resources will be better. Time has a — time has a way of healing as we all like to say. But it also has a way of making the memory cloudy and distant. And shame on us if that becomes the case.
IJ: Yes, sir. I think that will conclude our interview.
IJ: Thank you for sharing your story. And in the future, researchers may look back on this recording to get a sense of what happened during Hurricane Harvey. We appreciate your participation in this project. And we hope you have a wonderful day.
JS: Well, thank you. I have enjoyed it. Nice meeting you.
IJ: It’s nice to meet you as well. [0:34:49]