Mary Jo Lagoski is a private practice psychotherapist in Kingwood, where she has lived for the past thirty years. Lagoski’s home did not suffer damages from Harvey, but she details other aspects of her experience with the hurricane. After hearing news channels announce the opening of Conroe’s flood gates to prevent severe flooding from Harvey, Lagoski and her family packed plastic bags of clothes, money, jewelry, etc., for a quick evacuation if needed.
The following day, Lagoski awoke to a completely dry street – causing a blindsided reaction when turning on the news and hearing of the extensive flooding accounts. Lagoski recalls a feeling of guilt upon seeing the damages others suffered, instilling a desire to help. Unfortunately, she could not leave her house due to road blockages and precautions. Once those barriers were removed, Lagoski volunteered at her church, helping with clothing and food banks for three weeks post-Harvey. She conducted training to help the volunteers understand how to talk to those traumatized by the devastation. When comparing Harvey to past hurricanes and tropical storms, Lagoski revealed the extent of the flooding caused by Harvey and widespread community support. Lagoski touches briefly on how technology helped connect communities. Upon reflecting on the first anniversary of Harvey, Lagoski believes those who did not experience flooding do not want to think of the storm, and those who did suffer consequences are tired of thinking of the hurricane. However, the shared experience did create a wider sense of community kindness and a greater willingness to help others. Lagoski also mentioned in some of her patients she has seen a sense of panic whenever it rains because it triggers memories of Harvey’s trauma, but she believes five years post-Harvey will see the fears subside.
Interviewee: Mary Jo Lagoski
Interview Date: October 27, 2018
Interview Location: Kingwood Community Center
Interviewer: Johnny Zapata
INTERVIEWER: Hello, today is October 27, 2018. My name is Johnny Zapata, and I’m here today at the Kingwood Community Center with Mary Jo Lagoski as part of the University of Houston Center for Public History’s Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project. We’ll be talking about Mary Jo’s experience as a Hurricane Harvey volunteer.
JZ: Are you ready?
ML: I’m ready.
JZ: Great. Please state your name, and tell me a little bit about yourself, where you were born.
ML: Okay, I’m Mary Jo Lagoski. I was born in Kansas, but I’ve been here about 30 years. Pardon me. I’m a psychotherapist in private practice here in Kingwood. So Kingwood’s been our home a long time.
JZ: That’s great. What brought you over to Houston from Kansas?
ML: My husband’s job.
JZ: What does he work in?
ML: He’s now retired, but he flew for [0:01:00] Continental. And so we moved — we were in New Jersey and chose to come down south, because we had lived in Texas before. And we like it, so.
JZ: That’s great. I know your house wasn’t flooded during Harvey, but could you tell me what you felt or what you were thinking as the storm was approaching Houston? How were you preparing? And what sorts of precautions did you take to protect your home and your loved ones?
ML: Sure. We — you know, we — I saw on television the statement that Conroe was going to open the flood gates just a small amount on — I think it was Thursday morning, so no one would flood. Well, so Wednesday night, we didn’t think much about it, but we had our family living with us — extended family. And so everybody had to put a change of clothes in a big plastic bag in case we had to go. And I put my jewelry in it and whatever money I had, so we would be prepared [0:02:00] to leave. But it caused kind of a — frightened’s not quite the word — some anxiety in the little kids that they knew this was going on.
We did not know then that it even flooded the next day and that they had opened the gates wide the night before. And we did not know that, but when we woke up — because we had rain, but our street was totally dry. You know, there was no standing water anywhere on our street. So we thought, “Okay, everything’s fine. We’re fine. It didn’t flood,” until we turned the television on. And then we were shocked.
JZ: How far away was the actual flooding from your house?
ML: We first tried to go out toward Northpark to see my office, because I first thought, “Oh, I bet I have a couple inches in my office. And I need to go see what the damage is.” But we couldn’t get down that street. So we tried to go down Kingwood Drive to go around, and we [0:03:00] clocked it. It was about an eighth of a mile from our house where it was coming up Kingwood Drive but stopped a few feet —
JZ: Was your office affected?
ML: Not at all. It was — it was so full. There must be a low place right in between my office and the road.
JZ: That’s great.
JZ: Did you have any need to evacuate during the storm? Or did you stay hunkered down in your home during the flooding?
ML: We did not have to be evacuated for precaution at all. And it was kind of guilt-producing and frustrating, because once we saw pictures, we thought, “Well, they’re going to start shelters. We need to go help.” But we were almost like on a big island. We couldn’t get anywhere. We couldn’t get to the church that was closest. We couldn’t get to the school. We couldn’t get anywhere for about 24 hours.
JZ: 24 hours?
JZ: So once you were able to leave your home, your island, what were some of the volunteer works that you were involved in [0:04:00]?
ML: Well, we first went over to our church, which kind of — I was impressed. They set up kind of a command center there. And the phone kept — the phones kept ringing. And then they’d post up on a bulletin board who needs help, who needs rescued, who needs someone to help clean out their house — just anybody who called. And one of our ministers took a crew of about nine or ten men out every morning to just go address needs. They cleaned out a hundred homes, these nine or ten men.
JZ: Oh, wow.
ML: Not church people necessarily, just a hundred homes — and tore down all the sheetrock and stuff like that. So they worked for months doing this. We also set up a clothing bank for all sizes. And we set up a food bank, and we set up a cleaning supply bank for people, too. That went on for about three weeks. The other thing that we did is we fed people every night from [0:05:00] — from August until April. I think we stopped feeding people, because it was dwindling. And people didn’t need meals so much. But for a long time, we fed people nightly. And so my husband did a lot of cooking and brought food in. And what I did is I sat with people and helped them process because of my background. I’m not strong enough to cut out sheetrock and stuff like that, but I can talk to people. So I processed with a lot. And then I put on a training for our laypeople to — how to talk to their neighbors who flooded and that kind of thing. And then, for a while, I ran a support group for survivors of the flood, too.
JZ: Can you tell me a little bit more about each individual activity that you were personally involved in, like the support group and the presentation? What sorts of things did you do? And what sort of things did you speak to? Speak about survivors.
ML: Sure. I [0:06:00] did — with the training, we kind of stayed with the things you should say, shouldn’t say, how to be a little sensitive to people who had been flooded. We also processed a little bit with those people. They were eager to help, but they had a little of that survivor’s guilt. And we had to address that a little bit. And in the support group, we talked about the different stages they were in, and frustrations, and fears of that night, and who woke up to water, and who got out on their bed into water, and who had to be rescued, and kind of let them process the ways they were rescued. But we also talked about the different feelings, like anger and, you know, just different grief feelings, yeah.
Then, after we did that — that was from August until November. Then in November, a friend of mine and I got together a bunch of little Christmas trees that we had the church [0:07:00] people decorate. And they took them all around and just gave them out to anybody who’d been flooded just to let them know we’re thinking about — this will be a hard Christmas. So we really tried to help people process through it and move forward and know there’s hope in the future.
JZ: That’s good. In your congregation, what would you say is the percentage of people that was affected?
ML: That is a hard one. I honestly don’t know. I would have to find out. Of active members? I bet there was probably 25 or 30 percent, because it’s an older congregation. And many of them lived in one-level homes. And of everybody I know, I bet it was — I bet it was 25 or 30 percent.
JZ: 25 or 30?
JZ: Did you have any family members that got affected by the hurricane?
ML: I did not, because all of my family was in my house at that moment [0:08:00]. So I was affected. I had a lot of people there.
JZ: So could you tell me a little bit more about receiving people? What was that like having your family members over? And have you hosted any other people, not family members?
ML: Yeah, yeah, my family had moved in temporarily before the flood. And so we had eight people in our house and seven dogs. And so we kept thinking, “If our family wasn’t here, we’d bring in people.” So there again lies the — when you tend to be a helper lies a little bit of the guilt. But there literally was nowhere for them to sleep if we brought somebody in. So we — that’s why we went out. We cooked and tried to work that way.
JZ: So you said there were eight people at your home. Who were those people? And were they also involved in the volunteering activities and in what aspect?
ML: That’s a good question. It was my husband and I, a daughter who lives with us permanently, who’s disabled, a daughter and her four [0:09:00] children, who had recently divorced and was in transition. And no, I would say they did not. The one who’s disabled, I would not have expected her to, knowing her mental illness. My other daughter, she did a lot of talking online to her friends. But she, with her four kids — she did not, because she had a special needs boy and a baby. So she was kind of locked in.
JZ: That’s understandable.
ML: Yeah, she had to clean the house for us though while we were running around, so.
JZ: That always helps.
ML: Yeah, it does.
JZ: This wasn’t your first hurricane, having lived in Houston for 30 years. How was Harvey different from previous experiences, like Ike, or Allison, or previous hurricanes you might have experienced?
ML: It was really different, because, A, it was a shock since I thought Thursday morning we’d start to see a little water rising. And they released Wednesday night. So it was such a shock. At first, when I saw the news and I saw [0:10:00] an aerial picture of Kingwood, I wrote down on Facebook, “I don’t think that’s a real picture. I think somebody’s trying to be funny,” because I had no reason to think it had flooded. Even in ’94, I think it was, when we had a bad flood, Kingwood wasn’t really flooded — just a part of Forest Cove and a little bit of Woodland Hills. So it was just such a shock.
And the other ones were not. The other thing was it impacted the whole community, not just a section of it. So I have a new appreciation what it’s like to have your community have trauma.
JZ: During the hurricane or the aftermath, were any of your utilities cut out, maybe water or electricity?
ML: Not this time. During Ike, we had two weeks without any electricity, but we were fortunate that we didn’t have any problem this time, yeah.
JZ: So [0:11:00] how did you do with communicating with others, in terms of friends in other parts of the city? Perhaps they were flooded. You mentioned you had survivor’s guilt. Were there friends in other parts of the city that were affected that you were trying to stay in communication with but perhaps were not able to speak to them?
ML: We did not have that experience. Everyone that I knew was able to get through on a cell phone. Or Facebook was a big one where people were communicating. So we pretty much knew everyone that we knew and loved were safe.
JZ: Now, more than a year later after the storm, how do you feel that your community — and being here in this community center, I get the sense that this is a very tight-knit community, where there is a sense of community and belonging. How do you feel that your community has changed since the storm?
ML: I think people — I was talking to a lady today. And it’s been a year, and she’s saying now she’s [0:12:00] feeling the fatigue and the being worn out and tired of the whole thing. And so I think there is — it has changed some things here. I think people don’t want to think about Harvey now if they weren’t flooded. And if they were flooded, they’re sick of it. And they wish it’d be done. But many of them still don’t have their houses back yet. I think it has changed us in that we have some scam artists who have found Kingwood — and people who steal packages off of doorsteps and stuff. And that’s new. We haven’t had that before, so it’s — in some ways, it’s been detrimental to the community. On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot more kindness and willingness to help just for free — just to help — than before.
ML: So it also brought our community, I think, together and did make it tighter in a different way.
JZ: That’s amazing.
ML: Yeah, yeah.
JZ: Is there anything else that you would like to add? You can feel free to speak on whatever topic that [0:13:00] perhaps we haven’t touched upon.
ML: I would like to say that in my office I am seeing more PTS come in now than early on. Some of the people — it’s because they process — I processed with them, and they came to group and stuff. And so they’re fine. But I’m seeing more and more people come in who really are having nightmares and all that again a year later. So that’s been really interesting to me.
JZ: Where do you think that stems from?
ML: Because they have the frustration they can’t get their houses totally done. I have a friend who has 22 windows she has to replace. And they’re big. And she said yesterday, “I’m replacing one. And I have to wait three months for it to be done. Then I’m going to get another.” And so, for her, like she said, “It’s never going to end.” It’s going to be years before she can get her house, kind of, back to what it was before [0:14:00].
JZ: Yeah, I also have another question. Earlier during the summer during hurricane season, we had a scare, because there was a hurricane that came very close to Houston. What were people’s reactions to that possible threat? How did you see them react?
ML: I saw a lot of panic — a lot of panic. I saw a lot on Facebook of people saying, “It’s raining,” and “How long’s it going to last?” and “Are you all prepared? Is everybody getting water? What are we supposed to do?” So I saw a lot of panic. I think it just retriggered a lot of people, yeah.
JZ: Do you see that with other storms that we get sometimes during the summer?
ML: I hadn’t seen that before. In all these years I’d been here, I hadn’t seen people do this panic thing. Every time we’ve had a hurricane, we’ve kind of been lackadaisical — gone, “Well, I’ll get some water. You know, I’ll fill my bathtub with water. Get some snacks, so if the TV’s out, we have something to eat.” You know, really, I think we’ve been [0:15:00] too lackadaisical in a way. But it’s not like that now, yeah.
JZ: Do you think it will return back to where people are very lax about it? Because Houston is a city that’s constantly hit by storms. And it appears that we never learn our lesson. Do you think that maybe five years from now or if we have a long period where there’s not a storm that people will grow lax and eventually forget?
ML: Yes. Yes, absolutely. That seems to be human nature. We don’t learn our lessons really well. But I do think it will take a good five years. I think everybody’s home needs to be redone and they feel like it’s home again. And you know, all the stores that have lost their space or can’t reopen, once those buildings are filled again with stores, I think it will go back to us being a little bit in denial, yeah.
JZ: Alright. Well, thank you so much for your interview. And future historians will be able to look back and listen to this interview and see what it was like for a [0:16:00] Hurricane Harvey volunteer.
ML: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. It’s my privilege actually. Thank you. [0:16:07]
IMPORTANT: I want to be sure we are using the right edited transcript here. [HZ1]