Putting KEEN Boots on the Ground in Houston
After teaming up with fans to donate $100,000 to Hurricane Harvey relief, KEEN employees activate to directly help victims.
By Jeff Snow, KEEN Sr. Social Media Manager
Do you remember where you were when Hurricane Sandy hit? What about Hurricane Katrina? Even though I was thousands of miles away from either storm, for some reason, I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing for both.
Hurricane season has kind of become a spectator sport for people who live well outside the range of these destructive storms’ reach. You’re glued to the news or The Weather Channel waiting for the shots of sideways rain, trees bending further than you ever thought possible, and the absolute absence of people besides Jim Cantore. This isn’t a criticism or a cultural observation, it’s just the result of feeling helpless for other people and being left with the only option of watching and waiting for the reports to come out.
For Hurricane Harvey, I actually can’t tell you where I was or what I was doing when it made landfall. I like to think it’s because I was starting a new job in a new city and there was just “too much” going on. Looking back, it’s ironic that my decision to start a new position at KEEN would enable me to get more involved and much closer to the storm that I felt furthest from. Because 10 days later, I was on a plane heading there.
A CULTURE OF TAKING ACTION
KEEN has a deep history of giving and engaging in disaster relief—the values that make up the company are put front and center all the time. With Harvey, KEEN started offering support to the affected area in Texas before the storm even hit land. We worked directly with our longtime non-profit partner, All Hands and Hearts, to coordinate a product donation for first responders and volunteers to ensure that people had safe footwear to work in that environment, and KEEN later made a financial donation to All Hands to support recovery operations.
Because of our relationship with All Hands, KEEN was able to send employees down to volunteer. After a simple one-line email from my boss asking if I wanted to go down to Houston and help, and about 10 days of logistical planning, I was on a plane with two other employees from our Portland headquarters.
After touching down, we met up with three KEEN field service representatives at our base of operations for the week—a church that was housing about 80 other volunteers plus the All Hands staff. Our team of six grabbed whatever open bunks were left and tried to figure out the routine.
The basic program was: wake up around 6 or 6:30 in the morning, stagger to the coffee, eat breakfast, pack your lunch and food for the day, round up with your group and get your daily assignment, head out in a rental van, get gas, stop by the tool depot, load up a wide selection of tools ranging from basic hand tools and power tools to sledge hammers and five-foot pry bars, and then get more coffee next door.
You could see, smell, and sometimes taste the destruction.
We drove anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to get to our projects. What I noticed driving around the city was that buildings looked older than they were. Like they had been artificially aged. Every so often you could see a high-water mark distinctly four feet or higher on buildings. Then we would turn into a neighborhood and the view changed dramatically. You could see, smell, and sometimes taste the destruction.
Lining both sides of most streets were mounds of drywall, furniture, insulation, wood, and things that looked like garbage but a few weeks earlier had likely been prized possessions. We would park and get out of the car to meet a homeowner, and the piles of debris would be up to our shoulders. This signified the work that we were about to do, mucking out homes.
THE HARDEST WORK WEEK WITH THE BIGGEST REWARD
Our job was to remove everything that could absorb water or had deteriorated from being underwater—from a height of about 4 feet down to the floor. Once we connected with the homeowner, we would break off and tackle our own sections of house. Someone would focus on the walls, someone would take carpet out (if it was still there), someone would work on taking off trim. If there was a bathroom or a kitchen, we would have to pull out the cupboards as best we could. Some small projects became huge and some huge projects went really quick. Wheelbarrow loads would migrate out to the curb along with full bags of debris. It was organized, sweaty chaos.
Most of the time these homeowners were elderly or physically unable to do the work, which made our reason for being there that much more meaningful.
After hours of sweating through everything, a house would transform from normal to looking like it was half-dressed. You would be able to see through the lower half of the walls straight through the floorplan. Anything salvageable was carefully stacked in the center of the room or moved outside when and where possible. Sometimes the homeowner would be there helping, but most of the time these homeowners were elderly or physically unable to do the work, which made our reason for being there that much more meaningful. I learned that we were focusing primarily on locations that were lower income or elderly, which I didn’t know going into the trip.
At the end of each day, we would get out of the rental van, take our boots off outside and line them up with the other 80 pairs of work boots. We would shower as fast as possible and try to relax and recover. In all the conversations with each other, you could feel the sense of pride and purpose in the work that was being done. There was camaraderie between each team and between people whose only interaction was holding a bag open for someone to shovel drywall into.
The drive to want to help people was so strong, and it was extremely fulfilling to go from hurricane spectator to volunteer. It’s an experience I will never forget.