News Media: Houston, TX
We’re pleased to tell you that you’ve been selected as a Hero of Houston.
Your picture will be part of our Wall of Heroes installation on Discovery Green, Houston. The display will take place from May 10th – 13th from 7am to 10pm, so make sure you drop by to see yourself!
From everyone at Shell, we extend our sincere appreciation to you and the many other volunteers who joined the effort to support Houston after the hurricane.
Early on that unforgettable Monday morning, as Hurricane Harvey brought the Barker Reservoir's waters up his front yard and then under the front door, Gitesh Desai knew his own recovery efforts would have to be sidetracked.
Desai's neighborhood, Fleetwood, sits in the flood pool of the reservoir on Memorial Drive in the Energy Corridor. Most of the houses in the subdivision took on at least 7 feet of water and two weeks after the storm had passed, Fleetwood was still inaccessible to its residents.
"The first floor is completely gone, everything I possessed was destroyed," Desai said. "My books, my memories, irreplaceable pictures and albums - it's all gone."
Desa is president of the Houston chapter of Sewa International, a nonprofit that participates in disaster rescue and recovery worldwide.
Sewa means selfless service - service above self - in Sanskrit.
In the storm's immediate aftermath, the 63-year-old coordinated Sewa's partnership with 40 organizations in the Indian community. Sewa recruited more than 1,200 volunteers who logged nearly 45,000 work-hours, brought in 21 truckloads of supplies, set up a 24-hour helpline and rescued 687 people from floodwaters.
Vijay Pallod, a leader in the local Indian community, met Desai in 1993, during relief efforts for the Latur earthquake in India. That earthquake destroyed 52 villages, killed nearly 10,000 people and injured 30,000 more.
"I was very impressed with his dedicated volunteer work to help the community," Pallod said. "He is well-respected as a true leader in the community."
As in the earthquake and countless other natural disasters since, Pallod said, Desai emerged as a community leader when Harvey struck.
"He never talked about his own problems and being away from his home, but he was ready to listen to others' problems," Pallod said.
Three months have passed since Desai's home was flooded and he is still living in a hotel. He has plans to repair his home, Desai said, but the execution is going slowly.
Though Houston has seen more than one rainstorm since Harvey and life has returned to normal for many, Desai and Sewa continue to help rebuild the lives of those who lost everything.
The organization's work is mostly based in Rosharon, Desai said. It has raised $450,000 to aid in relief efforts.
"It's hard to describe how hard it is," Desai said. "But it doesn't break our spirit. That's why we keep doing it."
Last month Sewa International was awarded a $397,590 grant by the Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF)
Recovery of hurricane Harvey-hit places may take more time, even a couple of years, said Gitesh Desai, president of Indian American community organization Sewa International’s Houston Chapter.
Recovery “will take long time; a number of months to a couple of years. We don’t know how it will take at this juncture,” said Desai while speaking to abc13.
“We had to raise money as we were going in the early hours of this Harvey and reach out to the community to support and donate money, so we can buy supplies and support,” he added.
Sewa International has been in the forefront helping people finding shelters and providing them with food ever since hurricane Harvey hit Houston.
Sewa has set up a partnership with various rescue agencies in the US to help communities struck in the hurricane, said Kavita Tewary, executive director, Sewa International.
“We set up a partnership with various rescue agencies; the US coast guard, the Texas coast guard, and volunteers from New Orleans who had experience from Katrina,” said Tewary.
“A lot of Asian families felt comfortable contacting us because they knew us, they knew that there is someone on the other side of the line who could understand them well,” she added.
Last month Sewa International was awarded a $397,590 grant by the Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF) in its second round of grants for providing financial aid and services to Houston/Harris County flood victims.
The funds provided to Sewa International will be used for helping 600 persons in assessing their “individual/family needs resulting from a specific disaster event, help them develop a recovery plan, and screen for duplication of benefits and provide them access to resources for their unmet needs.”
Founded in 2003, Sewa International is a Hindu faith-based, humanitarian, nonprofit service organization. It is part of a larger movement that started in India in 1989 and is active in twenty countries.
Hindus Respond to Hurricane Harvey
Sewa International joins others of Houston’s 200,000-strong Indian community to help one another and their neighbors in the wake of unprecedented flooding
Heeding the urgent warnings, Gitesh Desai and his family—each carrying just a backpack—fled their Houston home as Hurricane Harvey flooded it with five feet of water on August 25, 2017. The family lost its precious collections of books and all the memorabilia on the first floor. Yet, when called at his hotel and asked how he was doing, he promptly responded, “This isn’t about me. There are many poor fellow Houstonians who need help from people like me. That is what I am trying to do through Sewa International.”
Gitesh is president of the Houston chapter of that relief and development organization. His normal role is to facilitate its responses to disasters overseas. Now he found his own family in the middle of the costliest natural disaster in recent American history and himself directing volunteer efforts from a local hotel room.
Texans knew they were in trouble when the weather forecasters started predicting rainfall in feet instead of inches. Rain from the slow-moving storm pounded Houston and other parts of Texas for a week. The area’s bayous—normally languid rivers meandering through the flatlands—burst their banks, drowning entire neighborhoods under several feet of water, affecting one in four Houston residents. An estimated 200,000 homes were destroyed or damaged in the state—50,000 of them in Houston. A million cars, abandoned to the floodwaters, were ruined. The Texas governor’s office estimated the economic damage at $180 billion and predicted rebuilding will take five years.
Last fall, as the days grew shorter and the weather cooled, Sheetal Parwal began preparing her home for Diwali.
The house was thoroughly cleaned, clutter discarded and colorful rangoli sand art laid out to welcome friends and neighbors into her home to celebrate the annual Hindu Festival of Lights with sweets, extravagant dinners and prayers to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi.
This year, Parwal and her family will celebrate a holiday meant to bring good fortune and prosperity in a rented apartment - their Katy house sitting gutted miles away after taking on 2 feet of water during Hurricane Harvey.
"We came back to see a week later," Parwal said. "But home is not home."
Diwali celebrates the triumph of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair.
Thousands of years ago, the legend goes, a Good King vanquished a Bad Demon. The tale and characters differ - in northern India, Lord Rama of Ayodya defeated his wife's kidnapper, Ravana; southern Indians believe it was Lord Krishna who killed Narakashura the day before the new moon - but, always, light conquers darkness.
Thursday marks the climax of the weeklong holiday, and the night sky, with its new moon, will be illuminated with firecrackers and fireworks by almost 1.5 billion revelers worldwide.
For many of the 120,000 Hindus in Houston, however, this year's celebration will be different, more solemn.
The two essential elements of Diwali, Parwal said, are home and family. Without a home, a true home of their own, it's difficult to celebrate.
"The very meaning of the celebration, we're unable to find that," Parwal said. "We are blessed that we have our family together, but you have an attachment to your home, that's where you know you'll spend Diwali every year."
Asian residents hit
Harvey's destruction was especially pervasive in areas where the South Asian population has historically settled - Bellaire, Sugar Land and Katy took on massive damage.
Parwal, 37, moved to Houston from central India in 2008 - one day before Hurricane Ike's winds left millions without power. Weathering that storm, she thought she had seen the worst. Her family lived with friends for a few weeks before buying a home in the Canyon Gate subdivision.
Nine years later, all 721 homes in the neighborhood, including Parwal's, would be inundated by Harvey.
"We could see it on that Sunday, it was coming up the front yard, and it was moving up inch by inch," Parwal said. "But we still had that hope that it'll come to the front door and go away."
Sitting upstream from the reservoirs, the controversial release of the Addicks and Barker dams by the Army Corps of Engineers was a relief, Parwal said.
When the spillways were opened, water flowed away from Canyon Gate, allowing the nine people huddled in her home a way to escape, but not enough time to take the three-day food supply Parwal had prepared or their emergency bags.
"Everyone was saying, 'We're leaving, life is more precious than anything else,'" Parwal said.
Parwal's 6-year-old son, Ram, has never known another home beside the one in Canyon Gate. At such a young age, she said, his memories are few, but the holidays are especially sensitive.
"He relates all the firecrackers and the celebrations with our home," Parwal said. "Whatever he remembers, he remembers there."
Her son is resilient, but after almost two months in temporary housing, he's ready to go home.
"He keeps asking when we'll go and be happy again," Parwal said. "But home is not the same."
While Parwal's family was praying for the dams to open, Manohar Venuturupalli, 44, his wife, Subhadra, and their daughter, Neeharika, waited downstream as the waters made their way up the driveway, then the yard and over the stoop into their west Houston home.
Venuturupalli's home sits squarely in the flood plain of both the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. When the beleaguered dams were opened that Monday, his house near Briar Forest and Dairy Ashford was submerged under 8 feet of water.
"I stayed up all night Sunday, watching the water rising," Venuturupalli said.
By Monday morning, the water was waist-high.
Venuturupalli and his family are living in temporary housing, working little by little to be able to return to their home; he estimates repairs should be complete in six weeks.
In a parallel tothe first day of Diwali, when homes are scrubbed clean to welcome Lakshmi and her gifts, Parwal and her husband, Umesh, are at their Katy home every evening ripping up sheetrock and cutting down moldy beams, deciding what relics and memories to keep - and which to throw away.
"It's endless," she said. "But the help has been endless too."
Vijay Pallod, a leader in the local Hindu community, said there are more than 500 Hindu families still displaced from the storm. Some are still in hotels, he said, some are with friends or family.
Venuturupalli and his family were rescued from their flooded home by a friend of a friend with an airboat.
"I don't know the people who evacuated me," Venuturupalli said of the man who ferried residents of his neighborhood out of their waterlogged homes to safety. "I don't think I'll ever see him again."
Slow to celebrate
For families that are still displaced, getting in the spirit of Diwali may come slowly, Arun Kankani said.
Kankani is executive vice president of Sewa International, a global nonprofit rescue organization with a chapter in Houston. He said the organization prepared hundreds of care packages with Diwali essentials - carrot sweets, dried fruit, bangles and the all-important lamps to light the way to a new year of recovery.
"Diwali is something you do with your family at home," Kankani said. "So, without that, it takes a lot."
Prosperity comes in the home, Parwal said. To welcome wealth and success for the coming year, Hindus will often leave their doors and windows open on Diwali night.
"This Diwali we're not at our home, which we have decorated and put together," Parwal said. "But we are together, so let's celebrate it where we are and hopefully next year it'll be better."
Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Southeast Texas as a Category 4 hurricane. Unprecedented heavy rains are expected to continue for almost a week. Houston, home to almost six million people, is a city under siege. Most neighborhoods are inundated and thousands of people have their houses flooded with more than a few feet of water. People are stranded without food and water. Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, “Houston flooding may be the worst we have ever seen. The loss is in billions of dollars.” Sewa International volunteers in Houston are on the ground conducting rescue and relief operations.
The city of Rockport took the Category 4 hurricane head-on with winds blowing at more than 130 miles per hour. Corpus Christi and Houston are expected to get 50 inches of rain. Though downgraded to Category 2, the slow-moving Hurricane Harvey is expected to persist in the area for days of downpour causing catastrophic epic flooding. Some roads in the area are under 25 feet of water. There are reports of people dying in flooded cars and flooded houses.
Preeti Kankikarla, a young professional living with her 65-year-old mother was stranded in her ground floor apartment as the water level kept rising inside her apartment. She heard the radio announcement and called the Sewa hotline. Sewa volunteers in the neighborhood immediately reached her and helped her move into a first-floor apartment. Preeti says, “My deepest gratitude for all the help I received from you during the toughest of our times. I couldn’t thank you enough for the prompt actions in response to my request.”
The President of Sewa International’s Houston Chapter, Gitesh Desai said, “The residents of Houston are staying strong through the crisis and coordinating citizen-led efforts to help thousands of people who are stranded in flooded houses without food and water.” Many Indian businesses and places of worship have opened their doors to give shelter to displaced families. Indian restaurants and individual families are providing free packets of freshly prepared Indian food. Sewa is helping in the logistics.
Mr. Desai said that “Major Indian organizations such as, India House, India Cultural Center, Indo-American Charity Foundation, Hindus of Greater Houston and Indo-American Political Action Committee have decided to coordinate all the relief efforts of the Indian community through Sewa International.” A list of all the free food, shelter and medical help resources is being maintained on the Sewa International website. Teams of volunteers are constantly working the phones coordinating neighborhood relief efforts that Sewa volunteers are conducting in their own local Houston municipalities. Since most of the important connecting roads are flooded and out of service, this coordination is crucial.
In addition, Sewa International volunteers are helping people find shelter and are delivering food to stranded people. Many international students from India at the University of Houston have had their first-floor apartments completely flooded and they have had to move in with their friends on second and third floors. Sewa has rescued and relocated many such students. “A system for pre-registration for volunteers has been set up for cleanup work after the water levels subsides,” Mr. Desai said.
Sewa International is appealing to all the people to stay safe and stay inside as much as possible. They are also appealing to all the businesses and nonprofits in the area to offer help in whatever form they can and their resources will be listed in the help directory on the Sewa International website and will be publicized widely in the community.
People seeking help can call 281-909-SEWA (281-909-7392). Those who wish to volunteer or donate for the cause can visit www.sewahouston.org. For regular updates on the weather and flood conditions, as well as relief efforts, people can visit the Sewa Houston Facebook page.
Click here for latest update on Sewa's Harvey Rescue and Relief efforts
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Sewa International is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) non profit organization registered in Georgia.
Copyright © 2018 Sewa International. All rights reserved.