Amish, Mennonites Quietly Rebuild Texas Towns

Lynn Kitser, one of the first volunteers on the ground, begins cutting trees and cleaning up in Bloomington, Texas. Mennonite Disaster Service

It may not be in the headlines much any more, but months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in August 2017, the area is still recovering, and Mennonites and Amish from all over the United States are quietly contributing to those recovery efforts.

Small towns, in particular, have suffered in the aftermath of Harvey's destruction without much help from the outside world.

"It didn't take long for us to realize this was where we were supposed to be for now," Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) Executive Director Kevin King said in a statement in September. "And we are there for a lot of reasons. There is tremendous need. These are towns that are often last on the list. They become first on our list."

On the ground

MDS workers and county officials speak with an unidentified homeowner in Bloomington, Texas about the damage to his home by Hurricane Harvey.
MDS workers and county officials speak with a homeowner (second from left) in Bloomington, Texas, about the damage to his home created by Hurricane Harvey. Mennonite Disaster Service

The MDS headed to Texas in late August 2017 to determine how best to deploy volunteers. Towns like Bastrop (east of Austin), Bloomington (north of Corpus Christi) and Rockport (south of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge) have all received assistance from MDS, a volunteer network of Anabaptist churches dedicated to responding to natural and man-made disasters in Canada and the U.S.

These crews do a variety of tasks, from tarping roofs to cutting up fallen trees to helping rebuild houses.

Speaking to an MDS writer, Victoria County Commissioner Danny Garcia said, "So, you guys coming in, man, that is a big shot in the arm for us. I'm not quite sure where we would be right now if you guys hadn't shown up.

“When I ask some of you why you do this, why do you come and help some people that you don’t even know ... and some of the answers are, well, this is what God wants us to do right now. So, that’s why you are here." Garcia continued.

"What you guys are providing for us is hope; if there is nothing else, there is hope."

MDS volunteers continue to help along the Texas Coastal Bend region. According to a Jan. 25 update from that region, 14 volunteers from Maryland, Virginia and Montana had provided rough-in plumbing and electrical work — meaning the basics of both are in place, but walls and ceilings are not — and started installing insulation in multiple homes.

Aid from individuals

Not all Mennonite or Amish volunteer are with the MDS, however.

KHOU reports that around 600 Amish or Mennonite men and women have flown or driven to Houston, hailing from California to New York. (And yes, some Amish are permitted to fly.) These volunteers have helped rebuild 120 homes in the past five months in Cypress, a city on the outskirts of Houston.

"The Mennonites, they're committed to come, as long as we want them to come and we have work for them," Scooter Buck, leader of the Harvey Relief Volunteer Group for Cypress United Methodist, told KHOU. "Just when I think we're going to run out of homes, we'll get two or three."

Buck estimates the volunteers, who work from dusk to dawn, are saving each homeowner around $2,000.

These Cypress volunteers are expected to stay through until May, then leave to tend to crops in the summer and return in September to continue their relief efforts.

Homeowners in La Grange, Texas, about an hour east of Austin, also received some help from Mennonites from LaGrange, Indiana, in late December.

One resident, Virginia Olenick, had seen her 105-year-old home take on seven feet of water and become unlivable. Cleanup and restoration has been difficult because of limited resources and her husband's health issues.

But a group of young adult Mennonites, most on winter vacation at the time, arrived to help. In Olenick's home alone, they repaired damage and even installed central heating, something the house didn't originally have.

"Hopefully when these people move into these houses, they feel more than just a new house without us giving a speech or nothing, hopefully we leave something behind," Elmer Hochstetler, leader of the group, told KXAN.

Hochstetler and his team aren't interested in the spotlight, however. They just want to provide relief to those in need.

"We don't do it for a big thank you," Hochstetler said. 'We just come to help them because they need help."