It’s Sunday afternoon, Sept. 10, and Kathy Alt is exhausted. The executive director of Cinco Charities in Katy, Texas, has been dealing with the after-effects of Hurricane Harvey on The Ballard House, the organization’s 20,000-square-foot home for medical patients and their families.
The charity (and home) was founded back in 2006 by nine agents at Keller Williams Premier Realty in Katy, Texas. Its mission – to provide temporary housing for patients and their caregivers coming to the Katy/West Houston area for medical treatment of life-threatening illnesses.
(Left to Right - Chris Hiller, Gathoni Kimondo, Tony Berthelot, Susan Hudson, Celeste Holifield, Kathy Alt)
Eight inches of floodwater saturated the entire first floor of The Ballard House as temperatures soared into the 90s. “It sat for a week and a half. So that’s where a lot of the damage was done,” says Alt.
However, thanks to volunteers including dozens of Keller Williams associates, medical patients and their families found safe temporary housing, and the charity home has been mucked out and emptied of its damaged furnishings.
The Storm HitsAs with countless other stories of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction, the need for help was unanticipated – and happened suddenly.
Friday, Aug. 25 – No FearWhen Alt left The Ballard House on Friday, Aug. 25, she explained to guests that extra supplies had been stocked, and that there was a generator in place if power was lost. The drainage district had just completed a reinforcement of the bayou behind the house, and flooding was not expected.
“We should be in good shape,” she told them.
When the storm started Friday night, the main concern in Katy wasn’t the wind, but rather the rain, says Chris Hiller, Keller Williams agent with Keller Williams Premier and treasurer of The Ballard House. In all, Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the Houston area.
Sunday, Aug. 27 – Water Rises“There was no expectation at all that our part of Katy would flood, because we had never had anything close to flooding,” says Hiller. “It was sort of a wait and see on Saturday and Sunday. But by Sunday night, the water was rising.”
Many guests were in wheelchairs or used walkers; some had compromised immune systems from chemotherapy or organ transplants. They could not be evacuated to shelters due to their medical conditions.
Alt kept in touch with authorities that night about the likelihood of a flood. “Nobody knew – this was unprecedented,” she says.
Monday, Aug. 28 – A Safe EvacuationEarly Monday morning, it became clear that the situation was worsening. For hours, Alt prayed, called and asked people for help – nobody could tell her what to do. Then, everything fell into place.
She and her family drove to the edge of the floodwaters, unable to reach The Ballard House. A firefighter named Jason came along and offered to help: he drove his high-profile vehicle into the floodwater to evacuate the first round of Ballard House guests.
At a nearby shelter, Alt spoke to Jim Leggett, senior pastor of Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church, about the Ballard House evacuees. Leggett volunteered his church to stage the guests and volunteers.
Hiller, Keller Williams agent and Ballard House board member Brian Varvel, and Dave Brown, the husband of a KW agent and chair of the board, had cars parked where the floodwaters ended.
An army of boats began showing up, several headed to The Ballard House to evacuate guests. Then the National Guard showed up and drove to the house with large, high-profile vehicles.
Hosting was not an easy task because of the health conditions of the guests. Transplant patients couldn’t be in homes with pets.
“By 5 o’clock, we had all of those families placed in host homes, with dry clothes, and they had been fed,” Alt says. In all, 13 families opened their homes to Ballard House guests.
Alt says if she had tried to plan the evacuation and placement of guests for a week, she doesn’t think it could have happened so efficiently. “I told the agents that have been here that they have been our safety net,” Alt says.
However, she had a major concern: one guest, a bone marrow transplant patient, refused to leave The Ballard House because his immune system was compromised. Because evacuation was voluntary, the patient was allowed to stay behind.
Friday, Sept. 1 – Cleanup BeginsAlt had her first visual confirmation that The Ballard House had flooded. Arial shots posted on Facebook showed the charity surrounded by water. She worried about the transplant patient left alone: he didn’t answer his phone. “We didn’t know what happened to him,” Alt says.
The National Guard got in touch with Alt on Friday, Sept. 1, and she and Hiller made a four-hour trip to The Ballard House on the back of a military vehicle. Upon arriving, Hiller’s first reaction to seeing the house was relief. They had driven past houses and schools in the area that still had water inside, but water had receded from The Ballard House.
“While it was bad, it could have been a lot worse. We weren’t facing any type of situation where the building was beyond repair,” Hiller said.
Upstairs, they found the transplant patient alive and well. At this point, he agreed to be moved, and Hiller took the man to his own home. Due to flooding and impassable roads, Alt could not return to The Ballard House until Wednesday, Sept. 6. Keller Williams agent David Rozier and his daughter went with her. Alt knew she’d need more hands to clear out the house. Agents had reached out to KW Cares for assistance.
Thursday, Sept. 7 – KW Volunteers Begin Cleanup
The goal was to remove wet furnishings and sheetrock so that a remediation company could begin the drying-out process. “I’m the only full-time employee, so there’s no way I could have done it by myself,” Alt says. “The response to our plea for help at The Ballard House was overwhelming. I was just amazed,” Hiller says. “What they were able to do was to preserve a lot of our furniture.” This is important because the home is covered by insurance, but the contents are not.
For now, patients who had been scheduled to stay at The Ballard House during their medical treatment are scattered throughout the Houston area. Some have been relocated to hotels paid for by the charity, while others have been placed within the Houston Hospitality Network. International service organizations have been asked to help patients from other countries.
Holifield and Berthelot are currently living in a camper of friend they met at the Ballard House. The couple has been staying in the home off and on while Berthelot has been receiving cancer treatment.
"The house has created community. It's good to feel people care in this company and have put so much into this," says Berthelot.
Alt’s best guess is that The Ballard House won’t reopen until early November. That’s about the same time Cinco Charities had planned to begin construction and add 17 additional rooms needed to meet demand.
“We were booked through the end of December. So I’m calling patients to let them know they have to find other accommodations until we can reopen,” Alt says.
Meanwhile, The Ballard House’s temporary office is at Keller Williams Premier.
Hiller and Alt both say the same thing about the future of The Ballard House: “This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”
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We Need Your Help!
Since Harvey made landfall, thousands of Keller Williams associates have volunteered across the state of Texas, helping families clean out their homes.
The ongoing need to support individuals affected by Hurricane Harvey, and now Hurricane Irma, is a great one.
Join us by contributing to KW Cares’ RED Relief fund. Your donation will be used to provide emergency grants, equipment and the supplies necessary to rebuild the lives of those who have lost so much.
Words: Dorothy de Souza Guedes
Photos: Ryan Kelly
This story was updated 9/20/2017 to include quotes from Gathoni Kimondo, Celeste Holifield and Tony Berthelot