Harvey's aftermath: How the Dynamo helped hurricane-hit Houston
HOUSTON -- Like so many in the city, the Houston Dynamo was affected by Hurricane Harvey. In its aftermath, the club has played a role in the city's healing; ESPN FC traveled to Houston to hear stories from players, club employees and fans.
A.J. DeLaGarza recalls the moment when he came closest to crying while watching Harvey wreak havoc.
"I was watching a video of a man just completely soaked, walking down the street with two trash bags. It was everything he had," said DeLaGarza. "A reporter stopped to interview him, but the man couldn't get the words out; he just choked up."
On Aug. 25, the day Harvey made landfall, Houston's game the next day vs. Kansas City was cancelled. Several players went off on international duty, but others, including DeLaGarza, stayed home ahead of what turned out to be a harrowing five nights.
"We went looking for a generator and for any food we could get. It was all gone. Every store had signs that said: 'No sand bags, no generators,'" said DeLaGarza.
The Corpus Christi area, three hours to the south, bore the brunt of the storm initially but, by Saturday, it was Houston's turn. DeLaGarza barely slept that night -- two hours at best. It's hard to rest when you think a tornado is about to rip your home in half.
"We got a message saying there was a tornado warning and we had to take cover. My wife and I had to wake up our two-year-old daughter at 1 a.m. and took cover in our bathroom. We were there 45 minutes. We got lucky, it never came, but it literally went around the homes of some of the coaching staff who live nearby," said DeLaGarza.
He was exhausted but could also call himself lucky. His home never flooded; the water only reached halfway up his front yard. But the gravity of the situation was palpable. The Red Cross helicopters, which flew over his house looking for people to rescue, mirrored what he was watching on the local TV news stations.
Other Dynamo players were also fortunate to emerge unscathed. Defender Leonardo, fearing flooding in his home, moved in with midfielder Ricardo Clark because Clark has a second story. By the time the water started receding on Tuesday and the team got to Dallas to resume training, the two were like an old married couple. "We said, 'you guys got to know each other really well, huh?''' DeLaGarza said.
Getting back to soccer was a release and a relief for the players, but one only needs to look around to be reminded of the scars left by Harvey.
Many streets look like one that we are observing in the suburb of Manvel. Homes are completely gutted. Destroyed belongings sit piled up on the curb. "That one has a bunch of baby stuff," DeLaGarza says as we drive around the area.
Absorbing what has happened, DeLaGarza and the Dynamo are clear what their roles are in Houston's recovery process: "We're drawing inspiration from watching our neighbors get in boats and save people's lives. We just want to give back in any way we can."
Julio Yerena is a proud Houstonian. The 24-year-old was born and raised in the city and joined the Dynamo as an intern in 2014.
Three years later, Yerena is an account manager, which means he handles customer service for season ticket holders. It's a role he enjoys, and so it was only natural that, as city officials called upon people to help with water rescues, Yerena got to work getting his family's deep-sea fishing boat ready.
"We packed up my truck, got some life jackets, and so all of us -- my dad, older brother, uncle, cousin and I -- we towed the boat to the Highway 59 and Little York area (north of downtown Houston), which had about two to four feet of water," said Yerena.
He was astounded by what he saw. People had who gone to the store in hopes of getting food before the rains came were still stranded 24 hours later. In the short time they were inside, the water had risen and they couldn't return home.
Yerena and his family looked to help immediately, but rescuing was tricky. First, it was pouring rain the entire day, and they encountered swift currents. Second, it's one thing to navigate a fishing boat in the waters off Galveston; it's quite another to do it on a city street, where submerged medians, fire hydrants, concrete and other hazards could shred a motor in seconds.
"It was unfamiliar territory, but in the end we were able to rescue 10 families, families of four, five or six people," said Yerena.
After starting at 1 p.m., the Yerenas continued rescuing people for nine hours, at which point the darkness meant it was impossible to see where they were going. The rescue effort ended when the axle on the trailer broke while trying to go over a median.
When he returned home, Yerena was exhausted and emotional. The sense of relief was strong, but so was the feeling that he could have done more. Another opportunity soon presented itself, however, as the Dynamo's BBVA Compass Stadium was converted into a donation center.
"It's great to see everybody coming together for one cause where nothing else matters except taking care of your neighbors," said Yerena. "This says a lot about the Dynamo organization."
Last Saturday, spirit was strong inside BBVA Compass Stadium ahead of the Dynamo's game vs. Colorado Rapids. The club honored the city's first responders and unveiled a large "Houston Strong" banner, which was held by Dynamo and Rapids players.
Forward Andrew Wenger and assistant coach Davy Arnaud addressed the crowd, offering their hope that the next 90 minutes of soccer could provide a temporary escape from reality for anyone suffering from the storm.
Wenger and Arnaud might as well have been talking directly to Kris and Melissa Buchan. The Dynamo's 1-0 defeat really didn't matter too much to them: Apart from church, it was the first time since the storm that they had been out.
After enduring the shock of seeing five feet of water fill the first floor of their home in the suburb of Kingwood and then being rescued by good Samaritans from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Saturday's game was a needed break.
"This is our first time to be normal," said Kris. "We got to come with some people from our son's soccer team. We got to catch up with them and see some good soccer. It was nice to just forget about everything for a little bit."
Along the way the Buchans have had family and friends come to their aid, helping to clean up their house as they begin the long process of rebuilding. The Dynamo also helped, and by providing a lift to a family in need, earned fans for life.
"The Dynamo reached out to our club for free tickets and we wouldn't have even thought about it -- it's not on our mind -- but somebody came to us and said: 'Hey, would you like to go to the Dynamo game and get a little break?' We said: 'You know what, let's do it.' It was great the way the Dynamo came out and reached out to people," said Buchan.
For some in Houston, normal life has resumed. For the Buchans, however, or the people rescued by Yerena and his family, or the residents of the destroyed homes not far from DeLaGarza, the recovery has only just started.
But the way the community has come together shows that if there is one city that will rebuild bigger and stronger than ever, you can bet it will be Houston.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .