At the end of August, and then again at the beginning of September, those of us out of harm’s way watched anxiously from afar as two major hurricanes threatened to wreak havoc on Houston, TX, and on the entire state of Florida and the Northern Caribbean islands. We watched and read the news, and continually refreshed our social media feeds to try to reassure ourselves that our friends and loved ones were safe, which only served to increase our anxiety. How much worse it must have been for those who were truly, unequivocally, in danger.
When the storm passed, we all breathed a sigh of relief. And yet, for those who were forced to face these storms head on, the nightmare had just begun. They may have escaped with their lives, but the destruction to property, being displaced, the piles of paperwork necessary to secure aid or file insurance claims, or even just struggling to get into the office/store/studio or living life without air conditioning in sweltering temperatures, means life is anything but back to normal for hundreds of thousands of people.
While many who suffered through Harvey and Irma are still without electricity and/or access to wifi, we managed to catch up with a few people in our community to hear their personal stories, and find out how they’re faring in the aftermath of these mammoth storms. Some common themes emerged from all of these stories. Even throughout some very harrowing experiences, there is an overwhelming sense of gratitude that things weren’t and aren’t worse. Everyone also had heartwarming stories that showcase the best of humanity, among both friends and strangers alike.
Jan Mohr, COUTURE Retailer Liaison, Houston, TX
Our very own (and beloved!) Retailer Liaison, Jan Mohr, lives in the Houston area. When we first heard about Harvey, we thought of her immediately. For days she kept assuring the COUTURE team, via texts and emails, that she was in a good place, that they were at a relatively higher elevation and that she had plenty of wine and drinking water (you know, “necessities” during a storm!). Eventually, she let us know that they’d been instructed to move their things to the second floor; the city was going to open reservoirs swollen from the rain and water was expected to potentially reach Jan’s home. Throughout all of this, Jan maintained her sunny disposition. While she conceded the entire thing sucked, she kept saying how lucky they were compared to most in Houston.
The situation got very real very quickly for Jan, her husband Larry, and their 86 pound Golden Retriever, Stella. A family friend reached out saying he’d heard what they were saying on the news about her neighborhood, but it would be better to get out immediately. He urged them get to a higher elevation point near their home, where he would meet them and take them to the relative safety of his home.
“The water is knee high at this point, and Larry thought it would be fine to take his truck,” Jan described her harrowing escape. “We open the garage door, and water just starts flooding into the garage, so we hop in the truck, get Stella in, our four bags (because we had to have Stella’s special food because she has allergies!), we pull out of our driveway, and just up the street from the house, the truck stalls and water starts rushing inside. So Larry tells me to get out, get Stella, who has never swam a day in her life, by the way, and he’ll get the bags. I start walking with Stella, wading through the water, and it’s getting deeper and deeper, and it’s pouring down rain. All of a sudden, some guy appears behind me and he’s pulling a raft, and he asks if I want to get Stella onto the raft, and I tell him, ‘Yes! Thank you!’ I struggle and get her up there, while the guy is warning me to be careful since there are already two cats in the raft! The street ahead of me is just a sea of boats, and one comes past me and I yell to him and ask him to go help my husband, and he says he will. So I can see my friend, he’s waving at me from higher ground, and I’m walking towards him in water up to my armpits, I’ve got Stella sitting on the raft like Nefertiti, and then Larry cruises past me on the boat….what is wrong with that picture?!”
Jan went on to tell me about how people came out “in masses” to help people out. Strangers rescuing complete strangers, opening their homes so the displaced had a place to stay. Washing stations were set up throughout Jan’s neighborhood so that people could wash all the gunk off of their possessions, friends kept checking in with friends and delivering food to people who spent 12-15 hours each day trying to clean their homes, loaning their cars to car-less friends so they could pick up supplies, the local grocery stores, which were also flooded, were out making deliveries of water and other supplies, free of charge. Flood victims paid it forward by helping other victims with information on flood insurance filing, picking up supplies, sharing storage containers, contractor referrals and general moral support.
“Bottom line,” Jan concluded. “As awful as this experience has been in Texas, and I am sure in Florida as well, in a weird way it may have been a blessing in disguise for our country. People put aside their differences and just focused on what is really important- helping each other in a time of need and not expecting the government to have all the answers or resources to get things accomplished. And it certainly has put life in perspective. I’ve got a new appreciation for the little things and I worry less about stuff that really does not matter!”
Nikki Seigle, Executive Vice President, Armenta, Houston, TX
While Nikki is based on the East Coast, she had been in Houston, where Armenta is based, mere days before Harvey hit. Or, as she put it, “I left Houston on Thursday, and Harvey started its nonsense on Friday.”
“The area around the studio was flooded, but the Armenta studio itself didn’t flood thank goodness. All the highways and access points to get to the studio however, were flooded. On Wednesday, a few people were finally able to get in, but it was taking 2-3 hours just to get one way because everyone was re-routed. Of 60 employees, only 6 were able to get into the office! FedEx wasn’t delivering or picking up, there was no mail, so the people who made it in were just answering phones and trying to get organized.
“What affected us the most was that we had shipments coming in of stone supplies that got lost in the flood, so all of our deliveries for merchandise for fall orders and spring samples are delayed. We had to re-contact our suppliers and they have to re-cut stones. Our retailers have been really supportive and everyone has pushed cancel dates, they’ve been really great about working with us. A lot of our retail partners in Houston were also affected and they were closed much longer than we were; a lot of them sustained damage to their stores and homes.”
“We had one employee who lost everything. She has 2 children and her entire apartment was flooded. When we found that out, a text message chain started immediately and our staff pulled together, gathered clothes and comforters and sheet sets, small things we could ship to Houston, and we also sent gift cards for places like Target. Imagine? All of their clothes, their school supplies….thankfully they’ve been able to evacuate and she was able to secure an apartment. With the help of our staff and salespeople around the country, we secured a television, a sofa and other things like furniture and clothes for the kids.
“Other people had enough damage to be really annoying, but they were not displaced. I would consider ourselves very lucky; we only had one person on our team that sustained serious damage. Now we’re just dealing with scheduling conflicts as people need to work from home to wait for the mold inspector, or take time out of their day to work with the insurance people, but we’re slowly getting back to normal.
“What was also great is that Emily had a group of people reaching out to all of our retailers to see if they needed help, see what can we do, can we send food, can we send people to move furniture or to knock down walls. One of our retailers even wrote a personal check for $1,000 to help our teammate who lost everything. For the entire month of September, any profits on any sale are being donated to give back, and even if you don’t want to buy a piece of jewelry we give direct links to donate. We’re trying to help any way we can, there are so many people that aren’t as lucky as we were.”
Nancy and Dakota Badia, Buddha Mama (Miami, FL)
“Nancy and the 3 dogs and my dad came over to my place,” explained Dakota Badia. “We shuttered in my front patio and just waited it out. I’m a block from the ocean, and the water started coming up my driveway, but the surge only reached about 5-6 feet. Bayshore Drive, the big road in front of my place was like a river, with whitecaps and everything! The bay got slammed so hard Nan’s dock blew away, and trees were down, so many trees down. The eye didn’t hit us, thank God!”
“In my neighborhood, which is on the bay, the neighbors have been out there for the past 3 to 4 days, cleaning the street, helping each other out, returning pieces of fence to their rightful owners from blocks away, things like that,” Nancy said. “On Monday morning, I found one grocery store that was open, and people were lined up outside because they were only letting 20 people in at a time. Everyone was asking everyone else how they were, seeing if anyone needed anything. It was really nice, seeing everyone looking out for one another, even people they didn’t know.”
“We were both in evacuation zone 2,” Dakota told me. “They really hyped it up in advance, telling us it was going to be worse than Andrew….when you say ‘Andrew’ in Miami, people get their s*!t together! We made sure we boarded up and did all the necessary things. I lost power for two days, but I’m on the grid with the hospital down the street so it came back quickly, Nan is still without power.”
“After a storm it’s typically much warmer,” Nancy continued. “Irma left seaweed and muck, 4 inches of black mud from the ocean, and debris….and it’s starting to stink! But we’re lucky. We’re here and everybody’s healthy and there’s nothing we can’t fix. After Andrew, we couldn’t go home for 6 weeks, and all 4 of us lived in a one bedroom apartment and I had to drive an hour every day to get the kids to school. So this is nothing, we’re very lucky!”
Jay Hartington, Owner, Marissa Collections, Naples, Florida
I spoke to Jay just days after the storm while he was on a layover en route to meetings in Asia. It’s likely the only way I would have been able to chat with him given that Naples, Florida was still without power, and with mostly spotty cell coverage for days following Irma.
“We’re definitely in a rebuild phase,” Jay explained. “It was a gnarly storm but luckily, Marissa Collections had no damage because the surge was a lot lighter than we expected it to be. My mom and dad stayed upstairs at Marissa Collections, where we brought all the merchandise and secured the product in a safe. Probably 95% of people left town before the storm, and now they’re all trying to get back in. There are gas shortages, no power and we still have a curfew in place—anyone outside after 9pm will be stopped by the cops and escorted home—so we’ve had no looting so far.
“People really did what they could to help each other out. Restaurants were opening and serving what food they could to people, people were sharing generators, sharing water, I was out with the fire department for about 12 hours chopping down Banyan trees—a neighbor was stuck behind tons of fallen trees. Someone rescued him via boat but we had to clear the road to his house. All in all, we were really fortunate. Nobody got hurt, everyone is safe and sound and accounted for!”
Katrina Canady, Director of Sales, U.S. Antique Shows, Marco Island, Florida
The office for one of our “sister” shows, U.S. Antique Shows, is based in Marco Island, Florida. A gorgeous destination spot, Marco Island was relatively unknown by the masses until Irma turned her eye to this barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. We were finally able to catch up with Katrina, the Director of Sales, just this week because power has been nonexistent and cell phone and internet have been spotty at best.
“I will say, an experience like this takes everybody’s personalities and amplifies them, it puts relationships in a pressure cooker,” Katrina explained with her usual sense of mirth and irony. “They had mandatory evacuation, but they can’t make you leave. If you’re in a newer building, and you have shutters, it’s made to code to withstand a lot; you really don’t just leave. But once the storm shifted, people were getting stuck—everyone was getting gas at the same time, everything was running out, there was no way to get out.
“Daphne [who works on the team with Katrina] and her family went to Naples just to get off Marco, and we went to West Palm Beach, where we have family—when the storm shifted west, we went east. It’s interesting because something like this will give you some strange bedfellows! Both Daphne and I had a very….eclectic group of people we evacuated with, but you just deal with it, you find a way.
“Getting back to Marco was tough. There were trees down, power lines down, roofs off houses. And the flat tires! You just keep getting flat tires because there are nails and other sharp objects all over the place blowing out your tires. We didn’t have too much damage to our house, but our new air conditioning unit blew off. When we got it three months ago, the guy didn’t strap it down to code so it blew off. I forgive him a little though because he had to go through a lot to make it back over there and get it back on and strapped down to code.
“Throughout all of it, everybody was so helpful and supportive. People were going around from house to house, asking ‘do you need anything?’ Everyone just steps up and just helps everyone. It was so awesome.
“There are people in towns very close to here that are really suffering and still struggling a lot more than we’ve had to. We’re really lucky but it’s exhausting, everything takes days! It feels good to get back into the office and have a little bit of normalcy! Now, I just need to get my internet back so I can get under my covers with Netflix and watch my cop dramas!”
And that is our wish for everyone who’s been suffering! As Gannon mentioned in his note, Jewelers of America and Diamond Council of America have partnered up to start a relief fund for jewelers in our community who have been hardest hit by these natural disasters. You can find a link to it here. Additionally, the Red Cross is always accepting donations for people in need after events like this. I know there is often some debate over if this is the best way to give, but as Elizabeth Bonanno of The EAB Project pointed out, as a native Floridian who just had to batten down the hatches and get through Irma while in Sarasota, Florida, people from the Red Cross are always the first people you see out there helping out after these things. A link to donate can be found here.
Our thoughts are with everyone who is suffering in the aftermath of these two storms. Please, if there is anything anyone on the COUTURE team can do to help, do not hesitate to reach out. We are, as ever, committed to this community.
At the time of distribution of this Communique, people in Mexico continue to struggle in the aftermath of a deadly 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Puebla, which affected thousands in nearby Mexico City. At the same time, Hurricane Maria ripped through the Caribbean, causing massive destruction in Puerto Rico and surrounding islands. We will be following up with our friends and colleagues in these areas and will let you know how they’re doing. In the meantime, we urge you to send your support by way of donations and prayers.