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Auburn University Students Volunteer Construction Skills to Hurricane Harvey Relief Effort [VIDEO]

A group of college students, faculty, and guests spent their spring break this year travelling to the Houston area from Auburn, Alabama to volunteer on work crews repairing homes damaged during Hurricane Harvey last August.  The group included seven graduate and undergraduate students and two faculty members from the McWhorter School of Building Science which is part of the Auburn University College of Architecture, Design, and Construction.  Two of the students are attending Auburn as international students from the countries of Nepal and Pakistan.  Also travelling from Alabama were two volunteers from Auburn United Methodist Church.  Their work assignments were coordinated by Texas Recovers, a relief organization funded by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, and individual donations.

One of the faculty who accompanied the students from Auburn was Dr. Scott Kramer.  He explained that the McWhorter School of Building Science has been doing service projects for about 30 years in the area around Auburn, Alabama.  He told me that the idea to bring a volunteer group to Texas came from the other Auburn professor who was there, Lauren Redden.  When Redden saw the devastation caused by Harvey on the news, she asked Dr. Kramer if Auburn could organize a trip to help.  Redden has worked with students on study-abroad programs, and Kramer has done service work with groups building churches in Ecuador for several years.

Midway through their week of work, the group was treated to a day off from volunteering by representatives from Texas-based building construction firm Linbeck and from specialty subcontractor MAREK.  The Alabama volunteers were taken on a field trip to learn more about how the flooding disaster during Harvey occurred, to a delicious authentic Tex-Mex restaurant for lunch, to an active Linbeck/MAREK construction jobsite, and finally to an evening of entertainment at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.  The two Linbeck employees who helped lead the tour, Trae Compton and Tommy Cole, are both Auburn alumni.  Saied Alavi and Roland Mercier from MAREK also accompanied the group, as did I.

The day began with a visit to the Addicks Reservoir, part of the flood control system of Harris County, Texas.  Trae Compton explained how the reservoir and bayou systems are designed to protect the Houston area from flooding, and why these were not enough to protect homes during Hurricane Harvey.  Tommy Cole explained that unlike reservoirs that contain water all of the time, the Addicks Reservoir is a dry basin with high levees around natural creeks with a dam designed to capture floodwater during periods of extreme rainfall.  It was built in the 1940s to protect the downtown and River Oaks areas of Houston, long before the current surrounding development existed.  Due to the amount of rain that Harvey produced, water could not flow downstream through the bayous fast enough for the reservoir to contain it, and as it filled and began to overflow, not only were properties upstream of the reservoir flooding, but the integrity of the dam and reservoir walls became compromised.  Officials were forced to perform a controlled release from the dam to prevent a complete failure, but with neighborhood streets already underwater, homes downstream of the dam took in water due to the controlled release of the dam.  Compton explained why the volunteers were brought to the view the now empty reservoir: “We thought that having you guys take a look at the reservoir might ‘thread the needle’ of what you were working on over the past two days.  Seeing how the result that occurred where you were working was caused by what happened up here.”  Overlooking the vast landscape, the students were asked to imagine it filled with 217,500 acre feet of water!

After touring the reservoir and the jobsite, I spoke with three of the students.  Blake Richards is a junior at Auburn who hopes to become a superintendent one day.  Katie Bobo, a graduate student, already has a job lined up for after graduation with JE Dunn in Austin, Texas.   Prashnna Ghimire, the graduate student from Nepal, told me that he will be looking for a job relating to VDC (Virtual Design and Construction) or BIM (Building Information Modeling).  When I asked what they thought about visiting the reservoir, Bobo answered: “It was very interesting.  Most of the reservoirs back in Alabama have water in them.  To learn that these here in Texas are large enough that they have parks or baseball fields is pretty cool.”

You can hear more of their comments in the 1½-minute video below.

The Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has established three regional offices and a website to coordinate relief services following Hurricane Harvey. The regional offices are being funded by a grant from United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and are in Houston, Lake Jackson, and Beaumont.  More information can be found on their website about how to reach the regional offices and how to donate to hurricane victims or be on a work team.