As the greater Houston metropolitan area recovers from Hurricane Harvey, two Pitt alumni leaders have stepped up to aid the relief effort.
One of them is Erikah Abdu (BUS ’10), a financial analyst for the city of Houston and social director for the Houston Pitt Club.
On the day that Harvey hit, flooding made Abdu’s neighborhood unreachable, forcing her to find accommodations with a friend. Fortunately, Abdu returned to her home and found it untouched by the water.
“It was like something out of the Bible,” said Abdu. State Highway 288, a major thoroughfare, “looked like a fast-moving river. You could see the peaks of cars on the highway as the water receded.”
After the rain stopped, many of Abdu’s sorority sisters and alumni affiliates outside of Houston — to whom she stays connected through her social director activities — contacted her to see how they could help.
Abdu took the lead and set up a Harvey relief fund. To date, more than $3,000 in contributions have been made to the fund by Abdu’s friends and fellow Pitt alumni. She said her involvement with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. at Pitt was crucial to forming her drive to lead and to serve others.
“We were encouraged to ‘lean into volunteerism’ and to ‘lean into initiatives to help the city,’” she said.
Using the donations, Abdu made several trips with her younger siblings to the only open grocery store in the area. They first used the money donated to purchase as many items as she could for local shelters.
In the following days, Abdu spent nearly 27 hours traveling to eight separate shelters, churches and schools in the area where she was able to ask evacuees about their specific needs. One of the requested items was gas cards. Abdu purchased and distributed them to people at the schools and churches.
“It makes a difference … buying these things not because you hear someone needs something, but because you know someone needs it. The experience is very rewarding,” Abdu said.
Abdu knows how difficult it is to rebuild one’s life after a flood. She remembers waking up on the couch in her father’s living room and seeing water at eye level when Tropical Storm Allison swept through Houston in 2001.
“My father said he aged 10 years trying to get the house repaired after Allison,” she said.
For Abdu, meeting people who were just grateful to have a dry place to stay and a hot meal was an “eye-opening experience.”
An Additional Challenge
Houston Pitt Club President Richard Dodge (A&S ’95) was just five months into recovery from brain tumor surgery when Harvey hit.
Nevertheless, Dodge volunteered with fellow employees at the corporate complex of Dodge's employer Academy Sports + Outdoors, which became both a place of refuge for evacuees and a military staging base for the U.S. Army Reserve. No stranger to volunteerism, Dodge spent several days at the complex sorting through nearly $1 million worth of clothes and shoes donated by the retailer.
“Watching it all on TV, you feel helpless,” Dodge said. “I signed up because I felt like I was doing more than writing a check.”
A survivor of childhood leukemia, Dodge was 35 years in remission when his wife found a bump on his head earlier this year that turned out to be a tumor requiring immediate surgery.
Dodge remembers receiving treatment for leukemia at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and dreaming of one day becoming the Pitt mascot, Roc — which he did, in 1994, in addition to playing varsity tennis and covering sports for WPTS Radio. After graduation, one of the first things Dodge did was get involved in the Pitt Alumni Association, volunteering his time and staying connected to the Pitt community.
“I bleed blue and gold,” he said.
Like Abdu, Dodge considers himself fortunate that his house was not affected by the storm. His subdivision in Cypress, Texas — a suburb northwest of Houston — was built up on a hill and was not affected by the flooding.
Witnessing Harvey’s destruction proved to Dodge that “no matter how bad you think your situation is, someone else has it worse. Brain surgery is nothing because I still have my family and my house.”
As floodwaters recede and evacuees return to their homes, Harvey survivors face the daunting challenge of figuring out how to reconstruct their lives and move forward. There are the human costs — the death toll now stands at 70 — and then there is the matter of rebuilding.
“Only 15 percent of Houston’s population has flood insurance,” said Abdu. “Many people don’t have financial leverage or the means to help themselves.”
She wants the Pitt Alumni Harvey Relief Fund to assist those who were denied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or help those who can’t afford to pay for construction.
Since returning to work on Sept. 5, Abdu has refocused her efforts to getting co-workers the help they need. She’s helped several Spanish-speaking employees fill out their FEMA paperwork, made calls to landlords on their behalf and encouraged her colleagues to pitch in and buy gift cards to aid a colleague who lost her home.
“You see the strength of character in a person when they’re in a situation where their humanity is called upon,” Abdu said. “When you see a person in need, your response should be to help.”