Neighbours in need - building community in the eye of a storm

  • World
  • Wednesday, 30 Aug 2017

Shiraz Younas (R) assists his neighbor, wheelchair-bound and amputee Melanie Clampitt from her flooded home in Bellaire, Texas, U.S. on August 28, 2017. Courtesy of Ruckshanda Majid/Handout via REUTERS

BELLAIRE, Texas (Reuters) - Shiraz Younas tried and failed three times to persuade Melanie Clampitt, an elderly amputee, to leave her house as the floodwaters rose to her front step on Sunday. She finally agreed when water covered the kitchen floor in her home of 44 years.

Lifting her wheelchair, Younas and other men struggled to carry Clampitt down the street in the driving rain to his dry home, where already he had provided other flooded-out neighbours with shelter.

Inside, Clampitt sobbed. Younas handed her a bottle of water.

His wife, Ruckshanda Majid, knelt in front of Clampitt, removed a white medical shoe and washed and dried her foot. Later Younas carefully fitted the prosthetic to Clampitt’s amputated limb.

“It was biblical,” said Darlene Villareal, awestruck by the spirit of service she witnessed in a house full of fellow neighbours, drawn together by crisis.

Younas and Majid, both 40-something physicians, had never met Clampitt and some of the others they invited into their home throughout the day. Each new arrival came to reflect the great and growing diversity of America’s fourth largest city: They were Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Christian; immigrant and native; some healthy, some disabled. The oldest was 91; the youngest 4.

Younas had gone door-to-door as monsoon-like rains swamped Bellaire, a quiet community 11 miles (17 km) from Houston. He implored them to come to his house, and their numbers grew until he had more than 30 relatives and neighbours, a skittish cat and a large dog.

Their home served as a first-response shelter before the collection of neighbours went on to stay with friends and relatives.

The couple fed their visitors and served them hot tea. They handed out towels and dry clothes. They rounded up medical supplies for Clampitt. They offered beds, couches and sleeping bags to those who would end up spending a night or two. They got friends to make room in their homes for others.

A total of 17 people would sleep in Younas’ home on Sunday night, including Clampitt.

Balaji Kavaipatti, who lives across the street, said Younas and Majid tended to his family while he scrambled to save belongings from the rising water.

“A situation like this brings out the real character of a person,” Kavaipatti said.


Younas already had a pretty full house by the time the rains from Hurricane Harvey began pounding Houston at the weekend. Five relatives, including Younas’ father Muhammad, were bunking there. The couple’s three children brought the family headcount to 10.

On Sunday, Younas had just finished the Muslim dawn prayer with his father when he looked out the window.

Water from the flooded streets was fast approaching Kavaipatti’s home, a one-story ranch with no second floor to which to flee.

“That doesn’t look good,” the Pakistan native recalled telling his father.

The news said emergency responders were slammed. The cavalry would not be coming to Pine Street. Younas had a big house, plenty of food and a vocation dedicated to helping people.

So he waded across the street to Kavaipatti, his wife Anjali, their two kids and Anjali’s mother, inviting them in, along with their dog Ruger. Younas' wife snapped a smartphone photo showing him ferrying one of the children across the flooded street on his back.

Next stop: the home of Villareal, her husband Jim and their son Dakota, 21.

Villareal was on the verge of panic to find a foot of water already in the garage and more starting to seep through the back door.

Her 91-year-old mother, Arlene Hanks, had arrived at their place two days before, after being evacuated from her assisted-living facility.

Younas and a cousin carried Hanks in their arms to his home. He later gave Jim, who was soaked, a change of clothes. The acts of kindness moved her “to the core,” Villareal said.

Judy Levison was next to join the growing band of the displaced at the Younas home. The 67-year-old physician grabbed her calico cat Nala (Mustafa, a grey tabby, was missing) and soon found herself drinking tea and eating Pakistani food served by hosts she had never met before they invited her to join them.

“This lovely, lovely family opened their doors,” Levison said.

Her “freaked out” cat eventually relaxed and ended up lounging on Younas’ bed.  The host did not seem to mind.

“Our kids have been pestering us forever for a cat,” Younas explained.

Three other families, totalling 13 people, likewise accepted the offer of help.

Clampitt was the hardest sell. Not knowing Younas, the 77-year-old resisted his entreaties, even as water invaded her home. Others stopped by to persuade her.

“Another neighbour who I know well said … I should go,” Clampitt said.

When Younas and other rescuers opened her door and water rushed in, Clampitt knew she had no choice. It was almost too late. The street was knee-deep in water and the men strained to hold Clampitt and her wheelchair steady.

“If she had not gone when she did, things would have gotten very difficult,” Majid said.

By Monday, nearly everyone had cleared out. Younas found Clampitt an emergency shelter at nearby Crosspoint Church, where she stayed a few hours before heading to a friend's home. As police and volunteers arrived to pick her up, he reminded her that bonds forged during tough times are not easily broken.

“You are close enough that I can check on you,” Younas said.

(Reporting by Brian Thevenot; Additional reporting by Marla Dickerson; Writing by Brian Thevenot and Marla Dickerson; Editing by Howard Goller)

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