“I told myself to be the strongest woman in there.” How a Houston janitor became a hero of Hurricane Harvey

 

As a janitor at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, Anita Hernández normally cleans restrooms, windows and escalators.

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Hurricane Harvey blew away her daily routine—turning her from janitor to hero.

Anita was on duty when the rain started. As a survivor of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, she was worried. Katrina was terrified for her and her family. But, she recalls, “I always had it in my mind that if we made it through Katrina, I would live to help people.”

In Hurricane Harvey, she got her chance to help. Harvey brought more rainfall to the continental United States than any storm in history. And that brought a flood of storm refugees—10,000 people—to the convention center

Anita would work late into the night for seven days straight. More accurately, she did several jobs for seven days straight. Because in addition to being a janitor, during her time at the convention center while she was off-duty, she became a psychologist, caregiver, caterer, photographer, videographer, and diplomat.

During the downpour, Anita took it upon herself to care for a large group of senior citizen evacuees who were huddled together—she didn’t think anyone was tending to them like they needed and stepped in to fill the gap. “They asked me for help, and I was glad that I was able to be there for them. I treated them like my own mom and dad,” she says. “I changed their diapers, picked them up off the floor and placed them in their wheelchairs.”

During any down-time when she wasn’t on-the-clock cleaning the center, she continued to help. She made sure the seniors all had nourishment. The convention center provided food, but the lines stretched for what seemed like miles. Most of the seniors she was caring for didn’t have the strength to stand that long. So, she went above and beyond and made sure they had the food they needed.

She also took photos and videos of the seniors to send to their loved ones and let them know they were alive. She tracked down families across the United States and Mexico and made sure they had information about their loved ones.

Many of the seniors had lost everything—their apartments, medicine, and even memorabilia. “I tried to tell them jokes to cheer them up,” she says. “Actually, it was to keep me from crying too. I told myself to be the strongest woman in there so I could help.”

Meanwhile, Anita’s janitorial work didn’t stop. The trash kept piling up. The restrooms were in rough shape as thousands of people were camped out inside. Anita was part of a skeleton crew of janitors tasked with keeping the entire convention center clean and hygienic.

Anita was facing her own challenges as well. She was only able to see her husband and daughter for very short periods of time, due to the long hours at the convention center.

When she left the convention center and went home to the trailer she and her family live in, she found the roof had collapsed. “We had to throw a lot of our belongings out,” she says. “But my landlords are seniors and I know they don’t have the funds to help repair it.”

Anita hopes that just as she helped people during the storm, FEMA will help her family fix their roof. In the meantime, her family sleeps with a severely damaged roof, living off of canned goods. Anita has put her important stuff—family photos and paperwork–in a suitcase in case they need to leave.

When asked if this hurricane has changed her, she said, “I’m grateful to God I survived Katrina and now Harvey. I believe my life has been changed. We only have one lifetime. After going through this, I’m going to help other people as much as I possibly can.”

Reflecting on her experience, one particular moment irks her—a discussion she had with a convention center supervisor. “They told me not to share about my experience at the convention center. To not damage our image in any way,” she says

But Anita is a proud union member of SEIU-Texas. She knows her rights. “Having a union has made a tremendous difference at my job. And in my life. We are respected and our management really listens to us. That’s huge in today’s world,” she says.

Still, the seniors she cared for are, in many ways, with her today. While Anita was telling her story, several of the seniors called her, simply wanting to hear her voice. Their suffering haunts her. “When I go to sleep now, I can still hear them crying,” she says.

Through Hurricane Harvey, Anita became one of the strongest people in the convention center. And with her union supporting her, she has the strength to tell the truth.

 

 

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