‘It changed me’: Turners man helped Hurricane Harvey victims in cleanup efforts

  • Brian Costa, 59, of Turners Falls, spent a week volunteering in Houston with Team Rubicon. Contributed photo/Brian Costa

  • A pile of garbage outside of a flood-damaged home in Houston. Contributed photo/brian costa

  • Turners Falls resident Brian Costa poses with fellow Team Rubicon members during a volunteer trip to Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Contributed photo/brian costa

Recorder Staff
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

GREENFIELD — Reports of the destruction in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey may be largely out of the news now, but for one local resident, the memories are still fresh.

Brian Costa of Turners Falls recently returned from Texas, where he helped with the continued cleanup effort following the severe flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Costa, 59, volunteered with Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster response organization that focuses on underserved or economically challenged communities.

“I think the first four nights there, I didn’t go to bed without crying, seeing these people. It changed my outlook. They went from having these houses to nothing, not a thing,” he said. “It still hits me emotionally.”

Costa works part-time as a driver for administrative staff and students at The Bement School in Deerfield. He said he went to preaching school in the South and had thought about doing missionary work, but this was his first time volunteering after a major natural disaster.

When he first saw photos of the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria, Costa said he felt compelled to help.

He considered volunteering for various organizations, but it wasn’t until he saw a television special about Team Rubicon co-founder Jack Wood that he decided to get involved. Team Rubicon is mainly composed of former military members, but civilians, like Costa, can also volunteer. 

“That night I went online and registered and started taking the online courses which you need to take in order to be deployed,” he said.

The courses took about a week to complete, and Costa’s trip was sponsored by the Bement School. He left for Houston Oct. 20, where he spent a week helping with cleanup as part of Team Rubicon’s Operation Hard Hustle.

Hurricane Harvey caused extreme flooding in multiple counties in Texas, leaving an estimated 185,000 homes damaged or destroyed, according to the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Volunteers on Operation Hard Hustle removed debris and helped with home repairs in the affected areas.

Some of the damage was so severe that team members could only enter mold-infested homes wearing Tyvek suits and respirators.

To date, 1,835 volunteers have logged 93,220 hours on the operation, saving an estimated $2.6 million, according to statistics on Team Rubicon’s website.

“It changed me,” Costa said of the experience. “Things that I thought were important, when I got back (I realized) aren’t important. I have a loving family, and I’m grateful that we have food in our fridge and a roof over our heads.”

Upon arrival, Costa was stationed at a forward operating base in a church in Friendswood, Texas — part of the Houston–The Woodlands–Sugar Land metropolitan area. He spent the next week mucking out flood-damaged houses with his team members, who ranged in age from 18 to 74.

During one memorable experience, Costa’s team spent three days working at an 82-year-old woman’s house, removing clothes and furniture that had been ruined by mold. 

“We tried to save pictures and jewelry — anything of value we could that didn’t have mold on it,” Costa said. “She kept asking about this one Bible. She said it’s a maroon case, it’s a beige Bible, and I found it underneath some stuff, and she and I cried together for about five minutes.”

He also found several of the woman’s family photos hidden inside a wallet, which they were able to save.

Costa said wherever the team went, residents would see their gray shirts and hats and come up and shake their hands or give them a hug.

“It’s neighbor helping neighbor down there,” he said.

Costa, who has fibromyalgia, said he hopes to work for Team Rubicon full-time, and is in the process of taking courses to become part of the operations team, which would be easier with his disability, a neurologic chronic condition that causes pain all over the body. He also hopes to deploy back to Houston or to Puerto Rico to help with recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria, but still has to wait a week to find out if he’ll be given an assignment. Team Rubicon members are given 48 hours notice before they deploy.

“You have to have your bags ready and packed,” he said.

Costa said, overall, the experience was immensely rewarding.

“Every time I think about these poor people and all these people that need help, there are still thousands of houses that need to be done,” he said. “If it doesn’t change you, there’s something wrong with you.”