When Hurricane Harvey flooded Nikki Fields’ house last week, she knew she did not want to abandon her home of 16 years.
Fields searched her house, and in a washroom found a red tent she had used for camping. She pitched it on her moldering front lawn in East Houston and stayed in it until Monday.
Fields, 43, had grown up running the streets. She had come to this place to rebuild her life. She also wanted better for her four children. She fixed herself as she fixed the rented three-bedroom turquoise cottage.
Over the years, she built a cozy home with a chicken coop out back and a hand-lettered sign that explained how she did it: “Faith.”
Fields felt safe on the banks of a bayou she simply called hers, next to a bridge and a drain that she never worried about until it was funneling sewage-laden floodwater into her living room.
After her daughters enrolled in the elementary school nearby, she volunteered to escort kindergartners home. She met the neighbors and learned to speak enough Spanish to shout commands to an immigrant family’s dog across the street.
The dog was still there Tuesday, barking and keeping watch from his yard.
“Sit down!” Fields shouted in Spanish when a car pulled up. He did.
Teachers from her daughters’ flooded school had arrived with meals and cold bottled water. Fields tried to refuse even as they hugged her. She had made it this far without breaking down, but she started to cry. She was moved but also self-conscious, feeling shabby in her hand-washed clothes, her hair pulled back in a white scarf. Don’t tell anyone, she begged the teachers.
Few neighbors were left to see her cry. Most had already cleared out their homes and evacuated, leaving stinking piles of soggy insulation, drywall and rugs.
Fields hadn’t yet ripped out all her carpeting. That was on her to-do list. Once the teachers left, she opened the front door to check the rest of the house. The walls were blistered and peeling where floodwaters had risen 2 feet from the floor. Dark mold crept up the front of the refrigerator.
She pointed to a small Bible she had found floating in her daughter’s room. It was open to a scripture she pinned her hopes to: “I will offer you protection.”
“That’s all I got in the world,” Fields said as she walked from room to room in the moldy house. “I don’t want to pack a bunch of stuff to go to somebody’s home.”
Her landlord lives in Austin. He told Fields to send him photos of the damage. She’s not counting on any help cleaning up.
After the flood, looters had targeted her local Family Dollar store, stealing cleaning supplies. Fields worried that if she left her tent, they could take what little she’d managed to salvage. When her broom broke she tried to fix it with wire, then resorted to scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees like her mother used to.
Her children have been helping her clean. Her 24-year-old twin sons were already working and living on their own. Her daughters, 17 and 11, were staying with relatives. On Monday, Fields’ sons persuaded her to stay with friends for the first time instead of in the tent. But she was not sure she could stay away from home.
She’s hoping to build a shack under a nearby pecan tree where her family can camp while they clean.
“I’m praying that we will stay in our home,” she said.
By Wednesday, word had gotten around about Fields and her tent. Volunteers showed up to help her clean up and an online fundraising campaign had already raised $1,750 of its $2,000 goal.
“I was so grateful. And I have people here that’s tearing out the Sheetrock,” Fields said Wednesday, as half a dozen volunteers cleared out soggy drywall. “Words can’t describe it. My heart is just filled, that people would stand up and help.”
Fields said the next challenge will be staying focused on recovery instead of what her neighborhood lost.
“I try not to look at the debris on the side of the road. I try to just look at my house and the progress we’re making,” she said.
4:47 p.m.: This article was updated to report that volunteers were helping clean Nikki Fields’ house.
This article was originally published at 3 a.m.