Did it really happen? Driving through downtown Houston on the way to the local Dress for Success headquarters early Saturday morning, there wasn’t a trace of the category 4 hurricane that had bulldozed through the metropolis barely two weeks earlier. There they were: manicured lawns, stores opening for business, gleaming skyscrapers and bleary-eyed locals leisurely strolling down the sidewalk toting their morning coffee fix.
“Just wait,” warned Alicia, a former veteran, single mom of four, and our driver for the day. Sure enough, as she pulled down the road towards the area of town known as “The Bayou,” the remnants of Hurricane Harvey were unavoidable. Mountains of broken furniture, wooden flooring and mattresses barricaded houses up and down street after street like mangled fortress walls of wreckage in a dystopian movie. “Some people like me didn’t have it that bad,” she said. “And then there are the others.”
One by one, “Real Housewives of New York City” star, author and Skinnygirl mogul Bethenny Frankel and I met those victims throughout the rest of the day. There was the crestfallen woman who worked with the homeless but was left homeless by the storm herself; the grief-stricken single mother who told us about her close friend and neighbor being shot dead by looters; the woman in a “Boss” baseball hat who had escaped her flooded home in a garbage truck full of trash with her six children; and then there was the valiant group of female veterans, now embroiled in another heroic fight for life.
This diverse group of women — all Dress for Success clients receiving emergency aid from the 20-year-old non-profit’s local chapter — were not shy about sharing their harrowing stories as they stocked up on necessary essentials including toothpaste, bottled water, underwear, socks, and bags of toiletries and grooming products.
Impassioned and shaken by the cataclysmic images coming of the storm’s aftermath on the news, my friend Bethenny had immediately risen to act and asked me to help her gather the products and nearly $300,000 in donations through her B Strong foundation for women and their families in crisis. “This is a crisis,” she remarked during our first 6:30 a.m. call. A slogan and hashtag was born.
Watching her tirelessly dialing her wealthy friends, fellow TV stars, and major corporations for donations over the next two weeks was staggeringly impressive and inspiring. Then we decamped to Houston, delivering 100% of that money right into the hands of these women that most needed it. And I’m being literal here: each woman walked out that day with surprise envelopes of $1,000 in cash and Walmart gift cards
The fact that a celebrity was in their midst was hardly noted by most of the victims (many told us they didn’t even own a TV before the storm). Though a few clamored for selfies, they primarily showed their gratitude to us for providing basics they sorely needed to restart their lives. Exchanging hugs, tears, and stories was the reward on both sides. NYC Fashion Week was buzzing 1,420 miles east. But it felt like a zillion light years away.
Although we were slated to stay inside the shiny, modern DFS facility all day before departing for the airport, we felt the strong need to examine the devastation from an even closer vantage point. So we gathered our compact B Strong volunteer team back to a neighborhood near the bayou for an hour. That’s when the tears really started to well up as we observed discarded and nearly destroyed photo albums, pool floats, and children’s toys. “These are people’s lives and childhoods out here rotting on the street,” Bethenny remarked. “Yes,” I replied. “This is reality.”
To donate to B Strong, a charity for women and their families in crisis, visit bethenny.com.