Grinnell College alumni lend a hand during devastating disasters

Nov. 8, 2017 —When she was preparing to move from New York City earlier this year, Sarah Labowitz ’04 did a careful analysis of the entire country.

She was looking for place that was vibrant, had a sizable young and diverse population, and had real political contests. Houston had all of those things, plus one more – hurricanes.

Sarah Labowitz ’04
   Sarah Labowitz ’04

“After Hurricane Harvey a couple of people told me ‘you can never leave Houston now, you are very Houston,’” Labowitz said. “The spirit of the place was wonderful. Sometimes the images of disasters are rowdy with people looting. The reality is disasters bring out the best in the human spirit. People were incredibly generous and gentle with each other.”

Labowitz and Jim Randall ’66 are two of many Grinnellians who pitched in during or following natural disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California. With a strong tradition of social responsibility and action, Grinnellians contributed to recovery efforts in many ways.

'I’ve never experienced anything like this'

It’s not usual for the landline phone to ring at 5:45 a.m. in Jim and Janie Randall’s home in Santa Rosa, Calif. Jim ignored it. But then his cell phone rang too, so Jim figured he better answer it. His brother was calling to ask if Jim had looked outside. When Jim looked, he saw the sky was orange and the wildfires were drawing near.

“The orange sky was so big and vast it just colored everything,” he said. “I could see black smoke billowing on the sides of it.”

Randall earned a political science degree from Grinnell, and went on to earn a Master of Public Administration in urban affairs from American University. He spent much of his career working in local government, including management positions in Virginia, Massachusetts, and California before retiring in 2003.

He sat in on more than his fair share of emergency preparedness meetings, and participated in drills and evacuation procedures, never quite convincing himself any of it would come in handy.

“Even in a municipality, you don’t expect to ever have to use it,” he said. “It was interesting how my city government training kicked in. I felt very comfortable about what I was supposed to do.”

The Randalls live in Spring Lake Village, a senior living community of about 400 residents on the east side of Santa Rosa. The Village had emergency plans in place, and Randall was the lead fire warden for his building.

Jim and Janie spent five minutes grabbing what they needed to evacuate and then the emergency alarm went off. Jim started to help his fellow residents get up and get out. The residents ranged from ages 70s to upper 90s.

“We knocked on doors waking people up,” Randall said. “It took 45 minutes to get people out of their units with what they needed and into their assigned vehicle.”

Everyone was taken to the county fairgrounds where family and friends picked up many residents. Jim and Janie drove to his brother’s house in Sebastopol about 10 miles west of Santa Rosa. They stayed with his brother for 11 days before returning home.

“I’ve never seen wildfires so close up,” Randall said. “I grew up in Pasadena and there regularly were wildfires, but they happened in more distant part of the mountains. I’ve experienced fires, and I’ve experienced strong winds, but nothing like this.”

The Randall’s residence was fine, but 10 staff members of the retirement community lost their homes. More than 5,000 homes were destroyed in the city.

“It just ripped through and wiped out neighborhoods of homes,” Randall said. “It was like a war zone. In some neighborhoods, people aren’t able to identify their street. It’s all just gone.”

Helping organize the chaos

A native of Washington D.C., Labowitz had never experienced a hurricane. As Harvey was moving toward the Texas coast, she listened to the stories of Houston residents who had dealt with Hurricane Ike and other storms.

“Each natural disaster has its own dynamic,” Labowitz said. “The first night was scary because I didn’t know what to expect, but then it seemed like my street and house was going to be fine.”

About 36 hours of the storm first hit, Labowitz was growing antsy. After reading messages about what streets were open, she figured she could make it on foot to the shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center. She put on a waterproof jacket and running shoes to jog the two miles. A man in a jeep who had been rescuing people ended up giving her a ride.

It was chaotic when Labowitz arrived at the shelter. Volunteers were handing out towels so people could dry off. Over the course of the day, the shelter population grew from a couple thousand people to more than 10,000 people.

“It’s unbelievable the number of people who ended up sleeping in one facility,” Labowitz said. “Most emergency shelters are in elementary schools or other smaller community-based facilities. There are so many functions in sheltering 10,000 people. I ended up coordinating the volunteers. There were so many people that came wanting to help. Getting enough people at the right times and not having too many people became very important.”

Fortunately, Labowitz was well equipped to organize volunteers and assume a leadership role. She co-directed the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights where she researched labor rights in global supply chains. Prior to that she was an adviser on democracy, human rights, labor, and cyber policy at the U.S. Department of State under Secretary Hillary Clinton.

Labowitz now serves as interim director of a newly formed coalition of community-based organizations fighting for an equitable recovery in Houston. She has been joining coalition members in knocking on doors to check on people, primarily in low-income neighborhoods. She says she’s focused on both the immediate crisis and the larger, long-term fight.

“This is where my policy background is coming into play,” she said. “There’s 100 billion dollars that will be coming to the Houston area. The question is who will benefit from that. The biggest chunk of the money will come from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is intended to alleviate poverty and support low- and moderate-income people. There will be a lot of pressure on that money to go to other things.”

For your information:

Sarah and Jim's stories are just a pair of stories how Grinnellians make a difference after disaster strikes. We ask the alumni community to share other stories they may have. Please email to share your story.

Have you been impacted by a natural disaster? Grinnell College would like to assist. Please complete an assistance request to have Grinnell items replaced if possible.