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From nurses to animal rescuers: Coloradans make way to Houston to aid the drowned city

Quinn McGee opened her front door, four days after she left. She closed it behind her and fell to her knees, sobbing for two hours.

It was last Sunday and she’d just gotten back from Houston. While there, she put on a tough face, leading her team and pulling them together when they broke down. But she couldn’t be emotional while on the job. She needed to stay in control. So she waited. And when she got home and saw all her belongings, after leaving an area with nothing, she let go.

McGee was one of the many Coloradans who went down to help after Hurricane Harvey hit. She’s not the only one.

Her group, No Kill Colorado, focused on rescuing animals. Others, like Rachel Kuker, were sent through organizations to work at surrounding hospitals. And then there were people like Mike Staffieri, who made sure people had access to life-saving medicines.

And at the same time people like them piece back together a city that had turned into a chain of islands, Hurricane Irma descended on Florida, pounding more more cities with water and wind.

Houston and surrounding areas were devastated. From Aug. 25-31, rain fell across the widespread city, dropping almost 45 inches in one area, according to preliminary data from the National Weather Service.

The day after the storm, only 30 of Denver-based DaVita’s 106 clinics were open in Houston, said Staffieri, chief operating officer at the kidney-care company. Some patients couldn’t leave hospitals because they had nowhere to go, said Kuker, a UCHealth nurse.

And people who lost their homes and cars sobbed as they handed over pets, knowing they couldn’t take care of them, McGee said.

People worked to create order in chaos. Staffieri, who arrived Tuesday, Aug. 29, described it as a big project management with different workstreams. For people on the ground in Houston, like Staffieri and McGee, the key was creating a central command center that directed side groups.

DaVita had over 500 people head to Houston, including more than 40 from Denver. Teams located patients, helped overwhelmed hospitals and transporting people to hospitals, clinics and homes. Those without specialized skills helped local DaVita staff whose homes were hit by the storm, clearing away dry wall and the like.

No Kill Colorado sent nine people, and then joined a group of people with boats, making their crew grow to 12. The group worked with Austin Pets Alive. Volunteers responded to calls of trapped animals, picking them — and stranded people — up in boats. Others helped with the intake and outtake of animals as they came in. Some animals that were given up were brought to Colorado.

Meanwhile, Kuker has been working 13-hour shifts straight since Aug. 31 and will continue until Wednesday. Her organization sent about 300 nurses to the area, 10 of whom are working with Kuker at the Conroe Regional Medical Center north of Houston. She works a variety of roles, relieving local nurses who have been impacted and helping with the extra flow of patients being relocated out of Houston.

Volunteers in Houston work long hours. And when they catch some sleep, it’s either at a friend’s house, in a clinic or hospital and a few in some of the rare open hotel rooms, according to the three Coloradans.

“I’ve been saying a prayer every morning that God can continue to give me energy to keep going,” Kuker said. “There are parts of the day where I am ripping my hair out and there are parts where it’s super easy.”

People are appreciative of the help, she said, adding, “I think that keeps you going, too, because you know it’s needed.”

She wasn’t the only one to express those sentiments. Both Staffieri and McGee said they were moved by what they’ve seen.

“Being on the ground there, it’s very heartbreaking and a very tragic thing,” Staffieri said. “But at the same time, if you go around and meet the people, it’s a very heartwarming experience.”

Although Kuker is still in Houston, both Staffieri and McGee have returned to Denver. They still keep in contact with teams on the ground, though. And in the meantime, another storm was expected to hit Florida early.

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