In devastated Houston, 'nobody hates anybody' as people come together

Houston (AFP) - The traffic jams are back on the vast highways lacing through the heart of Houston, and the sun is shining again.

Many Houstonians are still trying to salvage what they can from their flooded homes. But one word captures the mood in the most racially diverse US city: solidarity.

"Come on in!" calls Sarah Osborne without a moment's hesitation, as she opens the door to her red brick home, a US flag planted on a tree near the entrance.

Standing before her -- hammers in hand, dust masks around their neck -- are four young men who introduce themselves as members of Ahmadiyya, of the Ahmadi sect, the oldest Muslim-American organization in the United States.

Since Hurricane Harvey struck Texas a week ago unleashing a deluge that flooded Houston, youths from the organization -- which has some 700 members in Houston and 5,000 throughout the country -- have gathered to help storm victims.

Wearing a work apron over his jeans, a cap and fluo sneakers, the dynamic Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association spokesman Rahman Nasir says that his members have rescued some 20 families by boat. As the flood waters recede they have also helped clear debris from 20 to 30 homes.

At Sarah and Robert Osborne's house the youths use their hammers to tap open the bottom of the walls and pull out waterlogged drywall. With a wheelbarrow, they dump loads of debris onto the pavement in Houston's Westbury neighborhood.

Ruined furniture, soggy carpet and cracked mirrors litter the neighborhood lawns -- scenes repeated everywhere as neighbors, friends and previously unknown volunteers help carry out household items, either to dry in the sun or to be removed as trash.

- Texas stigma -

"That's the spirit of this city, everybody is just helping everybody," says Sarah Osborne. "People just help each other. That doesn't matter, the color of your skin, or where you're from, or what your religion is, or whatever."

Her husband Robert adds: "There's a stigma in Texas that we're racists, we're white, that we're anti-Muslims or anti-homosexuals or just anti-everything, we're Bible-thumping, shot-gun blasting -- and it couldn't be further from the truth about Houston, because our city is so diverse."

Census figures show that Houston is the most racially diverse city in the United States, more even than New York and Los Angeles.

Nasir, a 23-year-old student who grew up in Houston, agrees with Robert.

"If we were to believe the news, I would get a slammed door in my face. But in reality people welcome us and welcome our service," he said.

Beyond the expressions of solidarity, the trauma of sudden loss is also evident in this neighborhood.

Moved upon seeing her child's artwork still attached to a cupboard about to be thrown out, Kelsey Johnson confides she wants to leave the house she shares with her husband DeAndre and their two children.

"How it hit Houston as a whole, I think is pretty overwhelming to a lot of people," said Tom Cosgrove, 32, a property manager who arrived Friday morning from Austin, the state capital, to help his aunt.

"Driving around this neighborhood you can just see how many people get devastated, and honestly there are probably still people in their homes who just don't know what to do yet," he said.

Behind him, his aunt, 54-year-old Lisa Plack, is scrubbing metal dishes in a tub near wet chairs and sofas that are drying out on the lawn.

"We're seriously exhausted," she said. "But the way people come together, it's very satisfying. Just the community spirit."

"You hear nothing but bad press, you hear nothing but, you know, this group hates this group, and then you find out: nobody hates anybody. Everybody comes together."