things I learned while doing house demolition

  1. filing insurance claims post-flood takes a long while, like most government filing things do. hearing back takes even longer, like most government things do.
  2. regardless of if you have insurance or not, document everything. dimensions. estimated values. amounts. take pictures of everything and every room before you start, including the waterline.
  3. you must strip and clear out a house asap to let it dry once waters recede & storm has passed to prevent mold. this includes carpeting, rugs, hardwood floors, spongy stuff that took on water (leather furniture, mattresses, sofas/couches), wooden things like desks, chairs, and pianos, and other unsalvageable things (books, papers, anything that will warp/mold.) everything you can’t save goes to the curb. even stuff you think you can save, sometimes you can’t.
  4. don’t put things on the curb if the storm hasnt passed yet; it could float away and clog a drain.
  5. good tools are everything, and so are good people. the key is having a good amount of both. (2-3 of each tool is nice, and anywhere from 6-15 people)
  6. essentials: utility knives, work gloves (waterproof ones are real nice), masks, crowbars, hammers, trash bags (heavy duty ones are best), brooms, dustpans, tarps, bucket/container for nails and other sharps. a cart or a dolly to lug stuff around. a power drill. water. snacks. patience. a willingness to listen, work hard and learn.
  7. building a house requires a different skillset than taking it apart.
  8. open all the windows and doors, turn on fans, dehumidifiers. a/c even. you gotta dry everything.
  9. don’t use electrical sockets under the waterline.
  10. electrical sockets are typically wired from the ceiling, so those that are above waterline are probably ok.
  11. you can avoid dulling your knife on concrete by rolling or flipping pieces of carpet and cutting it at the fold.
  12. carpet is heavy. carpet is heavier when wet.
  13. you can bet that sewage came out in the flood water, especially if it passed toilet level.
  14. you have to cut off all drywall 12″ above the waterline. measure, cut, tarp, smash, clean, repeat.
  15. crowbars and hammers are equally good at removing nails.
  16. pulling nails by putting your tool under and pulling up is more efficient than pulling sideways or down.
  17. wet drywall is damp-smelling and strange-feeling, but comes out easily. dry drywall doesn’t wanna move as much.
  18. a hammer-crowbar combination overpowers a lot of things.
  19. tackboards suck.
  20. you gotta drill holes under cabinet and interior wall toe space to air it out.
  21. insulation is disgusting when wet and super gross. wear face masks when removing.
  22. house frames look weird.

walking through a stranger’s house and demolishing it is incredibly surreal. slowly, you begin to take the house apart. suddenly you’re seeing various guts and crevices of the house you probably never would have in your life otherwise. glancing at their personal effects, talking to the homeowners about their lives, trying to save their possessions–you recognize a little bit of yourself in everything, and you recognize that you’re so incredibly lucky to have the things you have.

and all this aside, it took our team of more than ten people 7 hours to clean up one house. i kept imagining the work we did, unfolding across Houston, propagated across thousands of homes. no wonder i’ve heard from a lot of people that post-harvey relief is a marathon, not a sprint; people will be working here for weeks. months. years even, after all of this. yet, there’s a sense of hope and resiliency that pervades it all.

i suppose that’s the strength of houston.

edit: here’s a thing on what to do if you got flooded by a Rice bioengineering prof that’s been through it multiple times



consider this.

the world outside seems beautiful today. the weather was the nicest you’d experienced in years; a shame considering it came after a week of rain had shut you in. not humid. not hot. not a cloud in the sky. perfect.

atypical houston. yet, you’re not going to complain.

everything seemed otherwise normal during your drive, until you looked closer. piles of furniture could be spotted at the curbside of several houses. you peer around. some of it seems perfectly good. an office chair. a chest of drawers. a dining set. stacks of mattresses.

you frown at the spread of children’s stuffed animals one house has splayed across its yard.

today, people seem to be driving a little bit slower, a little bit more considerately. lots of traffic lights don’t seem to be working, so you patiently play out several ‘four-way-stop-sign’ scenarios unthinkingly.

after the fourth one, you realize that the electrical boxes must have gone underwater.


you keep searching these affected houses for clues, trying to figure out what’s wrong with what seem like perfectly livable habitations. did the water really reach them? it seems so improbable on a day like this, when the sun is shining and the criminal–that water in the bayou you’re driving next to–is innocently flowing far below.

eventually you spot a trend of off-colored strips on the houses. light on the top, dark on the bottom. it seems odd, but then it dawns on you: that’s where the water stopped?

indeed, every house subtly bears the stain of water. dark swaths of water-soaked brick sit like shadows. they meet untouched brick at the waterline, clearly demarcated with debris where leaves and dirt stuck to the house.

you imagine rows upon rows of houses submerged with only their tops peeking out over the water, and shake your head in disbelief. the waterlines are everywhere now that you’ve seen them.

some are above eye level. some are taller than you.

you navigate to your destination, still wrapped up in these thoughts. when you park outside at the curb of the house you’ve come to help at, you simply stare.

turning off the engine, you get out, taking a step closer. you find the house number with ease; the address is clearly right–the number on the house matches the number you were given.

the house is a nice little one-story building in a nice little neighborhood. it’s got a front yard, with two trees. a front door and a screen door. bushes, plants, a cute little front gate.

you notice, though, that it also has a waterline at least three feet high and a drooping cardboard box with books sitting on the front path. you pick your way over the grass (and almost slip–it’s still muddy) and squat next to it.

it smells wet. you recognize a few of the titles as ones you’d read and loved. you pick up one of them fondly, but that small interaction tells you all you need to know–the book is heavier than you remember, and the pages are beginning to show signs of warping.

you sigh. still grasping the book, you stand up to look again at the house. you recognize that it looks like a perfectly fine house. waterlogged book in hand, you can perhaps begin to imagine it as a home, rather than just a house. in fact, it could be your home. it’s not, of course, but dysphoria truly settles in with that thought weighing upon your other realizations today.

you set the book down. as you walk forward, the air near the house hits you like a punch in the nose. it’s pungently damp and earthy, laced with industrial toxicity. unpleasant, but bearable.

trudging past the open gate, you spot more personal effects littered about the front door. you step inside to see a house in a state unlike any you’d ever seen before.

you hardly know where to look. rolls of carpet were haphazardly stacked against each other in a hallway off to your left. the foyer was in a state you’d only ever seen on HGTV, and even then, it was the opposite–the hardwood boards were clearly being pried off the floor, rather than being glued to it. what startles you most is the fact that you can see straight through to the living room. why? the skeleton of the house is on display: the bottom half of what you had expected to be a wall is nothing but vertical wooden beams framing empty air, the tatters of its drywall in a crooked, dusty pile below.

standing there, encroaching on a stranger’s home but ready to help, you breathe.

this is where you begin to realize how little you know, and how much more willing you are to learn. this is where you begin to realize how fortunate you are, and what sort of responsibilities come with it. this is where you begin to realize there is so much more out there, and right now, there’s a city that needs you.

this is where you begin.


consider this.


math camp always provides a lot of good experiences and moments, and having thoroughly enjoyed my time there this year, I’m definitely feeling a massive hole with the break in routine* after 8 weeks. (*although routine is technically the right word, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. camp was temporary from the start, and I’ll probably never have that ‘routine’ ever again, but semantics.)

Usually playing games or finding something amusing/funny to do is my go-to distraction from real life, but after trying to play a game for 10-15 minutes I found my mind drifting to my separation from others, and I shut down the game without a second thought.

I unconsciously wandered over to the piano. Picking up old pieces from my piano bench and playing them lifted my spirits slowly, and I marveled at how the passing of time had been kind to my skills. I sightread pieces I remember struggling with ten, six, four years ago, smiling at my memories of my younger self loathing the slow practice. She was insensitive to any of the emotions I now would derive from a single, colored chord.

With this, I realized difficulty is a matter of perspective. It took years for me to get to the point where I could sightread pieces in minutes that would have taken me half a piano lesson when I was 13. Behind every polished performance is thousands of hours of practice and mistakes.

Behind every ‘trivial’ math problem is thousands of previously painfully solved ones.

Suddenly, I couldn’t hate myself for being “bad” at math. My hours had gone into so many other things that I valued over my math abilities. Was it really that wrong that I wasn’t at the level the people around me were at? Why did I even feel inferior when I had literally done the best that I had with whatever I did know?

Truly, I had let self-constructed perceptions of what I thought other people thought of me control my actions and create fear. (indeed, writing that convoluted statement out alone continues to make me realize how stupid it was of me.) Although “your strengths lie elsewhere” seems like a consolation-prize statement (and has been one I’ve rankled at for years), it has its grain of truth. I simply do not find myself improving at math unless I have the right mindset and spend hours on it. I can appreciate its structure and solutions, but just by looking at it, I might never be able to make that jump from one step to the next in a proof or a problem.

Music, on the other hand, is something I seem to be able to come up with ideas in a snap. I’ll hear a song and overlay another one on top of it, just for kicks. The only time I stop to think about a singing a harmony is when I decide whether to do it a third up or down. I make up new melodies with song lyrics that go with the chords of a song.

Most importantly, I’ve discovered that when I’m feeling emotional, I pick up the guitar or sit down at a piano–perhaps it helps me siphon off the excess pain, anger, and sadness. Rather than cry, I’ve begun to play the songs that express what I’m feeling inside. For when words fail, the music will speak in my stead.

College Visit Persuasion 101

Visiting colleges is crucial to making a good decision for your next four years (or less) of schooling. I strongly strongly strongly strongly encourage doing it if you haven’t already (and perhaps going again even if you have). Getting a feel for the people (administration, current & prospective students, profs etc alike), receiving information about programs and people, seeing the campus, understanding the facilities and resources, and most importantly, being able to talk to real live people in real live person, is so ridiculously important. Just like you wouldn’t buy and move into a house without actually visiting it, you shouldn’t haphazardly choose where your tuition goes and move into a college without visiting, either. (I often think about how many ultimate discs or pianos or cars I could buy with the money that’s going into my college tuition and sigh. Repeatedly.)

I highly recommend attending schools during their admit program/days/whatever fancy name they use (like Harvard’s is Visitas and MIT’s is CPW and Rice’s is Owl Days but you know, it’s fine) because that’s when you’ll meet the highest concentration of other admitted students (basically, you can scope out your potential classmates and see what sort of other students were admitted and if you think you’d jive with them) and that’s also when the school will be pumping out its highest concentration of resources for prospective students (aka more free goodies! but more seriously, that’s going to be the best time to find upperclassmen to answer your questions honestly because they volunteer to do it, and other important people like professors/admissions counselors/program directors/finaid, etc.)

Also! If you can stay overnight, do so. That’s the best time to actually see whether campus is safe at night, whether paths are brightly lit, if there are noise problems, what the dorms are like (aka are they partying hard or studying quietly heh), etc.

I’ve noticed the ability to visit colleges depends mainly on 3 things: your academic availability, your monetary means, and your parents’ opinion. I’ll advise you guys on how to work out the best circumstances for the first two and drop some tips for convincing the parentals!

Continue reading “College Visit Persuasion 101”

College App (Essay) Protip #5: Comma are salt, so don’t make me salty

Maybe you’re a responsible comma user. I’m proud of you if so. More likely than not, though, you aren’t. (Be ashamed.)

Welcome back, I’m here today to talk a bit about responsible comma use in your essays.  Continue reading “College App (Essay) Protip #5: Comma are salt, so don’t make me salty”

College app protip #4: Brainstorm, drainstorm

So, you’ve got to write an essay or two or twenty. Even if, like me, you like to write, essays probably aren’t your favorite flavor of the written word, much like licorice is of jelly beans. Additionally, you have to write about yourself (yikes).

You’ll likely hit a couple of prompts that stump you. I personally had a lot of trouble with coming up with an essay response to The Big One (the Common App main essay, dun dun dun).

So what do you do?

Continue reading “College app protip #4: Brainstorm, drainstorm”