Sean Kirst: For Niagara County native in Houston, family is stronger than flood - The Buffalo News
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Sean Kirst: For Niagara County native in Houston, family is stronger than flood

The hardest choice was what to bring upstairs.

At first, Greg Kopacz and his family figured they had some time. They live in the Champions area, a community within the sprawling boundaries that come together to form Houston. They had witnessed two floods in their neighborhood before, when the water barely crept past the curb in front of their house.

For a while they hoped it would be the same with Hurricane Harvey. They kept watch on the flood. They tried to wait it out.

A moment came when they couldn't wait anymore.

Then they were running up and down the stairs, and they were grabbing albums filled with photos of their wedding and their children. They gave up on the new furniture, which suddenly carried little meaning. Put to the test, they did their best to save what really matters.

They couldn't. Not everything.

Not once water started pushing through cracks in the walls and the floor.

Greg, whose 33rd birthday came amid the storm, was born in Lewiston in Niagara County. He spent most of his childhood in Wilson. When he was 13 or 14, his parents, John and Robin Kopacz, took a January vacation to visit relatives in Houston.

In Niagara County, it was freezing. The economy was tough. In Texas, it was warm. There seemed to be plenty of jobs.

John and Robin made a decision. The family moved to Houston.

Greg, at the time, was in middle school.

"Oh my God," he said. "At first, it was brutal." He was a kid from the North in a completely different culture. The other children were not always kind, to put it gently. His family went through some significant jolts. More than once, his parents sat at the kitchen table and talked about whether they should move back.

Instead, they did what they always do when things go wrong.

"We toughed it out," Greg said. "We just kept pushing forward."

It is the same lesson he is trying to teach his own children, after the flood.

The view from the second floor, past the Kopacz back yard, as a helicopter is sent to rescuea woman in labor amid Harvey. (Family photo)

Greg is a firefighter for the Westlake Fire Department. He is also an electrician. Sunday, he had off from both jobs. Greg and his wife Carrie kept hoping the water would stop before it reached their house, which sits on a rise above the street. It was raining, but not at a terrifying pace.

That afternoon, while Greg was at the store, the rain accelerated. It was like a cannonade against the windshield, the hardest downpour he'd ever seen.

More than once, in describing what came next, he used the word "Niagara."

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By the time Greg returned to his neighborhood, the mouth of his street was too flooded to enter. He circled until he found a different route. To reach his house, he traveled through eight or nine inches of water in the street.

Once at home, he was stuck. His station house is 20 miles away. He couldn't get to work, at least not officially. Yet even with the water edging up over the curb, his wife and their four kids were safe in the house.

"I'm a firefighter," he said. "I felt like I ought to be doing something."

Greg threw on a few pieces of gear and a pair of shorts, then slogged over to a point, maybe a half-mile away, where an emergency task force was being mobilized.

He told them about his work and he volunteered. He spent the next seven or eight hours on a boat, getting people out of houses: Young children. The elderly. Even dogs and cats. That evening, weary, he went home. The water was creeping closer, but his family still had power. The house was dry.

The next day, he repeated the routine. He volunteered with other rescuers. They carried a quadriplegic man, in a wheelchair, through five feet of water. But Greg's luck ran out on his own street. By the time he arrived at home, the water was moving fast toward their flower beds.

If it gets to the patio, Greg told his wife, we'd better get busy.

It hit the patio. They shut down their breaker box. The family started pushing furniture against the wall, and trying to move anything precious upstairs.

They didn't have time to get it all.

Greg Kopacz arrives home after a day of volunteer rescues before Hurricane Harvey flooded his Houston home. (Family photo)

If you haven't lived through a flood, Greg said, you can't put words to the moment when the water – brown, murky, foul-smelling water – starts bubbling through the cracks and coming into your house. Upstairs, helpless, his family settled in to face whatever the morning would bring. They managed to share a cake for their daughter Veronica's 18th birthday.

By Monday, there was a solid nine inches of water in their living room. It began to recede by the evening, but the harm was done.

"Everything downstairs is gone," Greg said.

That includes an ornate desk his wife's stepfather made by hand.

And an envelope containing the little cap their oldest daughter wore, as an infant, at the hospital.

And quilts that had been handsewn by his wife's grandmother.

And silverware passed down through generations.

"The things we can’t replace, that's what brought my wife to tears," said Greg, who describes Carrie as being "10 times tougher than I am."

Still, you could hear resolve in his voice.

"If anything, I feel guilty," Greg said. He talked about firefighters at his station who worked 36-hour shifts. He talked about families that suffered utter devastation, even loss of life, families stranded without hope of rescue in the storm.

In his neighborhood, Greg said, it was all community. He watched as a helicopter thundered past their house, as emergency workers rappelled down to help a woman who'd gone into labor. "Like something in a movie," Greg said.

He watched as neighbors climbed into boats, trucks, even kayaks, to do anything they could to help those in trouble.

The Kopacz clan is well-established in Houston. The extended family founded the Houston Bills Backers, the official Bills fan club in the region. The quality that links so many natives of Western New York is exactly what he sees all around him in Texas.

"The warmth, the generosity, it was unbelievable," Greg said. "No one waited for help to come. They said: 'If my neighbor's in trouble, I've got to go.'"

By Wednesday, Greg's parents were at his house, as was his sister Kathie and her husband Mark, who invited his family to stay with theirs. A cousin, Lisa Fix, immediately started a GoFundMe account to help with their repairs, an effort that had raised more than $1,000 in two days.

"There's no way I can express my gratitude," Greg said.

His brother Eric showed up and took one look at the living room, where everything within a yard of the floor was basically destroyed, then turned to Greg with an expression that said:

Let's get started.

"My brother," Greg said, "he's got no quit in him."

Greg keeps telling himself there's a lesson in all this. When he was a child, his parents rarely lectured. What they taught, they taught by what they showed him every day.

He figures that's how he's got to see this moment.

"The one thing I want my kids to know is that if you want something good to happen, you've got to go after it," Greg said. "If you want something, you've got to bust your butt."

So he thinks about what others lost in the flood, and he thinks about how everyone he loves is safe, and he thinks about how the greatest and most lasting heirloom is not defined by some possession, but becomes family itself.

He hopes his children understand: That heirloom is on safe ground.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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