After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, designer Michele Merz waded right into the fray. Water stood neck high in living rooms, possessions were ruined and rooms were uninhabitable. For six months, Merz worked tirelessly to help put homes and lives back together — Houzz chronicled one of her projects here. We spoke with Merz, who’s part of our Trade Program and the owner of MMI Design in Houston, about the post-Harvey experience.

How did you begin working on post-Harvey projects?
I started by working for a good friend whose house was flooded. Then a woman on the other side of town left me an SOS message, so when the waters receded, I headed over. People were pulling things out of their homes, families were milling around, shellshocked. The devastation was surreal.

Were you able to salvage anything?
The houses were pretty much all saturated in water, so everything had to be hauled away. The Sheetrock was pulled out 7 feet up from the floor; it was just the studs. All the flooring and appliances were gone from the ground floors. The only things left were the light fixtures. 

How did you approach these projects? 
I tried to make the silver lining the transformation of their homes, making them even better than before the flood. As people got through the initial shock of what had happened, they began to think about things they wanted to change. One woman had always wanted to redo her kitchen. Another woman needed more bathroom storage. 

So it was more than just restoration?
We ended up doing extensive remodeling in addition to helping them put their houses back together. I worked on four houses. We moved walls, reconfigured this, changed that. It was a little more than helping them get their cabinets back in place. And it helped that I had the right mix of design, construction and renovation experience.

How did you work with clients during such a difficult time?
Sensitivity and patience are so important. You’re helping people through something unbelievable. We shared tears more than once. And laughter. Laughter was how we got through some of the crazier days. 

Any practical advice for working with clients in these situations?
Having structure and a process can give clients perspective for the future. I spent a lot of time reassuring them that we could put their home back together, and showing them floor plans and renderings so they could see it. Virtual walk-throughs were also very helpful. Pictures really do speak a thousand words. 

How do you feel looking back on the experience?
The recovery process was huge. For anyone involved in it, you now value things differently, you’re willing to be there for others, you have more faith in humanity — it changes you. At least, it changed me.