The Lady in the Picture

From left, Renada Brown, Barbara Mazoch Nelson and Hank Brown

It was a photograph from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey seen by millions online. Major news sites across the country posted the image captured by Getty photographer Joe Raedle of a storm-weary woman standing on a street in Beaumont holding a sign that read “NO WATER.” Raedle snapped the shot of Barbara Mazoch Nelson on Sept. 2 in front of Coastal Welding Supply, one of her family’s retail locations. The sign was to help people understand that the company had exhausted its entire supply of bottled water — 1,600 cases were purchased and loaded in to customers’ cars by Coastal employees in less than three hours. The city of 118,000 residents was without water.

What the daughter of Coastal founder Al Mazoch and sister to the company’s current President J.C. “Chuck” Mazoch never imagined was that her handwritten message would be a “call to action” for a husband and wife in rural Alabama.

Hank Brown likes to get his news on the Internet. The 67-year-old ranch hand had been following Hurricane Harvey’s devastation of Southeast Texas from his home in South Pine Level, Alabama, a community of fewer than 2,000 outside of Montgomery. When he first saw the “No Water” picture, he didn’t share it with his wife, Renata. But when he logged on the next time and the same picture popped up on a different site, he showed it to her.

“Hank told me that he believed God was sending us a message with this photograph,” Czechoslovakia born Renata shared. “God can’t write us a letter or give us a call when help is needed somewhere, but Hank and I truly knew He was speaking to us to do something.”

Hank began to search the Web for contact information for Nelson or Coastal Welding Supply. An error in the photo caption on the company’s correct name was a barrier, but Hank was persistent and kept searching. After calling his boss and asking for time off, he went to their local Piggly Wiggly and bought cases of water, loading up his 24-foot stock trailer Friday morning, Sept. 1, and told Renata they were going to get on the road that night with their dog Hoppie. Hank still had not made contact with Nelson or Coastal Welding Supply.

“My good friend thought I was crazy going someplace without any information,” Hank laughed, “but I told him I would find the lady in the photograph somehow. I just knew I would.”

During their drive, Renata was able to find the phone number for the Fourth Street location. A team member with Coastal told the Browns that their water donation was greatly needed at a Beaumont distribution center and gave them directions to the site and made arrangements to meet them on arrival.

The Browns had posted a Harvey Relief sign in the window of their Ford F350. During their stops for gas and food, people would come up to them offering donations of money for gas and cases of water. 

“This was overwhelming to us,” Renata said. “The kindness of all these people, doing for others so far away, truly touched our hearts.”

Google Maps had plotted their destination with an arrival time of eight and a half hours. The Browns pulled in to their destination at the Westgate Memorial Baptist Church in Beaumont 16 hours after leaving Alabama. Their entire round trip would take them 30 hours.

 

As church volunteers helped unload the water, Hank finally met the woman he’d been calling, “the lady in the picture.” Barbara, as her son David looked on, was wrapped in an embrace by the Browns. It took a moment for the tears and emotions to allow any of the three to say a word of first greeting to one another.

“Thank you. Thank you,” Nelson repeatedly said. “You just can’t know what this means to us. It is so unbelievable that you came all this way because of a picture you saw on the Internet.”

They talked for a long while and laughed together as travel worn Hoppie eagerly lapped up a bowl of bottled water.

After a while, Hank said it was time to get back on the road and head home. Strong hugs, more tears and wishes of safe travels for the Browns and a safe recovery for Southeast Texans were shared. Hank got behind the wheel, and when the now empty truck and trailer turned out of the parking lot, a hand from the driver’s window waved a last goodbye to the “lady in the picture.”

 

By Cindy Yohe Lindsay

 

Special to The Examiner

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