Today marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey hitting the Texas coast. My personal experience in helping with rescues, affects me still to this day. The things I saw and experienced were both amazingly good, and horrendously bad. And I would do it all again.
This is my story from one year ago today.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas on Friday, August 25th, it didn’t cross my mind I would personally experience the destruction of it. After watching the news that weekend about average citizens performing rescues by boat, Monday morning after arriving to work at Agency Creative in Addison, Texas, I was encouraged by Mike Scannell, our company president, to take my own boat down to help. I had no hesitation and was out the door. I called my now son-in-law, Zach Mormon, if he wanted to go with me. He and his brother-in-law, Brandon Poteete, were both eager to join me. My wife, Christie, helped in making calls in advance for items needed for my trip. So, on my way home, I headed over to Water Event, in Carrollton, to fill my truck with over a thousand pounds of water bottles generously donated by the owner and church friend, Brian Rose.
Zach, Brandon and I quickly loaded up my 21’ Ranger bass boat and headed to Albertsons to load up on food for the trip. They provided us with a gift card to purchase energy bars for people needing rescue. The manager there informed us how grateful she was we were helping and said “You will be blessed.” We gladly received that and were excited to see how generous everyone was regarding the situation.
About an hour South of Dallas, we entered the storm. The sky became dark and then it began to rain – It didn’t stop for three days. The only traffic headed South were others like us, pulling boats. We all felt as though we were marching to battle.
While driving down we heard about Zello, a phone app that would direct us to people needing rescued. Brandon took on the responsibility of communicating on the Zello channels to navigate us over the next few days. With roads completely under water and no ability to identify where they were, that turned into a huge challenge. But thanks to the Zello app, our information was always accurate and up to date.
The light was fading fast, but we wanted to get the boat in the water. Everything was chaotic. The chatter coming from Zello of people screaming for help, cars trying to get around the high water, and Brandon navigating us to find deep enough water to launch the boat. He directed us West through The Woodlands until we ran into a barricade. The police waved us on through without hesitation. Finally, we were at deep water. It was a swollen creek next to an apartment complex. We backed the boat off the road edge into what used to be a front lawn. Guys from the apartments jumped in the water to help us unload it. It was a little hairy maneuvering around the curbs and guard rails to drop off into the swift creek but, finally, we were motoring.
We followed the swift waters South for about ten miles trying to find the neighborhood Zello informed us needed evacuation. It soon became dark. No road markers. Only trees and dangerous waters. Using our GPS, we knew the direction we needed to go, but couldn’t find a way to get there due to the thick trees. We finally saw lights through the trees and came out into a flooded parking lot of a huge corporate complex. It was eerie. The stop lights, in 6 feet of water, were working. The building lights were on. But no one to be seen. We continued on trying to get to the flooded neighborhood. After about three hours in heavy rains we were soaked to the core and our adrenalin quickly began to fade. It was starting to get dangerous. Begrudgingly, we all chose to head back to the truck. We were disappointed we were unable to rescue anyone that evening.
We got the boat trailered and headed back East into The Woodlands. Soaking wet, we found an open convenience store and bought the remaining hotdogs off their grill. Stomachs filled, we then found an open gas station and filled up the truck and boat – only to find out later that the gas had water in it – most likely due to the flooding. A young local guy came up to us asking if he could join in with us in rescuing flood victims. The humanitarian spirit we were seeing was overwhelming.
Zach’s aunt who lived in The Woodlands had invited us to sleep at her house. But we were unable to find a road to get there. It was now 11:30 pm. We were tired and had no plan on where to crash for the night. So, we went to the local Holiday Inn but they were full with guests whose homes had flooded. They helped call area hotels for us but found no rooms available. The manager then walked up and offered us a free room that adjoins a master suite. We were overjoyed – and blessed.
My brother and his oldest son Travis got in from Oklahoma around 2 am and crashed with us in our hotel room. After an early breakfast, we met many other people with boats trying to identify how best to get to flooded victims. We developed a plan to travel a few miles East and launch into the West Fork San Jacinto River and then head South to Humble, Texas. We ended up launching the boat on flooded highway 99. After checking for victims in two cars deeply submerged in the water there, we headed South towards Humble. The once small river was now a roaring river a mile wide with currents so strong it made me concerned for all the small aluminum jon boats we had seen others in.
We tried, for hours, to find how to get to the town of Humble. Fallen trees and power lines prevented us from finding a safe route. My fuel was getting low as only one of my tanks were working due to having water in the fuel. We came to a small flooded community and spoke to a rancher who had lost a few head of cattle due to the flood. His home was only a few inches above the water line. He and his generous neighbors provided us fuel and even offered us something to eat. They were so appreciative of us coming down to help. We finally got in to Humble but the folks that needed rescuing had already been taken to safety, but oddly, some residents didn’t want to leave their flooded homes. I never did understand that. We eventually headed back North to launch the boat and get something to eat. We found a safe route to make it to Zach’s aunt’s house.
After spending the night with Zach’s aunt, we decided to head East to follow the hurricane where more help was needed. We unloaded most of our bottled water at a small church operating as a shelter for local flood victims. Our timing was perfect, their water supply was almost gone.
We heard Beaumont was being hit hard and many were needing rescue. However, due to a power plant under water and threatening to blow up, we were unable to take the shortest route – highway 90 East. So we had to travel far North and find an alternate route to Beaumont. Once in Woodville, we headed South on 287 towards Beaumont. We soon hit the storm like never before. The wind and rain were torrential. Listening to Zello, we were finding out nearly all roads were becoming flooded getting into Beaumont. Just before arriving to Kountze, we discovered the highway had just flooded over from a rising creek. We launched the boat right there on the side of the highway with the goal to head on into Beaumont – 20 miles South. As we were loading up, a crew from CBS asked if we would take them in to Kountze to film the tragedy. I honestly was not interested in being a tour guide for the news. But we accommodated. Many homes were near the creek and had recently been flooded up to the roof lines. The scene was eerie.
After returning the camera crew to dry land, I was approached by another reporter, Brandon Todd, with Fox 4 out of Dallas. He again, asked if I would also take him into Kountze. Reluctantly, I again accommodated. This time was a bit different. Brandon noticed a soaked cat only a few inches out of the water sitting atop a grill on a porch. He asked us to rescue the cat. So, Zach lifted the cat into the boat, which it then bit him on his thumb. No one else even realized he had been bitten – but I noticed Zach was acting odd with the cat. So, I picked up the cat to move him to a safe spot and then the cat bit me on my finger on my right hand and didn’t let go for ten seconds. It truly hurt. We eventually got the cat back to safety and the local sheriff took it to animal control.
By now. we had heard that highway 90 was open so we loaded back up the boat and we were finally on our way again to Beaumont.
Once in Beaumont we found the most urgent rescues were needed in Port Arthur – thirty miles South. Once there, we ended up launching our boat in a mall parking lot. It was a very chaotic situation as many others were scrambling to doing the same. It was a great feeling to finally be back in action to help others. We motored through some flooded neighborhoods and rescued families in apartment buildings. We brought them back to the launch area where their families and friends were waiting on them. By the time we were done that day, it was 1:30 in the morning. Gratefully, there were two guys there who drove down from Dallas to cook and serve free hotdogs, chips and sodas to all the first responders. This was the first meal we had eaten since breakfast.
Again, we hadn’t had the chance to make any plans on where to sleep for the night. After driving to many hotels and making calls to no avail, a manager at the Hampton Inn in Beaumont, who was booked, but had no running water, gave us a free room. Again, we were blessed.
Zach and I both woke up with our hands swollen from our cat bites. We hadn’t been able to shower and clean out our cat bites. Also, Zach had a red infection line going up from his hand to his arm pit. That made me very concerned. So we spent most of the morning trying to find an unflooded and open urgent care facility, to no avail. We even drove through two feet of water to get to the hospital in Port Arthur. But the immense crowd in the hospital lobby made our decision for us.
My oldest daughter works for a hand surgeon, Dr. Emanual Unbinas, who called in some antibiotics to a Walmart in North Beaumont for us. After cleaning our hands and taking the drugs, we were now ready to head to Katy, Texas to assist in rescues after a reservoir crested and began flooding the Katy area.
But my wife had different plans for us. She “strongly” suggested we head back to Dallas to get our hands checked out. Reluctantly, we followed her instructions. Zach and I were both admitted into hospitals that night to treat the infections. During my three days in the hospital with my arm in traction, I thought a lot about what we had seen and also wondered how and why I was knocked out by a cat bite. But I didn’t have it as bad as Zach. He received eight rabies shots.
About a week later, my brother, who lives in Durant, Oklahoma, was back down in Beaumont helping clean up homes from the flooding.
A neighbor walked up to him and excitedly called him by name and also mentioned my name. He was naturally confused who she was and how she knew his name. She then goes on to tell him she recognized him from the news during the flooding in Kountze. She had family that lived there who had been flooded out. She stated that by us taking the news crews in to Kountze, the news was then broadcasted all over the country. This resulted in strangers from all over the country, providing more than enough relief money and aid to the residents of Kountze. She then expressed, without you and your brother, we would have been forgotten.
When my brother called me to tell me the story of the woman he had just met, I then had the answer I was looking for. It made my cat bite and hospital stay all worth it. And even though the insurance company totaled my boat from the damages incurred during the Hurricane Harvey rescues, I would gladly do it all again.