The home stands flooded with three feet of water. It's been this way for five days. Finally the man and his son give up waiting. They've held out hoping the waters will recede but that's not in the cards yet for this suburb west of Houston. In turn, each man grabs ahold of the boat and with a heave-ho we pull them aboard the Boston Whaler. The son cradles a guitar in his arms, the last of his possessions he can’t leave behind.
And we're off, driving through suburban Katy, TX streets in a boat, through gates and navigating turns normally reserved for wheeled rather than floating vehicles.
"All Available Boats"
The previous day while staring at my laptop I said, "I have to find a boat and a crew."
With my background in boating I have skills that could be put to use.
This thought came after watching news of hurricane Harvey's destruction. Like you, I saw it on websites, TV, radio and social media. I got conflicting reports at first. Officials calling for citizens with boats. Then messages saying the government agencies don’t want citizen help. I listen to Houston AM radio KTRH trying to decide. Then another TV station.
I make a decision: I'd rather arrive unneeded than to stay at home and be wrong. So we go.
Crew and Boat
I soon found the help I needed in the generosity of my Austin neighbors.
I typed out a quick message in the NextDoor app asking for volunteers. In minutes my phone starts ringing. Keely Schaefer has a load of baby supplies for the shelters. She and her son drive over to drop off the supplies. Up to this point I’ve felt alone in my effort, but when Keely arrives it warms my heart.
Later when I got back in touch with Keely she had this to say:
"I was watching the heartbreaking stories unfold on social media and felt helpless. When I heard one of our neighbors was headed to Houston, via the neighborhood app NextDoor, with a boat, I felt compelled to help in any way I could. Since I care for my almost 2 year old son, I couldn't jump on a boat myself. So I grabbed (almost) every diaper, wipes, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer we had and took it over to Steve's house to send to our neighbors in Houston. So thankful for the everyday people, including Steve, that were able to spring into action and help those Texans in a time of need. One of the most amazing things I've seen Texans do."
From Maury’s Trail, Peter calls and offers more supplies. He and his wife Carol are longtime boaters and are eager to help. I drive by their home in the late afternoon sun. They hand me boater gear: rain suit, life jackets, ropes and a spare boat gas tank.
I talk with my fellow yacht club member Stefan Froelich and find he is also looking to help. The plan is taking shape now.
I get in touch with another yacht club member, RT Krempetz, who graciously agrees to loan his 17' Boston Whaler and Nissan Xterra. By 8pm we've met at RT's home, swapped cars and are driving toward Houston. Stefan drives while his son Ben and I plan logistics.
While en route my friend Sean Ziari, another LC neighbor, also gets in touch. He wants to help. We discuss options and Sean heads out early the next morning from Austin.
Ben is eager to practice emergency response he's been studying. We are loaded down with bottled water, waders, spare fuel tank, orange PFDs, ropes, bright yellow oilskins, snacks, ice and more.
My longtime friends Tom and Bernadette Kingsley agree to put us up in spare bedrooms in Katy outside Houston. Their home is near the flooding but luckily has escaped it.
Where Is Help Needed?
Meanwhile the electronic communications are buzzing: the FaceBook group I set up is beginning to grow. Zello channels (think CB radio in a smartphone app) bark with talk of flooded roads, dam breaches, toxic floodwaters and people needing evacuation. The main Harvey FaceBook group I watch is a blitz of activity. (I later find out this group, with its thousands of members, was created by a Lakeway woman.)
We decide on a strategy: wake up at 5:00 the next morning and immediately check the "Harvey 911" FaceBook group for the greatest need. "Admins" from all over the world help connect people needing rescue with rescue boaters. Rebecca, who I message with many times over the next few days, is logged in from New Zealand.
One problem with urban boat rescue becomes immediately apparent: how the heck do you get the boat into the water? Regular streets are too flat. There is not enough slope to float the boat without flooding the truck. Our first two tries won't do it. We can't get the boat deep enough on flooded but flat neighborhood streets.
Finally in front of McMean Junior High we find a parking lot that slopes down into the street steeply enough to launch the boat. No one else is around at this early hour.
Stefan parks the truck and after carefully checking the depth we start slowly making our way down the street. In a boat.
With Google maps on my iPhone and the Zello radio app, we get assignments from citizen "dispatchers" to check on specific addresses listed as "need rescue." We are told to watch for white shirts or towels hanging from doors to signify rescues needed.
While we are on our search, Stephanie Froelich jumps in and starts messaging helpful map, text and emergency info.
The first few addresses we come to no one is home. Ben and I walk in chest high water and knock on front doors just to be sure. We yell and blow regatta signal horns just to be sure.
After a couple more false alarms we head to a point on the map that is over a dry bridge - meaning we have to get out of the boat and walk.
Ben and Stefan stay with the boat while I walk across the bridge. On the far side of the bridge I'm back in chest deep water. I'm messaging back and forth with the Facebook admin and I'm zeroing in on the house. As I turn the corner so do two other boats.
Thankfully two boats are here - it looks like ten or more people need a ride.
After a few more false leads we decide to regroup. Maybe there is another place we could be more helpful. So we head back toward the truck and trailer with thoughts of heading to a different area of the city. When we arrive back at the junior high school where the truck is parked it's a hive of activity.
Many more people have arrived now. Trucks, boats and emergency services crews are milling about.
We talk with a fire rescue crew and agree to take one of their crew with us for door-to-door checks. We head back into the neighborhood.
This time around we begin to see more people that need rescue. Over the next few hours we take around a dozen people from their flooded homes back to the safety and shelter of the school parking area where they can get rides with friends or to city shelters.
It's staggering how much destruction there is in Houston right now. I'm glad we did our little part to help but there is much more to do. It was a pleasure serving with Stefan and Ben, generous and smart guys. And to Stephanie Froelich for having our back from home base. Thanks to RT and his family for helping so much and to the Kingsleys in Katy for their hospitality.
Steve Ward is a Long Canyon resident with his wife, ten year old daughter and two dogs. He owns sailATX, a Lake Travis sailing charter company. steve@sailATX.com, sailATX.com