I was watching the coverage of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and reliving last years events in my head. Crawling into bed, I couldn’t get it out of my mind so I went onto Facebook and was looking through pages to see if people were posting real-time images. That was when I found the Cajun Navy Facebook page. I started reading comments people were posting saying that they were stranded and no one was coming to help. I forwarded the thread to Heath with a simple message “Should we load up and head that way with a boat?”
Knowing I couldn’t do anything at this moment, I shut my phone off, kissed Cindy goodnight and went to bed saying some prayers for those poor people in Texas.
6am, my phone is buzzing with a steady stream of text messages coming in. First one read “Start Packing! Lets leave within the hour!”
I guess Heath had read through the pleas for help and it had struck a chord with him like it did me.
I grabbed my duffle bag from under the bed, threw a few days worth of clothes in it while Cindy made coffee. We talked back and forth questioning if this was a good idea or not. Granted, this was a Tuesday morning and the coming weekend was a busy Labor Day Holiday in Cedar Key. The one year anniversary of Hurricane Hermine that did so much damage to our little town which was all the more reason I wanted to go help.
Although she wasn’t happy about it, when I threw my phone to her and asked her to read the comments on the Cajun Navy pages while I sorted through my gear, she looked up and said “Pack enough stuff for at least a week. That water isn’t like ours was. It’s not tide controlled and it’s not going to go away anytime soon. These poor people are going to need all the help they can get.”
A few hours later, we were gassing up a half dozen fuel cans that were in the bed of Heath’s truck. We had decided that towing a small aluminum Jon boat with a 15hp outboard would be the best plan. It was small and light enough to navigate really skinny water, and if need be, the two of us could lift it over debris. We had weighed out the pro’s and con’s of our various boats we had between the both of us and we both agreed that bringing something small and light would be the best bet. A few hours later we were heading west on I-10 with a heavy, steady rain beating down on the windshield. Something that would happen constantly for the next few days.
The drive west was uneventful. We only stopped for gas when we needed it and ate food while the truck was fueling up. Getting into western Louisiana, the rain was heavy, tropical storm heavy with visibility barely past the hood of the truck. We drove through the night skirting around the northern area of Houston because all the roads leading into Houston were closed.
This added considerable miles and time to the drive, but with Cindy and Jolie keeping track of road closures and shortcuts and sending them via texts, we never hit any closed areas that we had to turn around. One of the girls had found the Drive Texas website which keeps the road closures and road conditions updated continuously and that helped us navigate our route.
We did have to drive at a snails pace for multiple hours due to how hard the rain was coming down with numerous times Heath yelling to hold on as we hydroplaned across the flooded road. During the drive, I had found a app that all the social media pages were recommending that we were monitoring. It’s called Zello Walkie Talkie App and allows you to pick a group, for us, the Cajun Navy Group and monitor people talking back and forth with the rescue efforts. It was like the old days of listening in on a police scanner.
At times it was almost gut wrenching when people would be pleading for help saying the water was rising and they were stranded. One feels totally helpless while listening in to people saying that someone just got electrocuted while trying to do a rescue or that there are shots fired. Between the weather on our windshield, the white knuckle driving and the stress and helpless feeling of what we were listening to, the nerves were on edge for most of the drive.
About 6am, we were standing in a McDonalds parking lot in West Houston eating breakfast and filling up knowing that we probably wouldn’t eat for the rest of the day. I looked at Heath and said “It was 24 hours ago when you texted me and asked if I was ready to go!” We both laughed and commented that it seemed like we were already a few days into this.
Cindy had found a group of people that had spent the previous day in boats evacuating people and had put us in contact with them. We had made contact and were meeting with them since they knew this area. Long story short, after meeting up, we split up with a few trucks and boats heading in one direction and Heath and I along with two other Texas locals headed where we thought the most help was needed.
All the calls we had listened in on during the long drive were coming out of Port Arthur and Beaumont Texas. That area was where the water was still rising. This meant we had to drive East through Houston, the areas that had been closed for the last few days and where the news had been reporting from. The images you had seen of the vehicles stranded on I-10 while they walked along the concrete medians above the water.
This morning as we drove through those same areas, the water had receded and all that was left was a bunch of abandoned vehicles scattered in odd areas and road debris. It was eerie, like we were living in a scary movie where the world had ended. The guys in the truck in front of us knew the roads so we were following them making a lot of detours around roads that were still flooded. I-10 was still closed so we took HWY 90 through a bunch of small, flooded out towns towards Beaumont, then down into Port Arthur.
Other than their truck and ours, we would go for miles and miles through one of the countries largest cities without seeing another vehicle. We learned real quick, that when you pulled up to a police roadblock, if you told them you were headed in to help, they would let you pass. So a few roadblocks might be turning people around that were either clueless to what was happening or were going to gawk, as long as you were headed there to help, you were allowed down an otherwise closed off road. It was a good feeling to see so many trucks out on the road with boats hooked to them. American’s were coming out in droves to help. Pretty much every vehicle you saw had a boat hooked to it or was loaded with supplies to help in the rescue effort.
We were coming from Houston to Port Arthur via HWY 90 which was shut down, but there was a long line of trucks towing boats driving it anyways. The west bound lane was completely underwater, multiple feet of water, and the 2-3 lane East Bound side was being divided with both West and East bound traffic. Everyone was being 100% cordial, no lane cutting, passing or road rage. Lets face it, we were all here to help, and getting angry was not going to make anything better.
Pulling into Port Arthur, which at this time was what would be considered ground zero was eye opening. We noticed that everyone was being funneled into a Office Depot/Wal-Mart/Strip Mall parking lot that was somewhat higher than the surrounding roadways. Imagine how big these stores are and think what their parking lots normally look like. Now imagine the lot being filled to capacity and every truck in the lot had a boat trailer behind it. There was a line of trucks backing off the exit that went into the flooded out road where they were launching their boats. You basically backed your boat trailer into a ditch and left the boat floating, went and parked the truck and trailer and went into the surrounding neighborhoods and looked for people that needed to evacuate.
The sky was filled with helicopters and the parking lot had a line of ambulances waiting for the people the choppers were bringing in. I’ve never been in a war zone, but this is what I would imagine the extraction point of a active battlefield would look like. Numerous choppers would be hovering waiting for the one that was on the ground to off-load it’s occupants. As soon as that was done, that chopper would take off and the next in line would land. The ambulances would take off as the next one would pull up in que.
There was a police cruiser in the middle of the parking lot with its lights on and I could see a group of people standing around talking with the officer. I walked over while Heath started to get the boat ready to go. While waiting there listening to the dozens of men standing around this officer yelling out questions and asking which direction to go, you could see the stress level in his eyes. This was not organized, this was just an officer that had probably pulled into the scene and because he was wearing a badge, everyone assumed he was in charge. He was basically telling it like it was…”I have no idea where to send you all. Have you checked the app’s where people are dropping pins to where they’re located and where they need to be rescued?” Everyone was basically figuring it out as it was unraveling.
Remember that it was torrential downpour raining, there were 4 helicopters hovering some 100′ above our heads and sirens could be heard from all directions. Yet everyone remained calm. Everyone waited their turn and the officer, Major Cole, is what he was telling you to put in your phone was handing out his telephone number to everyone that would ask what to do once they rescued someone. He would repeat, “If you have someone in your boat, call or text me and let me know where you are and how serious the people are and I’ll figure out where to have you pull up or have an ambulance waiting for you.”
While I was standing there someone said “I’m from here, I’ve lived here my entire life and I know this area very well.”
I looked at him and asked “How many people do you have in your boat?”
He replied “It’s just me, I spent the morning driving around in my boat making sure all my neighbors were good, then told my wife I cant just sit at home, so I drove from Nederland, the next town over, to Port Arthur because I knew this area would need help.”
I asked if we could get into his boat with him as we didn’t know this area. One of the things Heath and I had talked about during our drive over was getting into a town and getting lost because we didn’t know the area. We did not want to have to get rescued while trying to help other people. He shrugged his shoulders and said “Yeah, lets load up and head out!”
We pulled over to the edge of the parking lot and ditched our truck and loaded in Todd’s. Funny part is while we pulled into the parking lot, I commented that this was a skinny water boat guys dream. There were boats of every make and model and so many of them were custom made, which is something that both Texas and Louisiana are known for. I had pointed out a cool looking boat and said something to Heath like “Check that one out, that would be perfect for Cedar Key!”
When Todd told us to follow him, he got in the truck pulling the boat I had pointed out. When I asked him what make the hull was, he laughed and said “It’s my own. I’m a fabricator and built it myself out of aluminum.”
I knew right along that the 3 of us would get along good.
A woman was standing on the edge of the parking lot and was telling people that a nearby apartment complex had a lot of people in it that needed to be taken to higher ground. This is the way it happens in these parts. The area that we were pulling people from was dry. Maybe ankle deep water around the base of the apartments, but getting to them required going through pretty deep water. So the folks in those apartments were not in danger of their life at this point, but if the water was going to keep rising, which it was, then they were going to be in serious trouble soon.
In order to launch your boat, everyone was just backing the trailers into a ditch that paralleled the road. When the trailer fell into the ditch, the boat stayed floating. You’d move the boat away from the trailer, pull the truck and trailer back into the road and leave it there. The road was a 5 lane type with a center turn lane. Without anyone telling one another what to do, everyone knew to launch their boats, leave the truck and trailers in the turn lane and head out looking for people in need. It was amazing how smoothly all of this was going with zero direction other than good American’s just wanting to help.
The 3 of us idled slowly towards the apartment complex with a few other boats that were headed that way. Over the course of the next few hours, the entire apartment complex was emptied out and brought back to the road which was higher ground. Another volunteer had shown up with a big trailer where the boats would pull up and move them from boats to trailers where they would be brought to the parking lot where buses were waiting to bring them to shelters.
Once this area was clear, we decided that we’d head down into an area of Port Arthur that a lot of the calls were coming from over the Zello App. Everyone was having issues figuring out how to get there due to the road closures, but luckily Todd, being from this area knew a series of roads that would get us there. Much of the drive was in 2-4′ deep of water which is why it was keeping many of the others out. The issue was you’d go through long sections of flooded out roadway, then a quarter mile of dry ground that would have a ton of cars abandoned on that area, then back into deep water. So if you just launched the boat, you’d only go a little ways before you’d be high and dry again. You literally had to pull the boat through the water till you finally came to the areas that were consistently flooded.
Once into this area of Port Arthur, we drove into the labyrinth of neighborhoods till the water started coming into the doors of the truck. That was when we knew we were deep enough to launch the boat right in the middle of the road.
This was house after house that was flooded. Most of the residents had left by the looks of how empty it was. But when we did find someone that wanted to get out, you’d load them in the boat and bring them to the Port Arthur Fire Station where once they had a bus load of people, they’d bring them out to shelters. Todd knew a few of the fire fighters and as we floated away, he said “That right there is good people. They’ve been here for 4 days straight sleeping at the fire station and working around the clock!”
After a few hours of being in downtown Port Arthur, we headed back to the parking lot/staging area. It was getting dark and EVERYONE had warned not to be out after dark. The power was out, there were numerous reports of shootings and the wind was picking up.
By the time we got back to the Wal-Mart parking lot, it looked like the Calvary had arrived. The entire parking lot was Humvee’s, Personnel Carriers and random military vehicles. When I walked over to where Major Cole had been, there was now an entire command post set up. The rest of the parking lot looked like a mix of a campground and a boat show. All those empty boat trailers now had boats on them and people were setting up makeshift camps to wait out the dark before heading out again in the morning.
I found Major Cole and asked what the game plan was. He told me that with the military there, he was now just catching them up to speed and was handing over everything to them. He also said that they were asking civilians not to go back out till they could setup a specific game plan. With so many of the personnel carriers with their giant tires, they could accomplish what 10 boats could do in one load.
He said “If you want to continue to help out, wait a few days and the shelters will probably need volunteers to help staff them.”
Todd said he was headed home for the night and we all shook hands and exchanged numbers. Heath and I sat talking and decided that at this point, we’d probably be in the way. We loaded up and headed home.
I’d like to mention that the Wal-Mart parking lot that was being used as a staging center had been closed all day. When we got back later that night, the lights were on in the store. I walked up to the two people standing in front of the store and asked if they were open. The woman asked if I was a First Responder. I laughed and said “No ma’am, I just came to offer help and I went in the water over my head at one point and my phone got soaked. I wanted to buy a bag of rice to put it in to see if I could save it.”
She said “Well then, you’re a first responder! We’re open to people helping in this area. I’m the manager of the store and was able to call a few employees to come into work. We only have the self-serve check-out counters open because I was only able to bring in 5 employees.”
There were so many people in the parking lot that had come to help, that I would have loved to see what the evening sales were for this Wal-Mart store. I think there were 6 self-serve check-out lanes, and each one had at least 10 people patiently waiting in line. There was a major hold up because the machines would not accept wet money, and every one of us was soaked to the bone. I looked down at one point and there was a puddle below me where I had been waiting in line. I know a lot of people hate Wal-Mart, but this manager made a very good decision as that store being open was helping tremendously.
We’re not sure if I-10 East was actually open as we were one of the only vehicles on the road for some time after we left. All the power was out and it was eerie how dark everything was with the rain and the lack of lights. Every few overpasses there would be a few flashing lights and some military vehicles as Orange Texas, the next town to the East was now flooding out. At one point we were driving and I said “Wow, maybe they’ve opened up the West Bound lane because there are lights heading towards us.” As they got closer we realized that they were on our side of the highway and it was a long line of military vehicles headed west.
We had pulled over to the side of the road to let them all pass and while Heath turned back into the road, he said “Hey, what is that coming from the concrete barrier separating the Eastbound/Westbound lanes?” He pulled up to the barrier and noticed that water was spraying out from the cracks between the pieces that divided the road. It looked like your garden hose when it’s sprung a pinhole leak.
Heath rolled down his window and looked out and gasped “HOLY SHIT! The water is up to the top of the barrier on the West Bound side of the highway!”
He gunned the truck and we hightailed it east for some time not slowing down for anything, even the convoys of rescue vehicles coming at us in our same lanes. Both of us were thinking that if that barrier gives way, the force of the water will be enough that it’ll sweep us right off the road! Luckily we made it to Louisiana where both of us admitted that we couldn’t go any longer. At this point we had been up for close to 40 hours without sleep with way too much adrenaline pumping through our system. If you would have asked us, the last two days had felt like we had been gone from Cedar Key for more than a week.
After multiple exits of stopping to find every hotel booked to capacity, I walked into a Marriott and when the woman said she had one room, I handed her my credit card without asking price or anything about it. We both took long hot showers and while one was in the shower, the other would pack up the soaking wet clothes we had worn all day, that reeked of fuel and gas that was in the water, bagged them up and put them out in the truck. We hadn’t eaten anything since 6am in that McDonalds parking lot and it was now close to midnight. There was a Waffle House beside the hotel that was open 24 hours. We walked down there feeling somewhat reguvinated after long hot showers.
We both ordered and while eating our crappy road side food, Heath asked me if I was awake. I looked up and said “Yeah, why would you ask?” He said “Because your eyes are closed and you looked like you had fallen asleep!” I admitted that I might have dozed off while eating, but told him that he had done the same thing a few times and I just hadn’t called him out on it.
We walked back up to the hotel room and pushed one another out of the way so we could brush our teeth and get into those beds. I think I laid down, said “Goodnight” and opened my eyes the next morning and had never moved, rolled or shifted once in 7 hours. Heath said he was in the exact same position that he had laid down in last night. I honestly think the building could have burned down and I probably would not have woken.
Thursday we spent the entire day and night driving home. Numerous times having to slow down to a crawling pace due to how hard it was raining. I was on Heath’s phone for much of the way dictating to the girls what we were doing since my phone never came back to life.
We got home around 11pm that night. We were both exhausted. I knew I had a really busy weekend ahead of me and was glad that this year I wouldn’t be mucking out mud from our building on a Labor Day weekend. But I somewhat felt like it had been a wasted trip. Did we make a difference in helping people out? Was it worth it to drive that far for only 12 hours of work? Would it have been better spent just sending money to help?
I don’t know? I just know that when Hurricane Hermine hit us one year ago this weekend, I was overwhelmed with the amount of people that showed up to help. I don’t know if I would feel right knowing I was an able bodied American that had a functioning boat and I was just sitting here watching it on the news. I know that Jolie stepped up and covered my shift bartending at Bonish Studio. Cindy had called and told me that we could stay as long as we needed to because she had made a few phone calls and numerous friends had said they’d help any way possible to cover shifts or just help her with the studio during the busy holiday weekend. Heath had simply made a phone call to the owner of Drummond Bank, explained what he was doing and was told to do what he had to do to help. He still has his job and that says a LOT for a company in this day in age to allow a employee go with zero notice with an open return date.
It’s things like that, that make me proud to be an American. It was driving down a highway and seeing a line of trucks in front of me a mile long with boats hooked to their bumpers. License plates from Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and too many others to mention. It was seeing this many men, all lined up helping their fellow American. No one cared what religion they were helping, what nationality they were helping, where they had come from or what social status they left when they drove to Texas, they were just all there to do what was right. Todd didn’t ask us anything about us, he simply said if you want to help, get in my boat and we spent the day together helping fellow Americans.
I don’t know if I made a difference but I know there are millions of other Americans out there that did the same thing we did. I think that is what separates our country from others. Despite all the bickering that is going on amongst the various sides, when the shit hits the fan, everyone forgets about the nonsense and does what is needed.
As I type this, I’ve just finished working a very busy weekend. Tomorrow morning I’ll make a donation to the Houston Food Bank, then start getting our place secure for this upcoming storm that is scary as shit!! It’s big, and it’s still out in the Caribbean heading towards Florida.
If you were one of the many people that helped, THANK YOU! If you couldnt for what ever reason, please make a donation to one of the charities that help out. Just please make sure the charity you’re donating to is a worthy cause. Check with Charity Navigator to make sure the money you donate is actually going to those in need. Say some prayers for those in need and lets pray that Hurricane Irma fizzles out and goes away.
I apologize about these photos I’ve posted. They’re not of my normal quality. This trip wasn’t about the photography. Granted I had a camera with me at all times, but it was secondary to what we were there to do. So I have photos, but they’re not all that great.