How regular Texans used boats and big trucks to save hundreds in Harvey
The first part of the story about the heroes of Hurricane Harvey reads something like the opening scenes of a B disaster movie. A great storm approaches a sleeping city. A deluge. People awaken in deep darkness to torrents of rain blown horizontal by fierce wind, and water rising quickly in their homes. The keepers of civilization who guard us in the night are overwhelmed. It’s every man for himself.
Except that it wasn’t.
Just when the storm should fade to become a mere backdrop in a tale about man’s inevitable descent into depravity in the face of disaster, the old narrative pivots.
Many of the stories start about the same. An ordinary American is sitting safe at home, high and dry with the lights on and the air-conditioner running. He’s following the news on TV or social media when a desperate call goes out for people with boats and big trucks. He’s sworn no oath. He’s got his own people and place to worry about.
He slips on some shoes, picks up his keys and steps out into the storm.
Unprecedented, near biblical
Beginning the night of Aug. 26 and continuing for much of the following week, Hurricane Harvey, by then a tropical storm, dropped unprecedented, near biblical, amounts of rain on Galveston County — almost 50 inches, which is more than 4 feet, directly onto League City and Santa Fe and more than 40 inches onto Dickinson.
Rainfall amounts that would have been memorable had they occurred over months, fell in a matter of hours all over the 140 square miles of Clear Creek watershed and the 100 square miles drained by Dickinson Bayou.
Worse still, near solid slantwise curtains of rain fell on the concrete and asphalt plains of the vast, sprawling Houston metropolis. It ran off in thick sheets, filled every low spot, grew massive in volume, picked up speed, and, pushed along by gravity and its own great weight, headed for the coast.
Ben Peterek was at home in the 1200 block of Skipper Drive in the part of Galveston known as the Crash Boat Basin when catastrophe began to unfold on the mainland. It’s a waterman’s neighborhood of modest houses on stilts just feet from Offatts Bayou and yards from Galveston Bay. Usually, it’s a dicey place to be with a large tropical weather system roaming nearby, but not this time.
“It was raining, but nothing bad,” said Peterek, 41, who runs Gulfside Cleaning Service. “The lights were on and I was watching the news when they said they needed people with boats.”
His boat was on a trailer outside.
“I thought I needed to go,” he said. “I told my wife and she was all for it.”
Frank Avery was 20 or so road miles away at home in Texas City when his phone rang.
“It was a fishing buddy who said his sister-in-law and her family were trapped in Dickinson and asked if I could bring my boat,” said Avery, 28, who works for the Clear Creek public school district.
Scott Menotti, 52, a chemical plant operator, got the same kind of message at his home in Santa Fe.
“I started getting texts and Facebook messages from a guy I’m on a cook-off team with asking if I could bring my little johnboat and get his daughter-in-law, who was trapped with a baby,” Menotti said.
“I grabbed my son and told him hook up the boat.”
Danny Hart, 49, a principal in Galveston Restaurant Group, was watching the crisis on TV. He didn’t have a boat, but his big Sea-Doo personal watercraft was parked outside.
The battle to come
At about the same time, all over Texas and as far away as Louisiana, men and women with all manner of boat and truck were gassing up and heading toward the flood. They came in scores, hundreds perhaps, launched at flooded freeway exit ramps and in strip mall parking lots and got to work. They saved an unknown, but clearly large number of people from death.
At least two rescuers died. Yahir Vizueth, 25, and Jorge Perez, 31, were killed Aug. 30 when their disabled boat drifted into power lines near Greens Bayou in Houston. And a third member of that rescue party, Gustavo Rodriguez-Hernandez, 40, still was missing in early September.
The flotilla that formed more or less spontaneously in those late August days conducted what may go down as the largest civilian rescue effort in U.S. history.
For many locals hauling their bass boats, johnboats and personal watercraft from south Galveston County, it all got started at the intersection of Interstate 45 and FM 517 where easygoing Dickinson Bayou had gone amok, cutting the freeway, splitting the county in two and forming a main beachhead, of sorts, for the battle to come.
‘People calling for help’
“I had never launched anywhere but a boat ramp before,” Hart said. “There I was just on the side of the freeway. I didn’t know if I could do it or not, but I just backed into the water.”
The next hours and, for some, days would hold new experiences for many.
Menotti and his son Garrett, 23, trailered their boat along FM 646 as far they could north toward FM 517 and launched it in a gas station parking lot. Almost immediately, the prop hit a curb and killed the motor.
“The current just grabbed us and shot us all the way over to Crowder Funeral and ran us into a tree,” Menotti said. They got the motor started and back underway, but found themselves beseeched from every direction with calls for help.
“People were yelling for help from an RV parked at a dentist’s office,” Menotti said. “The water was getting deep and they were waving and yelling. I had to tell them to bear with me. I had to get that baby first.”
Such was the night for the rescuers — too many people, not enough room in the boats — as they made trip after trip into the flooded neighborhoods.
Frank Avery also was in Dickinson near FM 517.
“It was a mess,” Avery said. “The current was really swift. Houses were flooded up the first floors. People were waving bedsheets out of second-floor windows; people calling for help from their roofs.”
His 20-foot johnboat seemed very small, Avery said.
When the water got too shallow to run his boat, Avery returned to Dickinson and ferried people out in his four-wheel-drive pickup, he said.
‘It was crazy’
Peterek spent a surreal night hauling people to high ground in Dickinson, too; but he hadn’t seen anything yet. On Sunday, a friend, a Baytown volunteer firefighter, called asking him to take his boat to that hard-hit little city on the north end of Galveston Bay. He headed toward Baytown, but the friend turned him around because too many boaters already had answered his calls. Peterek was headed back when two Houston police officers flagged him down somewhere near where Interstates 45 and 610 meet.
They needed him and his boat.
“It was raining hard,” Peterek said. “These cops had no rain gear; they were soaked. They stashed their guns and radios in the bow of my boat to keep them dry and we just went.
“I had never seen this neighborhood before, but they had patrolled it. It was crazy. The street signs were about a foot out of the water. They’d say ‘turn left at the stop sign.’
“We pulled a lot of people out of there. I’d beach my boat on the 610 Loop; I’d just run it up on the loop and drop them there and we’d go back.
“We carried old people, babies; they put a dead body on my boat.”
All rescuers learned a few things about working a flood. There were power lines down everywhere, obstacles hidden below the surface waiting to tear up a prop or rip a hole in the hull.
“The current was swift, Peterek said. “You had to really drive the boat.”
‘Get on the boat and hold on’
Ben Boudreaux knew all that already. Boudreaux, 29, calls Friendswood home, but makes a living as a professional guide, chasing sport fish and game birds all along the Texas Coast. Sometimes, though, he and some other U.S. Coast Guard licensed captains with shallow-running mud boats and air boats contract to work in floodwaters hauling power and gas company crews.
Boudreaux and a friend were waiting with one boat on a trailer in Texas City for a call to roll out on a contract job when the epic flood began. The contract call never came, and the two soon decided they had to start getting people out.
They went north up I-45 trying to get to Boudreaux’s boat in Friendswood, but couldn’t.
“We couldn’t get across the creek,” Boudreaux said. “The water was probably 25 feet deep.”
They launched at Friendswood Link Road, almost a mile from Clear Creek, and spent the night carrying people to safety. The next day, Boudreaux made a long, looping trip through Missouri City to reach his own boat in a part of Friendswood west of Clear Creek, and went back to work.
“By day three or four, it really started getting to me because it just would not stop raining,” Boudreaux said. “I started to worry that it would never stop raining.
“We got a lot of people out; 200 or more probably. I had learned where all the sunken cars and fire hydrants were and I was in a high-performance mud boat so I could make four or five trips to everybody else’s one.
“We got to where we couldn’t talk to people. They had their lives in plastic garbage bags. I couldn’t look them in the eye.
“We had to just keep our heads down and drive. I just told them ‘get on the boat and hold on.’”
“That last day; that was the worst day.”
Boudreaux’s experience, assessed through the eyes of an experienced boat captain, probably says something about what all the rescuers experienced.
“I can tell you this,” he said. “That stuff was moving crazy fast. I have been running boats my whole life. I’ve been doing it for a living for 11 years and that was the nastiest, gnarliest water I have ever driven through.”