On Roads Turned Waterways, Volunteers Improvise to Save the Trapped and Desperate

HOUSTON — The men from East Texas had just boarded their boat here, when there was a sudden jarring bump underneath.

“Fire hydrant,” explained Cody Cullum, 33, with a weary shrug.

The men were riding down an urban sea off Beltway 8, in the dark. It was long after midnight on Tuesday in this residential section on the outskirts of Houston, and under the surface of floodwaters the color of coffee and cream lay the now invisible hallmarks of city life — gutters, sidewalks, front steps and mailboxes. In parts, the waterline left a visible sliver of the tops of abandoned cars and almost reached the bottom edge of stop signs.

The volunteer rescue boat and many others like it are a sign of how the response to one of the worst disasters in decades in Texas has been, in many ways, improvised. Recreational vehicles — airboats, Jet Skis, motorized fishing boats — have rushed to the aid of people trapped in their homes, steered by welders, roofers, mechanics and fishermen wearing shorts, headlamps and ponchos. The working class, in large part, is being saved by the working class.

“Since Monday morning at 1 a.m., we’ve pulled out 81 people, six dogs and one cat,” said Arik Modisette, 29, a sales representative for a construction company and a former soldier who lives in Lufkin, Tex., about 120 miles northeast of Houston. Asked if he had hesitated before deciding to come to Houston, Mr. Modisette replied, “No, it was no matter what, they need us. Let’s go.”

A staging area for a volunteer rescue operation on Tidwell Road near a flooded neighborhood on the outskirts of Houston. CreditTamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Alongside a huge local, state and federal disaster response was an equally giant volunteer rescue effort that operated with little official guidance. State troopers referred requests for boats in some cases to the civilians. Burly volunteers traded information and resources with deputies and officers. At the Beltway 8 offramp that served as a boat ramp, recreational boats with painted images of Texas flags and scantily clad women on the sides shared the waters with police vessels. It was hard to tell, in the darkness, who was being paid to be there and who was not. Similar relief efforts have played a major role in scores of other natural disasters, but the scale of the one unfolding in Houston post-Harvey has involved hundreds of volunteers — perhaps thousands.

Back on the water, Mr. Modisette and his three friends and relatives on his 16-foot flat-bottom boat were sleep-deprived, hungry and armed. They smoked cigarettes. They cursed. The engine kept dying. One of them showed the small gash in his foot from where he had slipped in the waters. Another huffed and puffed as he pulled the boat through the shallow water with a rope. And although they were soaked from a steady hard rain, they had become experts in navigating the rushing river known, before Harvey, as Tidwell Road.

“Last night about 4 in the morning, we nailed a mailbox,” Mr. Modisette said as he steered the boat. “We didn’t see it. It was underwater. You have to imagine the roads.”

All the men on the boat live in Lufkin: Mr. Cullum, who works in home construction; Christian Collard, 22, a pastor at an Assembly of God church; and Jason Henson, 47, a contractor who is Mr. Modisette’s uncle. They were joined by a fifth man, Perry Henson, 51, who was getting some rest and was not on the boat early Tuesday. When the men saw the devastation on the news, they put Mr. Modisette’s boat on a trailer and drove to Houston.

At a gas station in Lufkin, they told a man where they were headed. “He handed another guy that was with us three $100 bills,” Mr. Modisette said. “Texas people just stick together.”

Mr. Modisette, who has a wife and two children, stood at the wheel early Tuesday, unshaven, with his wet white mesh cap turned backward, tobacco in his mouth and a Coca-Cola can in the cup holder. He wore a camouflage rain jacket — his old Army jacket. He and the others were headed to a church. Word had spread that a large group, including children and disabled people, was trapped inside. Information was sketchy, unconfirmed and continually shifting.

On the way, they saw something large in the water by a tree. Mr. Cullum shined the spotlight.

“I think it’s a mattress,” Mr. Collard said.

The darkness, the water and the rain turned everything askew. Lights approaching them in the distance seemed to come from cars, but as they passed they turned out to be from boats. The only sounds were the hum of boat engines and vehicles, the constant drumming of rain and the beeps from the Zello app Mr. Modisette and others had downloaded onto their phones, which functioned as a walkie-talkie radio system for volunteer boat rescuers.

Mr. Collard, a pastor from Lufkin, Tex., perched on the front of the fishing boat. CreditTamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The water suddenly got shallow, and the boat was grounded outside an apartment complex. The group stopped police officers and other volunteers, debating where to go and how to get there. The flooding was as unpredictable as the havoc it had wreaked: low in parts and high in others. The waters required a vessel that could travel smoothly on both land and water, and they had one but not the other.

A law enforcement officer in a raised police truck told the men that he was unable to help them — he was on the way to assist a trapped pregnant woman. Another emergency worker told them the big trucks were out of gas and the people in the church would have to wait until morning. Later, they would learn that all the people had been evacuated by rescuers in trucks and a helicopter.

As the men debated their next moves in the shallow water, a crowd of evacuees and rescuers approached at an abandoned gas station. They helped three people onto their boat: Jose Rangel; his sister-in-law, Cecilia Gutierrez; and her husband, Elias Pena. Emma, Ms. Gutierrez’s dog, crouched at her feet.

“It seems like we’re just a bunch of refugees, you know,” said Mr. Rangel, 37, a welder supervisor. “We see this on TV all the time and we think that it’s never going to happen to us, but here we are.”

Mr. Modisette sped the boat back to the staging area off Beltway 8, where the volunteers had first put the vessel in the water. For a long time, no one said anything. They looked at the water world around them, the headlamp on Mr. Rangel’s forehead shining in the dark.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s