Coverage of Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent catastrophic flooding dominated news cycles for days as horrifying images of widespread destruction in Texas flashed on screens across the country.
But arguably the biggest story of the storm was the one of neighbors — many of them boaters — risking their lives to help overwhelmed emergency responders rescue residents from homes being engulfed by rising waters, describing what they saw as “a horror movie” and “a nightmare.”
“You can’t put it into perspective,” Yamaha Pro fishing staff member Dwayne Eschete told Trade Only from his boat Aug. 30 as floodwaters continued to swell in some areas. “Even being here and being in the middle of it, you can’t put into perspective the true sense of lives that would’ve been lost if it wasn’t for neighbor helping neighbor.”
After 30 years of responding to storms, it was the one thing that stood out for Mike McCook, BoatUS catastrophe team coordinator, who responded to his first catastrophe in 1983 when Hurricane Alicia struck.
He’s seen a dozen similar situations, but there was something different about this tragedy, McCook said from the Rockport area, where the hurricane initially hit. “It’s only a positive thing — and that positive thing is: people are very helpful to each other in this community.”
Rescuers risk lives
It was unclear exactly how many rescues good Samaritans made on personal boats, but estimates were in the thousands. They didn’t coordinate except as friend to friend as a fishing buddy in an unflooded area contacted friends closer to the destruction, asking how they could help. Hundreds launched their boats from highway offramps and spent several grueling days saving desperate people from epic floods they didn’t see coming.
Several lost their lives working to save people trapped in a flooded city unequipped to handle the rising water.
Among the bodies recovered during the Labor Day weekend was that of Alonso Guillen, 31, according to the Houston Chronicle. Guillen’s family had been searching for his body for the four days since he had set out to rescue people. The boat he was in slammed into a bridge and capsized.
After making two rescues on Aug. 28, five volunteers, joined by two reporters for the British newspaper The Daily Mail, had embarked on a third mission when a strong current overwhelmed their boat and began pushing it toward a power line. The occupants jumped out and were electrocuted.
Two were confirmed dead, and another two were missing. The journalists and one rescuer clung to a tree for 18 hours before they were rescued by three members of the Texas Department of Public Safety in a powerboat, according to the Washington Post. All three are recovering from their injuries.
Texas A&M student Kyle Holmes and Eschete were among those who battled rising waters in a driving rain, using their personal boats and resources to pluck people from from the waters and out of second-story windows.
“When we were out there recovering people, it doesn’t matter what color you are or who you are or what you are — it’s just people helping people,” Eschete said from a boat searching for food to deliver to residents before he was called to do additional rescues in Lumberton, Texas. “It just shows the true side of what we all are, of who we are. It puts things in perspective. Everybody has differences, and differences of opinions, but at the end of the day everybody wants to help people.”
Moving from town to town to assist with rescue efforts as the slow-moving storm continued to inundate town after town — largely areas that had never seen floods before and where homeowners had no flood insurance — many rescuers later turned to bringing food and cold water to those in the hardest-hit neighborhoods across southern Texas; others started the hard work of helping residents gut homes.
Kids yelling for help
While making rescues in Dickinson, people were all over the place “screaming for help,” Holmes said while driving home, still drenched from his second day out on Aug. 28.
“Babies with formula and people with medications — everything you can imagine was to be seen yesterday,” Holmes said. “Most of the streets were basically like rivers with the current. You saw 10-year-old kids holding on to stop signs with life jackets yelling for help. Really, literally people were screaming at you for help from every direction. It was like a horror movie.”
It wasn’t the first time fishing pro Eschete had spent a 48-hour stretch rescuing people stranded by storm floods. The Louisiana native had done the same thing after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. About a month and a half after Katrina, he was staying in Texas when Hurricane Ike struck and rescued people once again.
“Now I’m living here in Texas, and we get Harvey,” Eschete said. “The good thing is — well, it’s not a good thing — but for me, going through it three times, as far as rescue goes, you kind of have an idea of what you need to do and where you need to go to help people out.”
During the first two days of rescues in the southern Houston area, there were buses waiting for people being dropped off by the hundreds of boaters who helped the overwhelmed federal and local agencies responding to the floods with rescue efforts, Eschete said. During the next two days boaters were simply bringing people they’d rescued to the high ground where they’d launched their boats because there were no buses.
“To see them with everything sacred to them in garbage bags just walking down the street — no idea where they would sleep tonight, how they were going to eat, what they were going to do next — but they were just so happy to be on dry ground,” Eschete said. “It’s like a nightmare, it’s like a nightmare. It’s like Katrina all over again. But when you’re rescuing all day, you can’t think about it.”
About 20 groups of 40 or 50 boats spread out through Dickinson and Friendswood, Texas, on Aug. 27 and 28 to rescue thousands of people stranded in floodwaters as the storm lingered over the Gulf of Mexico and continued to drench the region.
“We were actually launching boats off on I-45 on an overpass,” Holmes said after 11 hours of rescues. “So we were backing boats down the ramp on the interstate. The feeder roads were five feet deep. It’s unbelievable.”
Holmes, who says he probably rescued 200 to 250 people on his boat alone over the course of two days, described boats pulling up to second-story porches in apartment buildings because the water was so deep; residents of the first floor were crammed up on the top.
He spent Sunday in Dickinson, estimating that the boats had rescued about 80 percent of residents from the area they focused on, adding: “It’s hard to put a number on it because there are a lot of elderly people there in homes who can’t get to phones and can’t make themselves noticeable.” They spent Monday focused on Friendswood.
“Yesterday people were all over the place screaming for help,” Holmes said. “I got the women and children first and had some towels on the boat trying to keep them dry. I made several trips back into houses for diabetics and elderly people’s medicine, all kinds of stuff like that.”
“It got scary yesterday, and I’m sure it will again,” Holmes said. “All this happens and people lose power, and people say pick me up, pick me up, and we’d say no, I’m going for the women and children. My buddy had a pistol pulled on him yesterday.”
A man had been shouting for help, and when his friend explained that he was focusing first on women and children, the man pulled a gun and said, “Get me,” Holmes said, adding that his friend was able to speed up and escape.
“They’re desperate, begging for their lives,” Holmes said. “This guy’s saying, ‘Let me in your boat right now or I’m going to shoot you.’ You’re trying to help people and doing all you can, but if it gets dangerous I’m going to get out of there.”
The boats were working with the Texas National Guard, which was fully deployed, with 12,000 assisting with recovery efforts. Holmes — a tournament fisher man who borrowed his neighbor’s shallow-water skiff — and other boaters assisting rescuers would drop people off at the freeway, where members of the National Guard and charter buses were located. The people were then brought to shelters in Galveston, Holmes said — an area that later flooded.
“They’re opening a lot of floodgates because the lakes are getting too full, and that’s all coming southbound and that’s why the water’s been rising again today,” Holmes said on Aug. 28. “The storm, it hasn’t left. It’s just slowly, slowly circling, basically on top of us. Every time it touches the Gulf of Mexico, that warm water intensifies again. It’s kind of recurring as we speak.”
“It has been pouring all day today, which makes it four times harder to get everybody,” Holmes said, adding that his Gore-Tex coat was fully drenched. “Some people were able to get ahold of family members and find a safe route to get them [to shelters], but most of the people I pulled out of houses, all of them had like one trash bag full of some clothes, and that’s it. Everything else they had was gone, ruined. Everything that I saw in Dickinson and Friendswood looked like a total loss.”
Danger in the water
People desperate for rescue weren’t the only threat. On Sunday, Holmes was navigating clearer water and saw a Ford F250 that his boat didn’t even touch because the water was so deep.
“I hit several cars with my prop yesterday. There are whole fences floating down the street, parts of telephone poles, trash from people’s homes, everything you can imagine,” Holmes said. “The area we were in yesterday was very close to two brand new dealerships, and another used dealership, and most of the lots were completely underwater. I don’t know how many thousands of cars have been lost in the last 48 hours. I can’t even imagine the real number.”
There were also boats among the debris because the area had been completely caught off guard by the flooding. “They didn’t think this would actually happen, so nobody was really advised. There were no voluntary evacuations,” Holmes said. “No one really had any idea. I saw boats flipped over, boats still on trailers underwater in driveways. Most of the boats here were on trailers. The water rose fast and unexpectedly, so residents are fighting for their lives trying to get out. They’re not worried about boats.”
Fuel from all the vehicles and vessels had mixed into floodwaters, and at least 13 toxic waste sites in Texas were flooded or damaged, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency said Sept. 2 that it had assessed 41 Superfund sites using aerial images and determined the ones badly affected by the storm, according to CNN.
Boaters driven to help
Areas just five miles away from floods in Houston were spared, and residents with boats were “offering everything they have,” Holmes said. “I’ve gotten calls from people up as far as San Antonio of people calling to help, so that’s been awesome,” said Holmes.
“All the volunteers, my buddies, they brought boats from all over the place,” Holmes said. “I’ve seen everything from jet skis to kayaks, canoes, tubes, inflatable toys for kids to homemade rafts. All the streets going into the main streets of Dickinson and Friendswood — you pull in and it’s like a river on the other side. There are boats just stacked up at every one of them with people asking, ‘What can I do? Where can I help?’ It’s just been amazing.”
Holmes said a policeman he spoke with had urged him to go home and get some rest after almost 11 exhaustive hours of rescues.
“There were still boats and agencies going nonstop since I left. So efforts have not stopped, but I had to get out of there — just mentally and physically exhausted,” he said, adding that he would be at it again the next day. “I’m 22 years old and willing and physically able to do it. I’m going to do it in a heartbeat.”
Eschete, the tournament sportfisherman, has two friends he competes against — one from Corpus Christi and another from Rockport. “They lost everything. They got wiped out completely,” Eschete said. “Know where they were this week? They were over here rescuing people because when they left their house, they took their boats with them and took what they could, and instead of going back to their houses — which were wiped out — they came here to help rescue people.”
Reliving storms past
After Katrina, during which Eschete had performed boat rescues, the oil and gas worker had subsequently begun cooking for the power crew. “They fixed the power coming to my house,” he said, adding that the crew would sleep in his 40-foot by 40-foot air-conditioned garage.
But the story he recalls most vividly was about a man after Hurricane Ike. The storm had ended, and Eschete had shifted from rescue efforts to bringing people generators and gasoline. “I went to this one elderly man’s house and brought him a generator, an air conditioner, some food and gasoline. I said, ‘Sir, you’re going to be OK. This is what you need to do.’ ” As he prepared to leave, the man tried to give him money, but when he refused, the man started crying.
“He tells me, ‘Dwayne, you are a gift from God. All my life, I had all the money I could ever want, everything I’ve ever wanted. But here I am, as a ex-vice president for Exxon, and I have no means — no vision on how to take care of my wife,’ ” Eschete recounted. “He says, ‘I feel helpless. You were sent from God to help me.’ I get chills. I’m getting chills thinking about it right now — he really put things into perspective. Even though [he had] money, this man had no means of survival. Here was a total stranger helping him out. Most of these people, they don’t have a clue what to do. They’re panicked, distressed and they don’t know how to survive. And rich, poor — everyone is in the same place.”
The hardest thing for Eschete was encountering those who refused to leave their homes. “We’d pull up to one house and they’d be crying and hugging and thanking you just because they had an out,” Eschete said. “Then you’d go a house or two down, maybe it’s a two-story house, and the people would say, ‘We’re not leaving.’ ”
He continues: “I’d tell them, ‘You don’t know how long this is going to last, the water could come up another 10 feet,’ and they’d say, ‘No, we’re OK, we moved the food upstairs, we’re worried somebody is going to steal something in my house.’ What are they going to steal? All your wet furniture? Your wet TV? These are all materialistic things you can replace. We can’t replace your life.
“I had a fireman on my boat, and he basically told this one guy, Anthony, he says: ‘Anthony, I do not want to have to come here once this water recedes to face your face and body in this house, drowned, knowing that I was here to rescue you and you’re not taking the warning to get out,’ ” Eschete said.
That worked, but of the hundreds of people he estimates he rescued on his boat, probably 10 refused to come despite warnings they would not get another chance. “I couldn’t tell you right now if they’re still alive or not. You’re in a situation where, if you wasn’t going from one place to another place, you would sit there and keep thinking about it,” Eschete said. “But when you’re going every day and rescuing 40, 50, 60 homes, you don’t think about it. You just hope that guy’s still alive.
“The sad part was … we had 10, 12 people in the boat who were begging to be rescued, and we’re trying to convince this guy for 30 minutes to get in the boat,” Eschete said. “That’s 30 minutes we could’ve spent rescuing someone who was in need and wanted to get out.”
The human toll likely won’t come close to Katrina, which claimed more than 1,800 lives — perhaps in part because of the hundreds of boaters who saved thousands after Harvey — but Eschete believes this storm will have the largest dollar impact of any weather-related catastrophe in history.
Eschete had also saved a fair amount of pets, including a woman, her adult son and her five dogs, who opted to stay behind when a small rescue boat wanted her to leave the pets behind. She initially refused Eschete when he asked whether she was coming, saying she wouldn’t leave her dogs.
“I said, ‘I’m taking you and your dogs,’ and the lady started crying,” Eschete said. “She wasn’t leaving her pets behind. In her words, ‘If my dogs are going to drown in this, I’m staying with my dogs.’ ”
Still offering help
The work didn’t end for Eschete and Holmes after the rescues stopped. Both found ways to help people desperate for food, clothing, toothpaste, baby formula and diapers because trucks headed for the area were unable to reach the people most in need.
Holmes was helping people gut their homes in an effort to get them resituated, and Eschete drove around Rockport, Port Aransas and Aransas Pass from sunup to sundown to bring cold water and food to people shoveling rubble out of homes and businesses. He went to Rockport on Sept. 4 to help cook for residents; prior to that, he picked up $200 worth of popsicles and ice cream to hand out to people overwhelmed by intense heat as they worked to clean up and rebuild.
“It is like a war zone,” he said via text message. “People crying when you give them food.” Yet Eschete insisted that he wasn’t doing anything special. Although he did acknowledge that boaters and hunters are special people, he was “just doing what others would do also,” he said.
“Could be the other way around,” Eschete said. “We all serve a purpose.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.