'We're going back.' Strangers help rescue people stranded by Harvey

Neighbours and perfect strangers arrived with boats of all shapes and sizes to help get Houston residents safely out of flooded neighbourhoods.

Community answers the call to help evacuate flooded neighbourhoods

Neighbours and strangers have stepped up in Houston to help people escape flooded areas. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

"Ma'am, I'll hold your purse."

"Sir, hang on tight, we've got ya."

There was no way the gushing skies and culverts of Twin Oaks just outside Houston were going to wash away that famous southern politeness.

These weren't the voices of soldiers, police or firefighters. They were a concrete worker and a woman in a sopping Harley-Davidson shirt, and the young woman with somehow impeccable makeup and an even more impressive sense of decency.

The U.S. is well supplied with official first responders, and authorities generally don't want citizens wandering into harm's way, even with good intentions. 

Volunteer efforts can be disjointed, dangerous and go horribly wrong. It can be hard to tell what areas have and haven't been cleared. There's a litany of reasons to keep unofficial helpers away. But then there's the reality of this beast named Harvey.

Combining the storm's might and the particulars of Houston — flat, sprawling, built on land that doesn't drain well, and in need of more flood defences — meant police had no choice but to appeal to the public for help.

A call out for boats of any kind or size was surely answered.

Boats and flotation devices of all shapes and sizes descended on Houston's water-logged neighbourhoods. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

And what a funny flotilla arrived; air mattresses struggling in the murky, swirling water alongside fishing boats, canoes and air boats that usually belong in the Everglades, not in cul de sacs lined with neatly groomed homes.

All of these craft raced into the neighbourhoods, directed by volunteers with good ideas and stamina. They all came back laden with exhausted, often elderly people clutching plastic bags filled with their belongings.

Many residents thought they were OK to stay put and keep an eye on the water, but then the rain intensified.

That's especially a problem for this part of Houston. It's on the southern edge of the Barker reservoir. The Atticks reservoir is just above that. The aging dams that control them are under unprecedented stress, and some of that pressure just had to be eased. Slowly, water was released over the last 24 hours, which may help the downtown core, but only makes the water rise faster here.

Waiting and seeing quickly turned to packing and going.

Harvey aftermath: Rescue work underway in Houston


4 years ago
Crews are out in boats on the flooded streets, looking to help stranded victims of tropical storm Harvey 1:26

'I heard you all needed help'

And so strangers from adjoining and less threatened neighbourhoods descended on Twin Oaks with all those vessels and all that compassion. 

Yanking a full boat through chest-high water was that woman in the Harley-Davidson shirt. Huffing and straining, she dragged the boat to higher ground, lifted out a toddler, then extended a hand to a nervous young family. She was stationary for barely a moment.

Emergency officials made the unusual step of asking the public to help with evacuation efforts. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

"Take my phone," she said to a woman nearby. "It's chest-deep over here, we are going back."

Did she know these people?

"No. I heard you all needed help over here so I came."

There was no time to get her name.

But Nick Duran was in the thick of it for so long there was time to talk. He usually works testing concrete, but for the past few days he has been carrying the stranded, serving meals, driving people around and stepping up. His young son Jacob has been at his side, seeing the best of his father.

Duran says it's his pleasure to help out his neighbours, and since his house is fine, then it's the least he can do. The worst he has seen? The elderly man he carried out of a wading pool that had been his rescue boat.

"Carrying that man out….he couldn't walk…it was sad…hopefully that is the worst that it gets" he offered.

Dump trucks were being used to shuttle evacuees out of flooded areas and to emergency shelters. (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle/Associated Press)

Hopefully, but probably not.

The volunteers in Twin Oaks estimate they've rescued 1,000 people in this area.

Some went to family and friends, others were loaded into the back of dump trucks and driven to shelters. 

It was an efficient enough rescue operation the coast guard was freed up to go elsewhere.

It's shuddering to imagine Houston weathering Harvey without the likes of these strangers and neighbours who showed up to pitch in. 

Texans pull together to aid rescue effort following Hurricane Harvey

The National

4 years ago
As large-scale flooding continues, volunteers in Houston's Twin Oaks community help neighbours get to higher ground 4:28


Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.