Beacons of Hope: Hawkins tornado survivors recount efforts to rescue Harvey victims from flooding

Beacons of Hope: Hawkins tornado survivors recount efforts to rescue Harvey victims from flooding
Nome area, near Port Arthur (Source: Jay-Lindsay Wilson)
Nome area, near Port Arthur (Source: Jay-Lindsay Wilson)
In Houston (Source: Kaci Wilson Warren)
In Houston (Source: Kaci Wilson Warren)

(KLTV) - When Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25, packing 130 mph winds, and dumping more than 40-52 inches of rain throughout the southern portions of Texas and Louisiana, hundreds of people were stranded in their homes and local officials were overwhelmed with requests for aid. Jay and Lindsay Wilson, both survivors of a 2016 tornado, didn't think twice. They simply loaded up and went to help.

HOUSTON, TX (KLTV) - Jay and Lindsay Wilson are floating on a boat in the middle of a Houston suburban street.

All around are the abandoned homes of Kingwood Drive residents who have fled from the torrential downpour Hurricane Harvey unleashed on the city.

"We just passed a sign that said 7-feet clearance," Lindsay says.

That's deeper than the recommended depth for an Olympic-sized pool.

The couple - along with relatives Blake and Kaci Warren and family friends Brent Ellison and Joey Barber – is on their way to rescue a group of people stranded in an apartment building.

The quaint suburb has been transformed since the Category 4 storm. Within four days, the storm dumped an estimated one trillion gallons of rain on the bayou city, transforming a thriving metropolis into an urban swamp. Thousands of people were forced to flee and others were trapped in their homes.

Their group of six arrived in The Bayou City on Monday and now they're en route to an apartment complex. They'll rescue the ones who want to be taken to safety and hang around in the area in case someone changes their mind if the waters rise.

"We're taking them back to the level ground where the boats are launching," Lindsay says. Trucks, trailers, buses and all manner of vehicles are on hand to transport evacuees to shelters. "This group is likely going to Kingwood High School."

Yesterday the Hawkins couple rescued a family of six, including two small children, from a Forest Village neighborhood in Spring, Texas.

"The flooding had just started. It was only about 3- to 4-feet deep in their house, but they wanted to get out before it got bad," she says.

They've been finding people through mostly through word of mouth, and through an app called Zello. They've also begun surfing Houston rescue websites, such as hurricaneharveyrescue.com.

"You drive through these roads and you put your boat in (the water) in the middle of the road. Like at a stoplight," Lindsay says, sounding somewhat bowled over.

There's a sense of urgency – but also determination. The couple has heard that floodgates will open at Lake Conroe.

Three days before the storm 

There's a reason they call Houston The Bayou City. Large swaths of the 8,778 square miles the greater Houston area consists of rest at only about 40 feet above sea level. Four bayous run through the city, all for the purpose of draining it after rainfall.

Previous storms in 2015 and 2016 have left residents knee-deep in water and there are the now iconic photos of an eerily empty and flooded Galleria Mall in May 2015, an escalator descending down into murky depths.

Yet those did not rival Harvey in their intensity.

The storm got its roots on Aug. 17 near the African coast. It later weakened, then it developed into a tropical depression on Aug. 23.

"In just 56 hours, Harvey grew from a regenerated tropical depression over the Gulf of Mexico into a Category 4 hurricane," the Weather Channel reports.

Models were conflicting, showing the storm moving one direction and later veering inland toward the southern coast of Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott sought a Presidential Disaster Declaration ahead of Harvey's landfall.

"I want to continue to encourage Texans to take this threat seriously, heed warnings from local officials, and do all they can to prepare as the state of Texas works to ensure we are in the best position to respond to urgent needs following this storm," Abbott said at the time. "… Even if an evacuation order hasn't been issued by your local official, if you're in an area between Corpus Christi and Houston, you need to strongly consider evacuating."

As the storm blew closer, warnings became stronger.

"We're suggesting if people are going to stay here, mark their arm with a Sharpie pen with their name and Social Security number," Rockport Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Rios said to the coastal town's some 10,645  inhabitants.

Some heeded the warning. Others couldn't or chose to weather it.

Making impact

About Friday, Harvey roared ashore in the small town of Rockport with 130 mph winds. Buildings were toppled, trees damaged, a high school was flattened. Reports began rolling in of widespread devastation to the tourist town known for its crystal clear water and sandy beaches. And with those reports came grim news – at least one person had been found dead.

Yet not content to make an entrance and exit quickly, Harvey chose instead to linger for days, bringing torrents of rain to cities all along the southern portion of the state.

Harvey meandered through Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee, triggering flash flooding through all of those states. The Weather Channel reports the storm dropped 40-52 inches of rainfall in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana and broke the continental U.S. tropical cyclone rain record.

Port Arthur alone received 26.03 inches of rain on Aug. 29, doubling the previous rainfall record in Beaumont-Port Arthur – a record set more than 94 years ago. Shelter residents were forced to flee to another building when flooding forced them out of a Port Arthur location.

The governor called in the National Guard.

By Monday the city of Houston and surrounding areas were under water and Texans were desperate for help. Families were trapped in their homes, others caught in floodwaters in their vehicles. The number of missing grew and the panic rose as the rain continued to fall in heavy sheets.

A call to action

Pleas for rescues were coming in to dispatch centers, social media sites and apps.

Shelters were opened, emergency responders from all over the country began heading to the state and city officials put out the call: "We need boats."

Some citizens teamed up and caravanned down to the flooded city, towing boats in their wake. Others in states such as Louisiana formed the Cajun Navy.

The Wilsons didn't hesitate when the call for aid came in; they simply acted.

"We had the means and we have a boat," Wilson said. "We had no plans of coming down here, but we hauled tail down here."

She's quiet for a moment, reflecting. The spinning blades of a helicopter momentarily drown out her voice as it hovers above the neighborhood.

"In April of 2016, we had a tornado hit our house. So we know what it's like to be a victim of a natural disaster," she says.

The April 2016 tornadoes carved out a 27-mile long wide path, wiping out a swath north of Hawkins, and causing thousands of dollars of damage to the couple's home. Ten tornadoes hit East Texas that night.

"We had quite a bit of damage, lost a lot of trees," she says. But, "The village takes care of our family."

It was that community support in the family's time of crisis that motivated them to help.

So the Wilsons packed up their boats and headed south.

They didn't have a plan.

They left their children in the care of a relative and mapped out the best route into the flooded city. The images and video are nothing to rival the reality, the couple says.

"It's complete devastation," Jay Wilson says. "And pictures and video don't do it justice."

But along with those moments of desolation, there have been beacons of hope as well.

"It's amazing what we see, people coming together to help," she says, adding that they've seen law enforcement and emergency responders from as far away as New York and New Jersey and dive teams from El Paso.

And although some families will be forced to rebuild their lives from the ground up, many people the family has met with have kept a positive attitude.

Just hours earlier, the Hawkins group rescued seniors stranded in a nursing home. Despite being knee-deep in water, several of the women found simple joy in the boat ride.

"We're going on a cruise," one said, jokingly.

"You can be Debbie Downer or you can be positive. It's all in what you make of it," Lindsay Wilson says, adding that their group has fluctuated between feelings of anxiety and feeling humble.

The humility, her sister-in-law Kaci says, is because "it's rewarding to be able to help people who can't help themselves."

Lindsay agrees, adding "We'll never forget it. We're very glad we were able to be a part of it and to come together and help."

It will be years before these people can rebuild, her husband says. But for now, they're doing all they can.

Two weeks later

The streets have mostly dried out. Debris is strewn across the city, washed to and fro by flood currents. Shelters remain at capacity and evacuees fill hotels in smaller metropolitan cities across the state. At last count, the death toll stood at 70. A family of six was swept away in floodwaters and drowned in a van.

The natural disaster has left ruin in its wake. But people are returning to their waterlogged homes and sifting through what they can salvage. Fundraisers are in full swing and donations are coming into the city daily.

Several long-term recovery efforts have also been enacted.

Gov. Abbott has increased the number of National Guard troops in the state to 24,000. He's also formed the Commission to Rebuild Texas.

He's pulling no stops when it comes to recovery because, he says, "Although the storm is over, the recovery process is just beginning, and it will require a Texas-sized response."

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