Buff Strickland for Reader's Digest
I had been watching TV coverage of Hurricane Harvey pummeling the Texas coast for four days when the storm finally turned on my city, Houston. I’m a 47-year-old high school journalism teacher who lives alone. Luckily, my house was spared. But with floodwaters reaching 20 feet, many others were not.
On that day, August 29, 2017, I turned off the TV around 11 p.m., lay in bed, and picked up my phone to do a quick check of email and Facebook. I read an article about the Cajun Navy—the thousands of selfless volunteers, most from Louisiana, who pilot their boats into flooded areas, helping overwhelmed emergency responders. They were now in Houston en masse, plucking stranded residents from rooftops and flooded cars. The article explained that they were using a walkie-talkie-type app called Zello to communicate with one another. I downloaded the app, found the Cajun Navy channel, and started listening.
I was completely enthralled. Voice after voice coming through my phone—some asking for help, others replying that they were on their way. At first, most of the transmissions were from Houston, but as Harvey moved eastward, panicked calls started coming in from Port Arthur and Orange, Texas. Now that the volunteers knew folks were trapped in their homes there, the rescuers—with boats in tow—were driving straight into the middle of Harvey.
A couple of women who had been taking calls came on the line around 12:30 a.m. and said they had to sign off. They asked whether anyone could work through the night taking rescue requests.
I sat up, timidly pushed the Talk button, and said, “I can.”
I got a two-minute “training” session and a “Good luck!” When I heard a rescue request, I was to ask the person for his or her phone number, then call the person directly to avoid clogging up the app (which, like a walkie-talkie, allows only one person to speak at a time). After the phone call, I was to log the information on a designated website. When all of that was done, dispatchers would give the location to those on the boats while I moved to the next call.
Minutes after my tutorial, I was on the phone with Karen in Port Arthur. She was sitting on top of her kitchen cabinets with seven other adults, two teenagers, and a newborn. The water was almost to the countertops. I assured her we would get someone to her as soon as we could and told her to stay safe. (This is how you can prep your home for hurricane season.)
It was 1:15 a.m.
By this time, Cajun Navy rescuers had begun arriving by car in Port Arthur, but the Coast Guard wouldn’t let them set their boats in the water because the storm was just too strong. It was gut-wrenching to hear so many calls coming in and have to tell the people on the other end that there was nothing we could do until the storm calmed down a little.
I took several more calls. They were coming in faster than I could type them into the website’s data bank. I would listen to each request, write down the info by hand, and then begin typing it in. In the time I could enter one request, three more would come in. What began as nice, neat notes quickly devolved into chaotic scribbles.
I had begun the job while sitting up in bed with my laptop, my phone in hand and a notepad on my nightstand. Pretty quickly, I moved to my dining room table and poured a huge glass of iced tea.
I got a request from Chad. He and his wife were trapped in their house with water up to their chests. He told me they were about to go to their attic. I begged him not to do that and told him he had to go to his roof instead so he wouldn’t become trapped by the rising water. He said there was no way for them to do that.
It was 2:20 a.m.
I spoke to another woman. She and her kids were sitting on their kitchen counter and needed to be rescued, but she was scared to get off the counter when boats arrived because there were snakes in the water in their house.
I took request after request. Name … phone number … address … number of adults … number of children … number of elderly … medical conditions. I then typed this information in as fast as I could so the dispatchers could send the rescuers out.
At one point, one of the dispatchers, who went by the name Goose, let us know that the Cajun Navy still had no boats on the water. Conditions were still too dangerous. No wonder we had so many people desperately begging for rescue. No one was coming for them. All night long, I had been telling them to “hang on—we’ll be there soon.” I didn’t know I’d been lying.
Around 3 a.m., I got a request from a teenage boy in Orange who was hysterical. I got his phone number and told him I’d call him directly. The second he answered, he shouted that his brothers were lying in the backyard, unresponsive, possibly electrocuted, but the rest of his family couldn’t get to them because of the rising water and the storm.
I told him that help would arrive as soon as possible. He told me he and a cousin were going to go outside to check on the boys. He put the phone down. I listened. And waited. I could hear panicked conversation amid rain and sloshing water. Then came a little girl’s bloodcurdling scream, followed by a boy shouting, “No, no, noooooo!”
Nauseated and feeling helpless, I yelled into the phone, “Hello! Hello!”
They brought one of the unresponsive boys into the house, and then the boy I’d been speaking with picked up the phone again. “Miss, I think my brother is dead! He’s not breathing! Should we do CPR? What do we do?”
“Do you know CPR? Yes, try CPR!”
“What do I do?” he screamed.
Before I could answer, the boy had dropped the phone again. More chaos. More screaming. Guttural. Desperate. He came back to the phone.
“He’s not moving! I don’t know what to do!”
I asked him to put his mom on the phone.
A woman’s voice, much calmer than I’d expected, said, “Hello?”
“Hello, I’m trying to get some help to you. Tell me what’s going on.”
“My boy is gone,” she said. “His lips are purple. He’s gone.”
I desperately searched for words and then asked about the other boy.
“He’s in the yard. They’re trying to get him now.”
“Who else is with you?”
She was with her other kids, four or five people in total, she said, and they were up to their waists in water.
“My boy is on the table.” Her voice cracked. “Please get someone here. Please,” she begged.
I assured her we would. But I knew there were still no boats in the water.
I hung up and called the number I’d been given for the Coast Guard in Houston. They answered immediately. I quickly explained who I was and what I had just experienced and gave them the woman’s address. The man on the other end assured me he would let the Coast Guard in Orange know about the family. I hung up and called the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management. Shockingly, a man answered on the second ring.
“Address!” he barked.
“Hi, my name is Holly Har—”
“I know why you’re calling! Where are you?”
“I don’t need help. I’m working with the Cajun Navy dispatchers and need someone to get to a family I just spoke with.”
I explained the situation and gave him the address.
“Jesus Christ,” he sighed. He sounded completely defeated.
“I know you’re doing the best you can. Just please get to this family.”
“We will. We’re going to have a lot of deaths here tonight.”
I hung up. I got up from my table to take a break and try to process what had just happened. I had just interjected myself into a family’s nightmare. As quickly as I had crossed paths with them, they were gone—a 15-minute interaction that will stay with me for a lifetime.
I went to the bathroom, refilled my tea in the dining room, and walked around a bit, thinking, What are you doing? You’re not qualified to do this!
Then I sat back down and went back to it.
Courtesy Holly Hartman
Around 4:30 a.m., I got a request from a young woman in Beaumont named Shaundra. Her 87-year-old grandfather, Chester, lived alone in Port Arthur and had water up to his shins. She told me he couldn’t get through to 911 and she was scared. I assured her someone would get to him and that he would be OK.
There were still no Cajun Navy boats in the water.
At some point, I’d heard another volunteer mention that a woman who lived on Sassine Avenue and her three kids had retreated to their attic to escape rising waters. I pinged in and told the volunteer that she had to call the woman back and tell her to get out of the attic and go to her roof. The volunteer came back on the line and said that she’d talked to the woman, but she’d refused to move because her kids couldn’t swim. I asked whether she had anything they could use to break through the attic and get to the roof. No.
We got word around 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday—seven hours after the first calls started coming in from Port Arthur—that the Cajun Navy had been allowed in the water. Reports of rescues started coming in. I was finally able to mark one of my cases “safe.”
Throughout the night and into Wednesday, I was texting with Chad, the man who’d gone to the attic with his wife, and Shaundra. Chad told me the water was almost to their necks and they still hadn’t gone to the roof. Shaundra texted me repeatedly, asking why no one had gotten to her grandfather. The water had risen to his chest. I promised her someone would get there.
Around 10 a.m., I heard one of the rescuers, who used the handle Cowboy, ask about “the woman in the attic on Sassine.” I pinged in, and Cowboy asked me to call him. He wanted the address again and wanted to know when we had last heard from her. I gave him the address but told him I had no idea when she’d last been heard from because the volunteer who had taken that call had signed off.
The calls for rescue were slowing down. Every 20 to 30 minutes, I’d remind the rescuers that Chester, Shaundra’s grandfather, still needed to be saved on 19th Street. And I kept telling Shaundra that they would get there.
At 3:02 p.m., I got a text from Shaundra that read, “Ma’am, I thank you so much. My grandfather is on his way to a rescue center. He was on a boat at first. Now he is on a truck.” (Watch out for these scams in the wake of natural disasters.)
I let out a huge sigh of relief. I think I may have actually said “Thank you, God” out loud. I texted Chad at 5:30 p.m. to see whether he was safe. I didn’t hear back from him until 7:30 the next morning: “We are safe now.” I pinged Goose to ask whether the woman who lost her two boys had been rescued with her other kids. He said they had. I never did find out about the woman on Sassine Avenue and her kids.
At 6 p.m. Wednesday, I closed my laptop. I’d been awake for 34 hours but wasn’t tired. I was emotionally drained, but there was no way I could’ve slept right then. I thought back on the last day and a half and couldn’t believe what I had just heard and experienced.
Even as I write this, it seems surreal. I don’t know how police officers and firefighters and 911 dispatchers and EMTs do this every day. What I do know: I am grateful beyond measure that they do it.
And thank God for the Cajun Navy and all the other volunteers. How many more people would be dead today if not for our first responders and the thousands of volunteers? I saw a meme on Facebook today that read, “Someone needs to erect a statue honoring the random average dude with a bass boat.” It was meant to be funny, but in actuality, it’s spot-on.