By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
It was a Friday when Hurricane Harvey made landfall. For three days Amy Whitmeyer watched from home as torrential rains hammered the coast of Texas.
Sunday, she told her husband, Dax Oglesby, that they had to do something. Monday, they left at 5:30 a.m. towing a flat bottomed boat without a motor. They had paddles.
Their plan was simple if not skeletal. They would drive to Katy, a small town west of Houston, and work alongside rescuers to help pull out families stranded in dangerous floodwaters.
The two Liberty Hill real estate agents had no green light from FEMA, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or any other groups — only a compulsion to act in the face of the “complete and total destruction” wrought by Harvey, as Oglesby called it.
“We went in on our own,” he said. “If anyone goes in like this, they’re on their own.”
In another sense, however, Whitmeyer and Oglesby were far from alone.
Once in Katy they connected with other members from Liberty Hill’s Fellowship Church, where they are mission directors. Together they joined the tangled efforts of other informal citizen rescue groups who had converged there from Odessa, Louisiana, Ohio and beyond.
“It was like a traffic jam with boats,” Oglesby said.
Scattered across the coast and other affected regions, other groups from Liberty Hill pursued their own independent missions to deliver aid in the
form of food, shelter, labor or whatever was being requested.
Red Brick Java’s Christy Greene joined with Travis Bonnet, a Georgetown man with experience in the Texas Army National Guard, in an effort that saw over 500 water bottles delivered to the Port Aransas and Port O’Connor areas.
Shortly after, Greene organized a second trip to Jasper after having made contact with the Cowboy Church there. Diapers, soap, paper towels and other needed items were delivered there.
“There are so many volunteers, but then there are so many cities,” she says. “People are so focused on Houston they forget about these other towns.”
Liberty Hill contractor Marc Meyers volunteered with some friends towing a large barbecue trailer to Rockport, along with 500 pounds of chicken and “enough sausage to feed a small army.”
There they served the evacuees what Meyers said was their first hot meal in days.
“We pushed ourselves to absolute exhaustion, and then kept going,” Meyers wrote in an email to The Independent describing his experience. “The devastation to the Rockport community is total. Complete. Overwhelming.”
The total number of these impromptu groups is hard to estimate, as more organize daily and with varying shades of affiliation with other organizations.
For many, the biggest challenge was planning in an environment with only fractures of information. Between the flooded highways, submerged street signs, and emptied gas stations, even traveling was an ordeal, Whitmeyer said.
Another group from Liberty Hill, formed by a local building consultant group, was ultimately delayed for a week because of the logistical problems created by the gas panic.
But centralized coordination, even if informal and imperfect, did arise.
Serving to guide the tangle of private initiatives was a group called the Cajun Navy, itself a loose network of boat owners in Louisiana who had first formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“I don’t know how we would have gotten through if they hadn’t been telling us which roads to take,” Whitmeyer said.
The Cajun Navy also was able to direct groups to the proper sites for donations and other relief opportunities.
Similarly, Greene used the site harveyrelief.handiworks.co, which actively updates a map with tagged locations for needed rescues, volunteers, food, shelter, medicine and other forms of aid.
Whitmeyer and Oglesby said their group was also utilized Zello, a phone app that allows users to communicate through specific topic channels. They listened for distress signals sent over a channel for Harvey relief, and sent out their responses.
“It was like Uber,” Whitmeyer said. “You say, ‘I can be there in five minutes,’ and everyone else on the channel knows not to go.”
One voice on the channel, which Oglesby said sounded like a professional dispatcher, helped to further facilitate information.
But the channel also at times served as a window into harrowing scenes unfolding just out of reach.
One message described the situation of a man standing neck deep in rising water, with three children over his head.
“They said he had 10 minutes before they’re all submerged, who can be here? And there was just quiet,” Whitmeyer said. “Then someone else said, ‘I’m 30 minutes away and I’m gunning it.’ And then they said he’s not going to be here that long.”
Whitmeyer and Oglesby do not know what happened to the man.
For all the destruction and pain they witnessed, however, Whitmeyer and Oglesby emphasized that the trip had a greater emotional significance for them.
“God was involved everywhere we went,” Oglesby said. “In the hurt, in the joy, in the attitudes, in the help, in the rescues people that would turn and jump right back in to get involved in rescuing themselves,” he said.
Again, it is a sentiment they are not alone in feeling.
Meyers in his account wrote that he experienced an emotional epiphany when they were setting up the food station, and a woman approached with her daughter. She asked if the girl could have an apple, though both appeared hungry.
“It was that moment that it hit me,” Meyer writes, because the girl was close in age to his own daughter.
“I couldn’t breathe for moment,” he writes. “I had to step away from the table for a few minutes to compose myself and shift gears as to what reality is down there.”
For many, the shock only propels them further.
When Oglesby and Whitmeyer returned home late August 29, “completely exhausted,” they took little time to prepare for their next trip. Two days later, they left for Rockport. A week later, home again, their house is filled with scribbled note pads planning for a third trip.
Greene’s second trip was supposed to be her last. “After this, I can’t do it anymore,” she said Friday.
But on Labor Day, she too was planning a third trip to a church in Lumberton. The homes there are still completely submerged, she said.
“It’s my biggest, hugest concern right now,” she said.