At 2 a.m. Sunday I left Jeanerette, La., with 16 people, six boats, five trained K-9 dogs and a 5 1/2-ton military-grade, high-water rescue vehicle and headed west through Hurricane Harvey’s wind and rain to Texas. It would be another 24 hours before we stopped working for the day.
I’m the commander of Cajun Coast Search and Rescue, an all-volunteer organization founded in 2013 that helps in natural or man-made disasters. We got a call Saturday night from emergency officials in Houston seeking help, and we went. On the way, we were diverted to Dickinson, Texas, where officials initially thought they had about 10,000 people who needed to be rescued — far more than they’d be able to get to on their own. Fortunately that estimate was high, but there were still probably 2,000 people in need of assistance.
When we got to Dickinson, officials gave us a list of addresses where they knew people were trapped by rising water. It took us about 1 1/2 hours to get to all of them. Once we finished with the list, we just started going through flooded neighborhoods one house at a time. We typically don’t enter homes — we go up with our boats, bang on the door and holler to make sure anyone inside knows we’re there. We also bang on the attic — unfortunately, a lot of people crawl into the attic to get away from high water. Our boats pick people up, then take them to our truck, which we set up in a safe location nearby.
Once the truck is full, we drive them to emergency shelters that the Coast Guard has set up, where a medical team evaluates them, and we head back out to do it all over again. We rescued 35 people on Sunday alone, and we’ll be doing it every day as long as we’re needed.
Conditions were pretty bad Sunday in Dickinson. The storm was still lingering, dumping rain on of us as we worked and tried to move around, and the water was already surprisingly high. We had to push cars out of the way or pilot our boats over them as we moved through neighborhood streets. It was rough.
About 85 percent of the people we find are happy to see us: They’re ready to get out of there, and they’re full of gratitude. There are always a few people who don’t want to leave their homes, though. We tell them that we’re moving along, and if they call back later and say they’ve decided they do want to leave, they’re going to be at the bottom of the list. Sometimes that’ll convince them to get in the boat.
I worked in search-and-rescue for well over 20 years, and I’ve worked all the major storms in southern Louisiana’s recent history: Katrina, Rita. But before this is said and done, I think Harvey is going to be one of the worst. We were pulling up to homes and finding water all the way up to the second story. At one point, we passed by a hotel where people had been stranded on the second floor since Saturday; local officials didn’t know they were there. We brought them all to safety.
The water levels were insane — I figured we would find three or four feet of water. I wasn’t expecting to see areas with 14 or 15 feet of water. We’re always prepared for the worst and hope for the best. Finding floods as bad as this didn’t hinder our operation at all, but I was taken aback.
At Cajun Coast, we’ve got three dozen members, all first-responder trained and certified. Every one of us shares the same passion for helping other people; it’s been instilled in me since I was a child. We’re willing to leave our families and put ourselves at risk to help these people out. Pulling an elderly person into the boat who’s been without their medication for a couple of days, or getting a child out of the water, makes it worthwhile. It’s a good feeling.
Once we saw how much rain was falling in Texas, we didn’t think twice: Even if we hadn’t been asked to come by local officials, we were going anyway. We live for it.
Toney Wade is the commander of Cajun Coast Search and Rescue Team. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.