Water was still rising in parts of Brazoria County on Sept. 3, nine days after Hurricane Harvey swamped a vast area of southern and southeastern Texas.
The Tamarind Woods neighborhood, a subdivision of single-story ranch homes in Richwood, an hour south of Houston, had stayed mostly high and dry through Harvey’s initial onslaught. But as reservoirs to the north filled, the winding Brazos River overflowed, eventually sending a slow, steady flow of bluish-brown floodwater into the neighborhood’s streets.
“They just can’t hold any more water,” said Dave Lauchner, a Sacramento fire captain and urban search and rescue specialist working in Texas under FEMA. “So the water is escaping out, coming down and unfortunately is causing the damage that we’re seeing right here.”
Residents could have returned home and then been trapped, Lauchner said, so the 14-member California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 7 (“USAR CA TF 7” or just “Cal 7” for short) conducted a “secondary search” of the area. The team made up of specially trained firefighters from Sacramento city and metro fire departments went door to door in the flooded neighborhood, checking houses from the outside and offering help to anybody they encountered.
I followed Lauchner and two other Sacramento city fire captains — Squad Officer Scott Lewis and rescue specialist Mike Wolfe on a Sept. 3 check of the Tamarind Woods neighborhood. We wore hip waders as we sloshed through the murky water that ranged from ankle- to thigh-deep on the road. Almost all of the houses sat below street level in 2 to 5 feet of water.
A scattered handful of residents wandered in and out of their flooded homes, one woman with garbage bags cinched around her legs. The rest wore shorts or rolled-up jeans in the muggy Texas heat.
The residents of Tamarind Woods who aren’t sheltering in place (Scott Lewis told me eight people in the neighborhood elected to stay) are among the estimated 50,000 people displaced by Hurricane Harvey. The storm had killed a confirmed 70 people as of Wednesday night, a death toll that’s expected to keep rising. Some 185,000 homes were damaged, according to FEMA estimates from last week.
More than 700 state and federal personnel were stationed in counties south and east of Houston this week, according to Frank Salomon, a FEMA information officer stationed at a command post in College Station.
“It’s a huge footprint,” he said, motioning toward a multicolored map that divvied up flood relief operational areas across hundreds of miles surrounding Houston.
“It’s unique in just the collaboration between the state, federal, local, tribal and then volunteers — all those neighbors helping neighbors,” Salomon said. “Which I think is really something to look at and study — how Texans have been able to rally and help each other out.”
That’s what Needville resident James Lester had been doing since flooding started. His town southwest of Houston had escaped the flood, so he took a rowboat out with a few of his friends and picked up stranded people in surrounding areas.
“They just need help,” he said. “If I was in that shape, I’d want someone to come help me, so I’m doing what I want people to do for me.”
On Sunday, Lester was helping Pat Frazier check on his house in Tamarind Woods, which had been sitting in about 2 feet of water for the past four days, the men said. Frazier said he’d tried to stay in his home and made it two days, but the brutal, muggy heat forced him out.
Frazier has seen flood damage before, but never to his own property or while the inundation was still going on.
“I’m a retired insurance adjuster — worked a thousand flood claims after the water’s gone,” he said. “To be a victim of one and to be inside that house when your clothes are floating in front of you and everything else is going on, it’s just incredible. Can’t even explain it.”
He got excited when he realized the rescue team wading down the street in front of his house was from Sacramento.
“I can’t even say enough, how good it makes me feel,” he said, his voice cracking. He said there’s too much focus on division in the United States. “The truth of the matter is, you guys are here, we’re y’all, ya’ll are us. We’re Americans. … Don’t get me crying now.”
California sent more than 500 first responders to southeast Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, including eight FEMA urban search and rescue task forces, two additional swift-water rescue teams, a 90-person contingent from the Air National Guard and emergency medical teams. They joined thousands from other states, the federal government and the military.
Urban search and rescue task forces vary in composition, from a full compliment of 80 people including doctors and structural engineers to the smaller squad of 14 focused on floodwater search and rescue, like Cal 7.
By the time some of those teams arrived early this week, the area was swarming with rescue personnel. Dozens of squads waited for days at the command post in College Station, the Brazoria division post in Angleton and other staging areas. The teams filled fairgrounds and high schools, with hundreds of firefighters awaiting a chance to search flooded neighborhoods.
They spent their time checking and rechecking their gear and listening to several briefings each day on the status of the relief efforts and the dangers they might face.
“I hate electricity,” Ventura County Fire Department Battalion Chief Charlie Sullenbarger told his team during a briefing in College Station. “I always think I’m going to get zapped one of these days and I think that’s how I’m going to end up leaving this world.”
The crews carried “hot sticks,” a tool that measures for electrical current, to test the waters around them.
“Snakes, alligators, fire ants, fecal matter,” Sullenbarger said. “It’s a reality: Sewage in the water.”
Back in Tamarind Woods, Dave Lauchner said he’d come across a “floating island” of fire ants while searching the neighborhood.
“Those are a danger because once they get close to us they like to latch onto us,” he said. “We don’t want to irritate those guys.”
While they were waiting to be deployed, the Cal 7 team found other ways to help out. They loaded military planes with cases of water and food for residents of Beaumont and Port Arthur, to the east. They helped move 68 patients from a flooded convalescent home into a temporary shelter.
And they helped residents of Tamarind Woods take whatever they could carry out of their houses.
“The poor guy’s loading up the last little things he can out of his house while he’s watching it sit, you know in 2 or 3 feet of water,” Sacramento Fire Capt. Mike Wolfe said. “So we do everything we can. If he needs help loading his pickup truck with the last items he can get out of there, that’s what we do.”
Squad Officer Scott Lewis said that was one of the hardest parts of their response.
“Watching the family’s faces and putting yourself in their position,” he said. “How would you feel if this was your house, this was your stuff? And I’m holding the garbage bag as the gal’s just trying to put her clothes, her favorite shirt, her favorite stuff in a bag that didn’t get damaged.”
And there’s the potential for the greater loss, evidenced by the scores found dead after the storm.
“We deal with life and death and birth and cancer — almost dead, are you dying — we deal with that all the time,” Lewis said. “You almost have to become numb to it to do your job. When someone calls 911, they don’t want a hug, necessarily, they want your action. So you got to put all the broken body parts, or the illness, or the actual dead body that you’re trying to work on, the actual what you’re looking at away and do your job.”
At least two California urban search and rescue teams have been deployed to Florida in anticipation of Hurricane Irma, which is expected to make landfall near Miami this weekend. Cal 7 was on the road back to Sacramento as of Thursday evening, returning home to wildfires burning across the state.
That’s the nature of the job, whether it’s as a firefighter or member of a FEMA search and rescue team, Lewis said.
“At the end of the day, our passion is to help people, and help people in need,” he said.