Voices from the Storm

Voices from the Storm

The story of Hurricane Harvey, as told by 28 Texans who helped their state through its darkest hour.

“I thought I was going to drown.”

“It sounded like we were being pelted with machine-gun fire.”

“There were a lot of people waving at me, begging for help.”

“It was coming in through the walls.”

It began as a blip on the radar, a low-pressure system plodding toward the Caribbean that caught the attention of forecasters at the National Hurricane Center, in Miami. On Thursday, August 17, they put out the first alerts. The system had become a tropical storm, with sustained winds of 35 miles per hour, and they gave it a name: Harvey.

In Corpus Christi, Dale Nelson, the longtime chief meteorologist at the local NBC affiliate, KRIS-TV, took notice. “The tropics are heating up with newly formed Harvey,” he tweeted at 4:42 p.m. This wasn’t an especially worrisome development. Harvey was still far out to sea, a few hundred miles east of Barbados and nearly three thousand miles from Texas. There are many such storms during the Atlantic hurricane season; Harvey was the eighth named tropical cyclone of the year. The previous seven hadn’t amounted to much and, like most storms, were quickly forgotten.

On that Thursday, no one yet knew what Harvey would become. That it would cross the Yucatán and, feeding off the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, grow into the strongest hurricane to hit Texas since Carla, in 1961. That it would churn over the state for five agonizing days, releasing more rain than any storm ever in the continental United States, and likely become the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. That it would flood a hundred thousand homes, ruin up to a million cars, and, as of this writing, result in seventy deaths, a number that seems certain to rise. That it would also bring Texans together as never before and make lifesaving acts of heroism commonplace. And that it would become a storm no one who lived through it would ever forget. This is its story so far.     

August 20, 2017 — 10:00 AM

Winds: 35 MPH

“We said in the strongest terms possible, ‘Get out of dodge.’”

Tom Johnstone, 49, meteorologist in charge, Corpus Christi office of the National Weather Service. This was his first hurricane. On Monday [August 21] I was in Nashville, Tennessee, watching the eclipse. The peak of the eclipse was around 1:30, and as it was ending, I got a call from my office about trouble brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. Computer model simulations were showing a tropical system had formed and was headed for the Bay of Campeche, in southeastern Mexico. I booked a flight and was back in the office the next day.


Bill Rogers, 61, self-employed mechanic, Port Aransas. We started watching it when it started to develop, back when it was in the Caribbean. When you live like this, come hurricane season, your ears perk up and you start watching things. When I first moved here [25 years ago], I listened to the old shrimpers, what to do and what not to do. And I always heard, you leave when the birds leave—they know more than we do. But this caught everybody off guard, ’cause there’s dead birds all around my house.


Tom Johnstone:We came up with an area of Texas that we thought the storm might hit. It was between Brownsville and Houston. We call such an area “the cone of uncertainty.” There’s no possible way to specifically predict where it will hit, of course, but we are able to say there’s a two-thirds chance the storm will stay in that cone.


Joe McComb, 70, Corpus Christi mayor. He lost his daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in the Wimberley flood of 2015. I started getting notices that there were storms in the Gulf. We had a council meeting on the twenty-second, where they were saying it was looking more like it was going to Corpus Christi. Your heart says get out of town, but the reality is when you order a massive evacuation, there are other problems. My number one focus was to make sure we protected life and that there were no casualties. From what happened to my family in Wimberley, I know that when people are caught unaware of water conditions, death is the result.


Tom Johnstone: We quickly realized this was not going to be a traditional storm. Harvey went from a tropical depression to a major hurricane in just 48 hours. We call what happened RI—rapid intensification. The reason Harvey went through RI was because it was circulating over extremely warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico that were about 90 degrees Fahrenheit—the warmest waters in all of the Gulf. It had been a warm spring and a hot summer, with lots of sunshine. What also led to the RI was the lack of wind shear. There were no strong winds in the Gulf to shear apart a storm. So in two days, Harvey just took off, turning into a Category 4 hurricane. We sent out warnings up and down the coast for residents to be prepared for feet, not inches, of rain. We used words like “catastrophic” and “life-threatening.”


Joe McComb: We talked about what’s involved with mandatory evacuation. In the past when we had ordered mandatory evacuation, people wouldn’t go, the law couldn’t enforce it, and we didn’t want to tie up first responders doing that. So we finally made the decision that we would go out and make as strong a plea as we could. At the press conference, we said in the strongest terms possible, “Get out of Dodge.” And people started paying attention.


Wanda Wright, 63, retired, Rockport. We didn’t leave because this old gal here [Jonell, Wright’s 86-year-old mother], she sat out [Hurricane] Celia on a 35-foot shrimp boat in Rockport Harbor, okay? And she wasn’t scared. She was like, “No, I ain’t leaving my house.” We didn’t think it would be that bad. Oh, we heard there was a storm coming, but they said it wouldn’t be over a Category 1. Well, we’ve done Category 1’s a lot. This house has been here since ’58. We could have gotten out of here, but we didn’t think it was gonna be like that. I’m telling you that right now. Not one fire truck came down this street. Used to be, they’d come by in fire trucks. Used to be, you’d get flyers in your mailbox three days in advance—“This is where you go if it gets ugly.” And the mayor pro tem of this town said [we should write our names and Social Security numbers on our arms with a Sharpie]. That’s wrong. He’s going to hear from me.


James Canter, 45, owns a restaurant and food truck in Victoria. We had heard the flood was coming, so my wife and I started squirreling away resources. We have a two-acre farm on the north side of town, and we put plywood boards up on the windows and then took our twin boys, who are eight, and our oldest boy, who is ten, and two dogs and two cats, and came down here to our restaurant to weather it out. We put a tent in the dining room and put our TV in there. It was like a refugee camp in there, bro.


Andrew White, 45, entrepreneur, Houston. His father, former Texas governor Mark White, died on August 5. It was Thursday, and I was at home in River Oaks. I was still getting calls and emails from friends and acquaintances who were offering condolences over dad’s death. I was planning to fly out in a couple of days to the Grand Canyon to go on a rafting trip. But I kept watching the weather reports, and for reasons that I can’t fully explain, I decided to drive down to my Galveston beach house, hook up my fishing boat, and bring it back to Houston, just in case I might need it. I put my wife and kids on a plane to California to stay with some friends. And I canceled my trip.

Wanda Wright, Rockport

“It sounded like there were forty salty banshees up in this tree.”

Photo by R.G. Ratcliffe


Raynardo Battle, 31, apprentice electrician, Beaumont. I live on the south side of Beaumont with my wife, Nikia, and our children. My wife and I were watching channel 27, and one of the weathermen said that the storm was going to be bad. Right then, I said to Nikia, “Come on, we’re leaving.” I came to Beaumont from New Orleans when I was nineteen, right after Katrina. I saw people stuck on their roofs or dying on the streets. I wasn’t going to mess with any more hurricanes. So we packed up that very day and headed for Dallas, where we heard there were going to be shelters.


Lisa Eicher, 33, stay-at-home mom, Conroe. We have four kids. Two are adopted, and they have Down’s syndrome, and two are biological kids. We’ve only lived here three months, and our house is built up to specifically avoid flooding. We’re on top of a twelve-foot garage. Our neighbors have been through floods here before, and they came by and talked to us and said, “No way it’s gonna get that high. Y’all will be fine. Just get lots of food and water and prepare to be homebound for a couple of days.”


Herby Etie, 52, maintenance worker, Dickinson, southeast of Houston. They said the storm was coming here and we were going to have a lot of rain. I dug some trenches and sealed some leaks and tied things down so they wouldn’t blow away. I’ve never had a flood here, and I went through Hurricane Ike. So I assumed everything was going to be all right.


James Canter: We started cooking. I put up a big twenty-gallon pot on a stove and I made a giant pot of smoked kimchi and chicken stew. My wife’s half Korean, so we do a lot of Korean-influenced stuff at my restaurant. The kimchi stew was something that my mother-in-law always cooked for her as comfort food, so I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to comfort my wife, first and foremost.


Zachary Dearing, 29, screenwriter, Rockport. A bunch of neighbors banded together in the harbor—some were staying, the rest of us were leaving. Our neighbor, J.J., he’s 77. He had a friend’s house he was going stay at on higher ground in Rockport, and I didn’t want to leave him alone. My father has a stoma, so I was afraid for him to stay in town. I told him to go to Houston, and he told me, “You can follow me to Houston or you can stay.” I kind of said with a smile and a question mark, “I think I’m staying?” He said, “You’re a grown-ass man. If you wanna stay, stay.” I’ll be honest with you, when he pulled away, I had one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in my life. I made the decision, and there was no going back. I called him, and he said, “I can’t turn around. The roads are too bad.” I called my girlfriend and told her, “I messed up. I’m trapped in Rockport.”

 


August 25, 2017 – 10:00 PM

Winds: 130 MPH

“It wasn’t supposed to come here in the first place, and then it took aim for us.”

Tom Johnstone: That Friday night, we had 22 employees in our offices at the Corpus Christi International Airport. Our offices were locked down and shuttered. The hurricane made landfall at around 10 p.m., hitting a 30- to 40-mile area north of Corpus, which included the towns of Rockport, Fulton, Port Aransas, and Aransas Pass. The winds were at 130 miles per hour.


Bobby Sherwood, 59, Nueces County constable, Port Aransas. I have lived here almost my entire life. There was never a question that I wouldn’t ride out the storm. As the constable, that’s what they pay me to do—protect the lives and homes of the people in this town. And there was no better place to ride it out than with my best friend, Claude Brown, at his house. Friends were calling me and asking if I was sure I wanted to stay, and one friend said, “Hasn’t anyone told you that you should evacuate?” And I said, “Well, my wife had.” But I never listen to her anyway.


Claude Brown, 59, former deputy constable and former mayor, Port Aransas. It wasn’t supposed to come here in the first place, and then it took aim for us. Then they’re talking about Category 1, maybe Category 2, then it turned into “It’s gonna be a 3.” I stayed here with the constable—Bobby Sherwood’s his name, we’re pretty tight. I’ve got big straps I put over my house. I put a crane on one side and anchored that and put a backhoe on the other side and anchored that, and I anchored the house by cinching those straps real tight. They’re big straps; they’ll hold a tremendous amount of weight. We hoped for the best.


Joe McComb: I was home with my wife when the storm hit. We lost power at about eight on Friday night. When my wife went into the restroom, she heard the skylight squeaking and said she thought our skylight was about to go. I knew if the skylight went, the whole roof would go. I called our son Jonathan, who lives a few blocks away and still had power, so he came over. It was raining like crazy, so we packed up a few things and went to stay at his house.

The storm moved on to Rockport, then they started saying it could come back. I describe this hurricane as being like a greased pig: you just can’t get your hands around it. This storm did not act like any other hurricane I’ve had experience with.


Zachary Dearing: About two hours into being in [J.J.’s friend’s] house, the walls started breathing. If you were to put your hand on the walls in the house, it felt like if you were to put your hand on the chest of a horse. I went to J.J. and said, “No one can help us here. I want your opinion on this, but I think we need to run to the shelter.” Honestly, looking outside, I thought we were too late, like we weren’t gonna make it.


Bill Rogers: There was a lot of wind and rain beating the house, but I really wasn’t that concerned. But when the winds started moving the walls, it was time to move. I told my wife, “We gotta go, and we gotta go now.” We started grabbing the five dogs, and we got down to the garage. The stilts are made from real two-inch-thick old mill lumber, real heavy lumber, so I said, “It’s not going to come down on us.” We got in there and sat in the car.

About 9:30 or so, my feet started getting wet. I looked down and the floorboard was full of water. About the same time, the wind started caving in the garage door.


Wanda Wright: My sister came over on Friday. Probably two o’clock. We were fine. We sat here and played Yahtzee until we lost power, and then it started getting ugly. My mother took her hearing aid out and went to bed. She wasn’t scared. She didn’t hear a thing. The wind was blowing, and those windows are the slide-open kind and we were holding them. They were bowing out, even with plywood on them. The sound was like screaming—woooo! It sounded to me like forty hoarse old ladies in our trees were screaming. I can’t even make that noise. This went on for, like, three hours, then the eye came over, then dead silence for an hour and forty-five. Crickets. You could hear the frogs. I’ve been in an eye before, and the eye lasts thirty minutes. This one was almost two hours. And then it came back again. Then it was a different sound. Like a groaning. I mean, it’s a mystery. It sounded like there were forty salty banshees up in this tree.

Darren Braun; Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times


Bobby Sherwood:The most dramatic time was between 1 and 1:45 a.m. The winds were blowing at 135. The fridge was dancing across the floor, the ceiling fans were moving so fast that it looked like a scene from a Poltergeist movie, and it was pitch-black. We were a block or two from the channel and got the edge of the eye wall. We really got a whipping. At one point, me and Claude looked at each other and said maybe we should have thought this through better. I didn’t know how much more we could take before the house started coming apart.


Claude Brown: It got to blowing, and I don’t know if you know anything about hot rods, but they’ve got nitrous oxide systems that double your horsepower. If you’ve got a Category 3 going, and it turns to Category 4, it’s like hitting the nitrous, and between two and three in the morning it went crazy. The seeds were falling off the palm trees and hitting the house, and it sounded like we were being pelted by machine-gun fire.


Bill Rogers: I’ve got a Ford F-250 Super Duty four-wheel drive with a lift kit on it. I said to my wife, “We’ve got to get to the truck.” A half a block away is an old seafood place called Oceans of Seafood, and they’ve got a loading dock and a big driveway that’s way up. So I said, “I wanna make it to the driveway.” It’s just around the corner, and it’s raining real hard, and you can imagine how dark it was. We made it to the corner, and a boat that was tied to a trailer was floating, and it ran into the truck. So we couldn’t move. I crawled out the window—I couldn’t open the door because the water was coming up—and the water was so swift that I just had one hand on the door and [the water] tried to take me away. My wife was hanging on to me, and I couldn’t get my feet down. Finally, by the grace of God, an angel grabbed my foot and put it on the running board. My wife helped pull me back in, and a little later the boat broke loose and it spun us around, and the water ran into the truck, about a third of the way up the dash, which fried everything. When it shorted, my wife’s window went down about halfway.


Zachary Dearing: On the way to the shelter, a power line cut my driver side mirror off. A branch went through the passenger side rear window, almost hit J.J. and could’ve easily killed him. It took us about fifteen minutes to get to the shelter [at Live Oak Learning Center]. When we got there, the power was already out. The storm was doing its thing. Some of the ceiling had already come down. Water was all over the floors. There were already ninety people, of which 60 percent were probably elderly. Two were hospice care. These were people that couldn’t take care of themselves. It took me about thirty minutes to realize there wasn’t really an authority figure. I saw kids, ages 16 up to 21, had already started doing things—walking around offering water to people, talking to people. They didn’t really know what to do, but I could tell they were trying to help. I finally just asked, “Who’s ready to work?” All these kids, they raised their hands. From that point on, thirty hours passed. We did twenty-minute rotations, just checking in on people for water. Everybody just stayed working through the night.

Corpus mayor Joe McComb.
Darren Braun

Bobby Sherwood: The eye finally passed, and winds got down to 60 miles per hour, so we went out on the porch, and there was a wall of water in front of [Claude’s] house. We might as well have been in the middle of the marina.


Claude Brown: If anybody says that you have to be brave to stay here, brave is spelled “S-T-U-P-I-D.” I’ll never do it again. It’s your worst nightmare. I’ve been through a few, but nothing like this. All these so-called engineers that have designed all these new houses and these hurricane straps and all that shit, that don’t mean nothing. They say it helps, but you don’t put a Band-Aid on a heart attack.


Bill Rogers: All night long, we were sitting in water up to our waists, with two little dogs on the dash and three bigger ones in the backseat with water halfway up their necks. We were sitting there for three or four hours in the water with the wind and the rain. The hood of the truck was facing the flow of water, and it would whitecap over the hood and spray the windshield. I said to my wife, “There goes a Jet Ski; there goes another Jet Ski; there goes an icebox,” hoping that I didn’t see any bodies come by. We sat there all night long and prayed for the blood of Jesus to be over the truck.


Bobby Sherwood: I got up at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, when I saw the tide was going down, and went over to my house two blocks away. It was filled with four and a half feet of water. But I couldn’t worry about that because I was the only law enforcement left on the island. So I went out and patrolled and told them over the radio that I was okay, to let everyone know I was alive. The town was pretty much devastated.

Bill Rogers, Port Aransas

“The inner wall of the house started moving. And I told my wife, we gotta go, and we gotta go now.”

Photo by Todd Spoth


Claude Brown: I have never in my life seen palm trees just twisted and bent out of the ground. If a palm tree bends 10 to 15 degrees, that son of a bitch is blowing. And some of ’em snapped off. I’m gonna tell you what, if you’ve snapped a palm tree, you’ve done something.


Bill Rogers: It sort of slacked off around four in the morning, I guess. We didn’t have any way of knowing the time for sure. And the water started going down. Right before daylight there wasn’t any water on the floorboards, so I grabbed two dogs and walked back up the road. The water was about waist deep. I went back and got another dog, and then I went back and got my shar-pei, my wife, and her little Pomeranian. And then we waded across the street to a friend’s condo. The last call I had was him giving me the number to get in his condo, which was three levels up. That’s where we’ve been staying ever since.


Bobbie Jean Ramirez, 36, physical therapy technician at Refugio County Memorial Hospital, Refugio. I live in a double-wide with my parents. Refugio had a mandatory evacuation, but we didn’t go. We assumed we’d be okay. But we figured we would be safer in a hotel. So my boyfriend, Jai, and I and my parents went to the Americas Best Value Inn and got two rooms. We got there about one in the afternoon [on Friday], we had food, made ourselves comfortable. About 9:30 or 10 p.m. it started to get bad—a lot of wind and rain. About midnight, water started coming through the top and bottom of the front door, so we pushed a desk in front of it. About 1 a.m., the gusts started getting really bad, and we were worried about the window blowing in, so Jai and I went into the bathroom. I texted my mom to do the same. We sat there and could feel the building swaying back and forth. All of a sudden, I felt something on my shoulder, and I looked up and the ceiling had collapsed, all this tile and insulation had fallen on us. I’m trying to stay calm. Jai is like, “You’re gonna be okay.” I knew first responders weren’t going to help us. We were on our own.


August 26, 2017 — 2:00 PM

Winds: 70 MPH

“I heard what sounded like a freight train in the front room.”

Tom Johnstone:The hurricane kept moving, heading north toward Victoria. It was still a hurricane, and the wind gusts were still strong, reaching 90 miles per hour. There were widespread power outages, trees knocked down, roofs blown off. Our fear was that the storm would stall. We had launched weather balloons into the upper atmosphere, and they were sending in reports that the winds shearing Harvey were going away. There was nothing that was going to move Harvey.


James Canter: [Before the storm hit] we decided to bring some of the normalcy we had in the restaurant to the general public. I put some Willie Nelson on the radio and turned on all the equipment, and I started cooking. I had about $10,000 worth of inventory. I started feeding the Victoria Advocate employees, because they’d been working around the clock with updates. Word started to get out. First responders started coming in. A gas company had me cook for all their linemen, and two TV companies’ crews. So we started feeding all those guys, and then we started getting people from the neighborhood too.


Kathryn Carroll, 32, clinical navigator at Post Acute Medical Rehabilitation Hospital in Victoria. My option of getting out was limited because I’m a single mom and I had to work. By the time I got off work, it was seven or eight Friday night. The winds were picking up. You knew you had to hunker down. A lot of people left in my neighborhood.

We left my house for my parents’ house, which has a metal roof that they put on a month ago. That’s where we stayed—my seven-year-old daughter, Abby, and I and six others. I was in the bedroom with Abby, and you could hear the wind. It sounded like it was peeling the roof off. At one point I heard what sounded like a freight train in the front room. I thought it was a tornado hitting us. I picked up my daughter like I was going to throw her on the ground, but then I carried her to the living room, which is in the middle of the house. All eight of us stayed in that room all night. The next morning we went outside and Abby said, “Mommy, come look at this.” A tree was leaning on the house. That’s what made that unbelievable sound. The look on her face—she was amazed. I said, “That’s why Mommy almost threw you on the ground!”


Bobbie Jean Ramirez:I was concerned about my parents. We were yelling back and forth to them. Their ceiling had collapsed too. We decided we had to get out. My father yelled out, “My door is jammed, I can’t get it open.” So Jai went to go help him. He opened our front door, and it took all my might to shut the door behind him. It was crazy. He got my parents, took them to their car, then came back to get me.

I work at the hospital, and I knew my boss was there. So we drove there slowly. It was crazy—pouring rain, wind 130 miles per hour, debris everywhere, all the lights out. We didn’t see anyone else on the road. We got to the hospital and took shelter there. That night was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through.


James Canter:I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been through some hurricanes and that was nuts. I couldn’t even walk out the door [of the restaurant] because the wind was so strong. As soon as I opened the door, it blew me back about five feet on the ground. It was pretty gnarly.


Bobbie Jean Ramirez:The next day we drove by the hotel. It was destroyed. Everything was down, all the windows were busted, the roof was caved in. But our double-wide was fine. It stood. There was a small leak in the bathroom, but that was it. We are lucky and learned our lesson. Next time, we evacuate.


Raynardo Battle:We got to Dallas early in the morning [on Saturday]. We were one of the first in line at the shelter [the Walnut Hill Recreation Center, in North Dallas]. Somebody in the line said, “You’re from Beaumont? The hurricane is way down south.” And I said, “You never know what hurricanes are going to do.”


August 26, 2017 — 7:00 PM

Winds: 60 MPH

“A firehose of rain.”

Tom Johnstone: We knew that as Harvey came inland, it would be downgraded into a tropical storm, with the winds diminishing. But at the same time, we also knew the rain coming out of the storm would still be tremendous. It would truly be a firehose of rain, especially over Houston.


Sylvester Turner, 63, mayor of Houston. Once it became clear that the hurricane was not going to hit Houston and Harris County, we knew this was going to be a major rainfall event for the city. Those are two different things. And you cannot evacuate. There are 6.5 million people in Houston, Harris County. Let me tell you what would have happened: Everyone hits the road at the same time. Everyone is going to the gas stations, trying to fill up. And then you have total gridlock on your freeways like [the Hurricane Rita evacuation in 2005]. Can you imagine if we had issued that order? You’d have all these people stuck on the freeway, running out of gas. No way to get to them. Nowhere for them to go. And all of a sudden here comes this major rainfall. The fact that these questions have even come up is absurd.


Gretchen Smith, 39, stay-at-home mom, Katy. I’m from Houston. I’ve been through Alicia, Ike. I’ve been through hurricanes. I thought it’d be a Category 1 and not hit us directly. I wasn’t afraid at all. My husband is overseas. Great timing. I decided to ride it out because I live in Katy, and you don’t need to evacuate in Katy. It’s almost a joke. But I did what you’re supposed to do—got flashlights, did shopping. I was shopping like a college student: pizza, chips. Comfort food. So Friday, there was no school. My three-year-old and my seven-year-old and I stayed at home and just played. I took the kids out for bike rides, splashing in the puddles—got them outside before the storm started. I figured the worst-case scenario was we go without power for a few days or minor street flooding. No big deal. Plenty of food, plenty to keep us occupied. Friday night, 10:45 p.m., the lightning started and we started losing power. That’s expected. No big deal.

A flooded street in Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood.
Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times

Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, 66, owner of the Gallery Furniture chain, Houston. We were closed on Saturday [because of the storm warnings], and I was upset with myself for being closed because I felt like we could’ve done business. The phone was ringing off the wall with people saying, “Are you open?” So many times these storms are overhyped, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have any inclination in my wildest dreams it was going to be as bad as it was. I thought it was a non-event.


Veronica Batiste, Houston: I got out of South Houston a day before the hurricane hit. I was like, I’m not going to wait for nobody to rescue me. So I left early, about ten in the morning. Because it was supposed to start raining at two or three that afternoon, and I only got one windshield wiper on my car, you know, so I gotta go! When I got to Beaumont, I went to my sister’s house, and she made us gumbo and talked about how we were going to prepare [for the storm]. I stayed there a couple of days, and she said, “We have to evacuate.” So that’s when I got to the [Beaumont Civic Center] shelter.


Andrew White:There was some rain and wind through the day [on Saturday], but it didn’t seem threatening. I took my mom to the grocery store to load up on groceries and supplies, but I felt like I was wasting my time. The hurricane seemed far away. That night, I watched the Mayweather-McGregor fight on television and went to bed. I thought I had made a mistake canceling my Grand Canyon trip. I had no idea that I was about to go on a hell of a boat trip in my own hometown.


August 27, 2017 — 10:00 AM

Winds: 40 MPH

“I thought I was about to drown.”

Tom Johnstone:The most devastating rains hit Houston during Saturday night and the predawn hours that Sunday morning. There were five to six inches of rain per hour, and it didn’t stop. By 10:44 that morning, one of our staffers sent out a tweet about the rains that read, “This event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced.”


Gretchen Smith:On Saturday, two or three tornadoes strike down within miles of us. I realized it was getting serious. I had a weather alarm thing, and every time a weather warning went off, we’d huddle in the bathroom. Around 7 p.m. Saturday night I finished making dinner, and the alarm went off, and so we had dinner in the bathroom. The kids thought it was a fun little adventure to eat on the bathroom floor. And then the warnings kept going, and it started to pick up, and in the middle of the night, about 3 a.m., there was another tornado warning, and I knew it was coming. I made a bed in the bathroom and got my babies and waited it out in the bathroom, texting with close friends—we’re all huddled with our families and texting each other for support, not knowing what’s going on.


Herby Etie:About 2:30 in the morning me and my wife were watching everything, and the water was coming down hard and there was water in the yard but nothing abnormal. Then about three in the morning, the water started coming so fast. It was in my house within two minutes. It was a foot deep and right after that two feet deep.

About 3:30, my wife’s sister called us. We got in my Dodge Ram 2500, and we went down there and rescued her out of her house. On the way back, there was a woman on the front of her car, and the water was up to her windshield; she had a little daughter and she was screaming for help. So we brought them all back to our house. We all stayed upstairs. I had two feet of water, but getting out of Dickinson, we couldn’t figure out which way to go. They were saying Baytown was flooded, Houston was flooded, everything. They were saying the highways had ten feet of water. There was nowhere to go.


Brandon Peñate, 11, Houston. Saturday night, the water started coming into the house. I was in the living room. I was watching a movie, and everything puffed up on the carpet. I stepped on it, and it was squishy, and I saw water coming from the door. That was about 8 p.m. An hour or two later, it was like a lake around here. One foot in the house. We all slept on my dad’s bed because it’s higher. I wasn’t scared but my [three-year-old] sister was. It was Sunday morning when we started packing stuff—everything in a backpack—and walked to my mom’s brother’s [mechanic] shop. The water was up to my neck. There were some deep places. I thought I was about to drown.

Floodwaters rush over a highway in Beaumont on August 31.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale:I woke up Sunday morning to go to church and go to work, and there was three feet of water in the street outside my house. And then the rain got worse. When I got to the store, we had hundreds of texts from people who were stranded in their homes with the water coming up, saying, “Would you rescue us?” And so we dispatched some of our delivery trucks to go through high water to pick up people. I’ve been at the store ever since Sunday at noon. We have our own restaurant here. So we house four hundred people a night and feed them. It’s been quite the community event out here. It’s what we do. We sell furniture; we take care of the community. These are our people. We’ve got to be here for them.


Tyree Finley, 26, inside sales manager for wayfair.com, Bryan. I’m from the Cypress area. I went to Cypress High School. It’s only an hour and thirty minutes away [from Bryan]. [On Saturday] when I heard how serious it was going to be, I rounded up a team of five or six people to go down there and rescue.  We were like, “Yo, it’s time to go. Let’s get down there.” My buddy was coming up from San Antonio and saw a car on the side of the road with a boat. So he stopped and my buddy is like, “Where are you going?” He said, “We were trying to go down to Cypress to help with the floods.” My buddy was like, “Throw it on my truck and let’s go.”


Art Acevedo, 52, Houston police chief. Sergeant Steve Perez [a 60-year-old, 34-year veteran of the department] left his home at 4 a.m. [Sunday] in heavy rain to get to his duty work station. His wife had asked him not to go in. His father-in-law, who is a Korean War veteran from the Army, told him not to go because conditions were so bad. And his response was “I’ve got work to do.”    


Andrew White:I got a call at 9:30 on Sunday morning from a River Oaks police officer who had been told that I had a boat in my driveway. He asked if I would take it to the Buffalo Bayou to help rescue some people who were stranded. When I got there, the whole area was a massive urban river, waist high. An officer jumped on the boat, and we launched into the water. My boat is sixteen feet, flat bottomed, with a small 25-horsepower engine, good for shallow-water fishing but not exactly great for a rushing current. Somehow we got across and made it to a home surrounded by water. We got that family and their big dog on the boat and took them back across to higher ground. We did that trip about six more times, rescuing maybe thirty people in all. We moved over to another street, Willowick, which was even closer to the bayou, and we rescued another thirty. I went home and took a shower, figuring my work was done.


Gretchen Smith: We got emails from the sheriff’s office or emergency management letting us know there was a possibility that the Addicks Reservoir could flood because it was at capacity. Part of me still didn’t believe it [would hit us], because we’re [a few miles from the reservoir]. I’m thinking, in the worst case, street flooding. Scary and whatever, but that’s not house flooding. There’s a difference between “I’m going to be flooded in” and “I’m going to be flooded.” In the morning, the water went over the curb a little bit, but nothing too bad. I think in the afternoon we had a break in the rain, and then Sunday evening, about 4:30, we had, like, six and a half inches in three hours, and that evening is when I heard they were going to release the water [from the Addicks Reservoir] and that could lead to flooding for us. And as soon as I heard that announcement, I looked outside and saw that the water was three fourths up my lawn. And I realized, I have to get out.

Scott Olson/Getty Images; Leif Reigstad


Andrew White: I got a call that there were more people stranded by the Brays Bayou, next to NRG Stadium. By now, it was after two o’clock, the waters were getting higher, and there were a lot of people waving at me, begging for help. I had recruited a neighbor to work the boat with me [George Postolos, the former president of the Houston Rockets and Houston Astros], and we realized we would be overwhelmed if we tried to help everyone. So we did a sort of triage, transporting only women and children, and the elderly and the very sick. At one point, we picked up a man of Muslim heritage who had just undergone major cancer surgery at MD Anderson. He had a feeding tube connected to his abdomen, and his eyes were yellow. You could tell his body was shutting down fast. We took him straight down the bayou, then maneuvered through a couple of side streets and got within two blocks of the hospital before the water got too low. A jacked-up pickup truck came by and carried the man the rest of the way to the hospital. I feel God was looking over us. It’s a miracle that the man survived.


Sylvester Turner:In our five o’clock weather briefing, here at [the Office of Emergency Management], the National Weather Service indicated that there were several bands that were coming through and that one of the bands could produce seven to nine inches of rain. So the first band came. And it just kept coming. Then there was another band that was coming on the radar screen. That’s when [county] Judge Ed Emmett and I decided to have another press conference. I left here to go over to TranStar [the Houston region’s transportation coordination center]. There was water all over the place.


Gretchen Smith:So Sunday night until Monday morning, I’m working, trying to get things ready, trying to go to sleep but not knowing if I wake up if there will be water rushing into our house. I’d look outside, and it looked like a Louisiana swamp, like I live on a lake, hearing bullfrogs. This is not what it sounds like in my neighborhood. This is not the sound of a suburban Katy neighborhood.


Sylvester Turner:Coming back from TranStar, trying to get back [to the Office of Emergency Management], we couldn’t get back. We had to wait in a McDonald’s parking lot for them to send a bigger truck for me. So they sent this big army-like truck that didn’t have any suspension. He’s driving through the water. It must have been a hole or maybe a manhole cover that popped up. I don’t know. All I know is that truck went up in the air, and I went up. Even now, the backside of my ass is sore.


Art Acevedo:On Monday the twenty-eighth, Sergeant Perez’s chain of command was holding their regular roll call when they noticed that he was not present. When they couldn’t get ahold of him, we contacted his wife, and she informed us she had not seen her husband since 4 a.m. on the twenty-seventh. We immediately began an extensive search.


Gretchen Smith:Monday morning, I started trying to pack without freaking the kids out. The people who rescued me got there about 9:30. They had a rowboat, and we put life jackets on the kids and put them in the rowboat and put the bags in the boat. The two men and myself walked behind the boat for a mile to where their car had been, hoping the water hadn’t risen. At the deepest point, the water was waist high, and cold and rushing. You can’t see fire hydrants, can’t see the curbs. This is the place we ride bikes, and literally I’m now about to swim. And you can see all your neighbors stuffing their things in trash bags, trying to figure out where to go.


Andrew White: I woke up [on Monday] and my phone was blowing up with text messages about people being stranded in west Houston, past Beltway 8. I headed that way. When I arrived, there were many people with boats doing the same thing. It was a flotilla. There were fishing boats, kayaks, ski boats, Jet Skis, pontoon boats, and blow-up air mattresses. I just felt this sense of pride. Here were all these people from every walk of life, doing what they could to help those in distress.

Residents being evacuated from Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood.
Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times

Sylvester Turner:They came to tell me at 9 a.m. [on Monday] that the Northeast Water Purification Plant was taking on water. And they told me, “Mr. Mayor, in three hours, it is going to go out.” The pressure is going to drop, and based on regulations, if it drops below 20 psi, we’re going to have to notify people in the city that they’ll have to boil their drinking water. So with everything that was taking place, to make an announcement that your water system has failed was not the sort of news that you wanted to provide. I said, “Before you tell me that, make sure you’ve exhausted all your means of keeping it going. At this point, money is not an object.” They came back about one o’clock and said, “Mayor, we’ve got another twenty-four hours.” Later that night, they came back and told me, “We think we’re going to be good.” That took a whole lot of pressure off, knowing the water system was going to be safe, especially with people sheltering in place. That was a big one for me.


Trae the Truth, 37, Houston rapper. I stay on the west side of Houston. The Brazos [River] overflowed, which flooded us out. On Friday and Saturday, it was just raining. Sunday you start to really notice it. Monday, you look and the water was getting closer, and you have to make a decision, like, it just got real. What am I going to do? Am I going to chance it or get the family out of the house? I decided we had to get out of there. And now the whole neighborhood’s underwater.


Lisa Eicher:Early Monday morning, we woke up and saw the water halfway up our front steps, and there’s a lot of steps. I just panicked and knew it was only gonna get worse. It was very scary, but within just a few minutes, a big ol’ truck pulled up with some firemen on it. We didn’t call them or anything, they were just driving through the neighborhood looking for anybody who needed out. We threw a few pieces of clothing in a garbage bag and got the kids and the pets, and they swam us out to the truck. We have a pig and a little puppy—she only has three legs, so she’s still learning to get around. We were worried about how she would make it into the water, but the firefighters were great taking care of her. Our pig is about eighty pounds. They put an adult-size life jacket on her and sort of used it as a raft, and my husband and a fireman swam her out. She did great. I expected my two kids with Down’s syndrome to be a little freaked out. One of them is nonverbal, and she’s only been with us about a year. She’s thirteen, and she doesn’t understand these kinds of things, but she was a champ. I swam her out, and she clung to me like a spider monkey. My little three-year-old is about as crazy as they come, so he was as happy as could be, swimming across the front yard and riding on a truck with firemen.


Art Acevedo:Monday evening, at about 10 p.m., we narrowed the search to Hardy Toll Road and Beltway 8, where we had a high sense of probability that this was the last place [Sergeant Perez] would have been. We called for our dive team. We even used our Cajun Navy, God bless them, to help us look for him. We couldn’t find him, and once our dive team got there, it was too treacherous to go under and look for him. We are always one to hope.


Trae the Truth:My people came from San Antonio with a boat. And a few homies from the Army came from Austin [on Tuesday]. We met up where the National Guard was, and there was a checkpoint for the boats to get sent out. But it was taking a while to send them out, and my mind frame is the hours it took to wait we could do our own thing. So we left. We ended up on Westpark Tollway. There was a fire department there, and you know, they embraced us. We went to rescuing people. The first rescue I did was an NBA star, Jonathon Simmons. So as I wake up I’m on USA Today and nba.com! After that we went to work. Right now [Thursday] I’m by Intercontinental. Yesterday I was in Kingwood. Day before, in Grand Mission on Westpark Tollway. I was in Dickinson last night. Galveston yesterday. I’m everywhere, [getting around] in boats. I’m just kind of going with the flow.


Herby Etie:We called [the city of] Dickinson, and they said everything is flooded and they’re trying to rescue people. I said I got a jacked-up mud truck on tractor tires. Can I help? They said yes. So I called my son, and he brought his truck. And I called my other son, and he brought his truck. We went down to Beach Road and started taking rescue workers with their canoes and dropping them in so they could bring people back to us, and we were picking them up and taking them to city hall.

Tyree Finley, Bryan

“We’re still doing big efforts for donations and still trying to get more power and water out to these places in need.”

Photo by Darren Braun


Tyree Finley: We did search and rescue [in Cypress], joined with Coast Guard, National Guard, and the sheriff’s office. Then a lot of the rescues stopped, and they didn’t need as many people out there. So we switched focus to donations. The last three days, we’ve been back and forth between Beaumont and Houston doing donation drops, trying to get pallets of water to these places in need.


Andrew White:It was early evening when I got more texts about some people needing help in a poor area of northeast Houston. It was dark when we got there. When we got in the water, the boat bottom kept scraping against things—mailboxes, the tops of cars, curbs. We were having a hard time finding our way. But we heard people pleading for help, and we kept going.


DJ Mr. Rogers, 35, DJ for Houston’s 93.7 the Beat. My house was basically unaffected—I’m in Pearland—but there was so much on the news, I decided to step out. I saw that in my immediate area streets were blocked and homes were flooded. So I put out on social media, “Hey, if anyone needs a hotel room, hit me right now. I’ll take care of you.” Calls started coming in. So I booked some rooms. Some of these people going to hotels didn’t have food or money, so I went to Costco and got a bunch of stuff, and the person behind me in line was like, “What’s all this for? Is it for a shelter?” And I said I was just going door-to-door. He’s a teacher at a local high school. He got my number and the next morning he met me at Costco and had five trucks with canoes and students, and we started going to addresses responding to me on social media. We’d get there with these canoes, going door-to-door giving food and evacuating people. I put, like, forty hotel reservations on my personal credit. Pay it forward! On social media people started responding, “Where can I send you money?”—friends of mine who wanted to reimburse me. We’ve been spending $7,000 at Costco every day. Four or five trucks with stuff every day, and delivering it.


Lisa Eicher:In the middle of the night before, my husband had taken my Suburban and driven it to higher ground. The firemen dropped us off at a Valero just a couple miles away from there, and my husband had a neighbor come get him and take him to our car. So we waited at the Valero for a while, the kids and I, the pig and the dog. My little boy was only in his underwear. My daughter had no pants on. We had no shoes, and we were dripping wet. It was definitely a bit of a spectacle. The gas station attendant came out and gave us food and drinks. A homeless couple came up and gave us blankets because the kids were freezing cold, and they stayed with us. They didn’t want anything in return. They just wanted us to be okay, and the kids to be warm. We have the blankets in the car still, and I told my husband, “We are never getting rid of those.” It’s a good reminder of the goodness of people.


Art Acevedo: [Tuesday] morning at 8 a.m., the dive team was out there again, and within twenty minutes, they found him. Unfortunately, in the darkness, Sergeant Perez had driven into an underpass and drove into the water. Steve was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in this department. I’ve only been here nine months, we’ve got 6,500 employees, and I knew who Steve Perez was. He was a sweet, gentle public servant. This was a man who didn’t spend twenty minutes [trying to get to work] and come back saying, “Hey, I tried.” He spent close to two and half hours, because he has that in his DNA. I said to his wife, “If the Lord was going to take him, how do you think he would want to go? Lying in bed, watching all of the disaster [on television?] Or doing what he’s done for 34 years?” And the smile that came over his wife’s face, her beautiful face, said it all. “If it was Steve’s turn to go,” she said, “this is the way he would want to go.”


Trae the Truth: My mother is in Beaumont–Port Arthur. I’m trying to find a boat to get them. I get ahold of a boat, I’ll be there today. The water is bad—there’s waves, even the Coast Guard had to pull back. In Houston, it’s a blessing that people are coming out to help, but in Port Arthur and Orange and Beaumont—I got a text from a news anchor that a teacher sent them saying that it’s no water, no lights, no food, and water’s rising. What to do? It’s serious. And it’s only going to get worse in Beaumont and Port Arthur.


August 28, 2017 — 1:00 PM

Winds: 40 MPH

“I was stepping in water, and it wasn’t coming in under the doors, it was coming through the walls.”

Tom Johnstone:The towns and cities northeast of Houston had been getting some rain since Friday, but there was no deluge. Then Harvey moved back out over the Gulf on Monday, where it picked up more water, and then went north. Its speed was less than 5 miles an hour, the equivalent of a brisk walk. It turned back to the coast on Tuesday and started dumping more rain. In 24 hours, it dumped two feet of rain on Beaumont and Port Arthur.


Sandy Skelton, 69, retired, Beaumont. By Sunday morning, a lot of places were already flooded in Beaumont. My husband and I had gone to church, to 8 a.m. mass, and the weather was bad. I had to park my car on higher ground and walk back to our house. The water was up to my waist. It was barely in the yard but probably three feet in the street. That’s why we couldn’t drive in or out. So we were stuck. But we were okay because we had food, water, and power.


Susan Detweiler, 59, volunteer chaplain with the police department, Beaumont. I live in a mobile home, in a neighborhood that’s mobile homes. [On Tuesday night] I went to bed at 10, 11. It was still raining. I wake up at 4:30, and I looked down at the floor vent and I could see water. And I thought, “This is getting worse than I thought.” Water’s in the house, which has never happened. I get on the phone with my kids, and I called 311, and I said, “I’m not in water, but when you can, get out here.”


Holly Hartman, 46, journalism teacher at Memorial High School, Houston. In the middle of the storm, she volunteered to assist dispatchers for the Cajun Navy, fielding distress calls over social media from people who needed to be rescued. At some point, I think around 3 a.m., I got a call from a boy [in Orange] who was really hysterical. He told me his brother—and I’m about 98 percent sure he said his cousin—were in the backyard on the ground in front of a shed, and he thought they’d been electrocuted.

I think he thought I was the police. He kept saying, “Where are y’all? I’ve called y’all a hundred times.” I couldn’t take time to explain who I was. He was pretty panicked, and then he said, “Hold on,” and put the phone down. I hear horrible screaming and a little girl crying, and this boy that I’m assuming was the boy who’d been talking to me is saying, “No, no, my brother, no!” No one was coming back to the phone. So I started screaming, “Hello? Hello?” He came back and said, “I think my brother is dead. What should I do? Should I do CPR?” I said, “Try CPR if you can.”

I could literally hear the water sloshing and people screaming and saying, “Go get so and so!” I have no idea how old this boy was. I said, “Please let me talk to an adult, your mom or whatever.” She got on the phone, and I explained quickly who I was. She was calm at first. She said, “My boy is in here, and they’re doing CPR. He’s gone. He’s gone. His lips are purple.” I said, “I’m so sorry. We’re trying to send someone as soon as we can but they’re having trouble getting to people. Hang on. How high is the water?” She said, “It’s about to our waist.” I said, “If it gets much higher, you need to go to your roof. Do not go to your attic.”


Susan Detweiler:I had to take the antiques that my mother handed down to me—I had to put them on the washing machine and dryer. And then all of my pictures from the family that can’t be replaced, I put that up on a high cabinet, and a rocking chair made by my great-grandfather, I put that up. I have a bad back and have had surgery on it so that was hard and I’ve been paying for it. You do what you have to do.

Tenants evacuate their flooded apartment complex a block north of the Barker Reservoir in west Houston.
Darren Braun

Mary Degarmo, 63, retired, Vidor. We knew from what they’d been saying that we were pretty much in for it, you know? Then, Thursday morning the thirty-first, maybe 12:30 a.m., our electric went off. My daughter and son-in-law and three-year-old granddaughter live on one side of our duplex and I live on the other. I have a lot of health problems. I’ve had six hip replacements and two knee replacements. A lot of bad arthritis stuff. The duplex is set up so they can help me. When we lost power, they decided to leave, and my grandson, Shadley, who’s eighteen, stayed with me. They got out at 2 a.m. Thursday by the Cajun Navy, who were working our whole area. They were doing a great job.

In forty years we had never flooded on that property. We were higher up, and the only other person around was my neighbor across the street, who has stage 4 bone cancer. He wasn’t going to leave his house. We went through Hurricane Rita, and it was really bad for us. His name is Augie, and he was with us all day Thursday. We had my neighbor, my grandson, five dogs, and the cats—between our regular cats and the stray cats that I’ve managed to get neutered, there’s, like, nine of them that hang around and get fed here. I said I can’t leave. I have too many animals to take care of.


Susan Detweiler:I have a miniature schnauzer and a Boston terrier, two cockatiels, and I just got an umbrella cockatoo. So that’s a big issue: How do I transport these birds? The cockatoo cage is probably six feet tall and five feet square. There’s no way that’s moving. So I had to put them in a rubber storage bin and put holes in that and another for the small birds. People with their pets—I used to work in domestic violence. And they wouldn’t leave a bad situation, because they were afraid the spouse would kill the dog or cat.


Mary Degarmo:That Thursday afternoon, another Cajun Navy marsh boat came by to see if anybody wanted to be rescued. We said, “No, I don’t think so.” They said you might be looking at five or six more feet of water from what they say. “Who is they?” I asked. Because everything I was seeing from the weather forecast, the rivers were already cresting. What I didn’t know was that they were going to release so much water from the dam.

When we went to bed Thursday night, we were worrying so much. It was so hot. Finally we dozed off around 12:30. By now we also have another dog from down the street, the neighbor’s dog that he had left on his porch, because he thought his porch would stay dry even though his house was starting to take in water. My grandson carried him over and put him on our porch, so now we have six dogs.

Leif Reigstad; Jim Wilson/The New York Times


Sandy Skelton:From Saturday night through Wednesday, we had 27 to 35 inches of rain [at our house]. Early Wednesday afternoon, I went to the bedroom and thought, “I better lay clothes out and paperwork in case we have to evacuate.” We were thinking it would come through the doors, but it was working its way up in the garage. When I went to see where the water was in the back of the house, I was stepping in water, and it wasn’t coming in under the doors, it was coming through the walls. I started mopping it up but couldn’t keep up, and my husband was using a Shop-Vac. He knew I wasn’t going to quit. I was fighting for it. But he was right—we had to leave.

So he called somebody with a boat that was coming through, and the guy said, “Can you be ready in fifteen minutes?” He came and got us. By then, the water was coming in through the garage—there were baby fish swimming in our garage! It’s unreal. You can’t picture it unless you’ve seen it.


Susan Detweiler: The boat got me at eleven in the morning [on Wednesday]. I’m 59 years old, and I’ve never evacuated before in my life. Never had to be rescued by boat. That was a new one. I wish I could get to the food bank. But they’re closed today. They’re supposed to open tomorrow. I’m the volunteer coordinator, so I tell the volunteers where and when to go. But my laptop isn’t working. It’s just soaked. 


Mary Degarmo:Everything is so much scarier at night, so much worse, the reflections on the water are horrific. We have a stick out there to gauge it, to see how far it’s actually rising. It’s like four o’clock when we dozed back off, waking up at 7 a.m. It’s gone up six inches on the stick that fast, it’s now up to the third step on the front porch. We’re thinking, “Oh my God, here it comes.” After talking it over with my daughter and son-in-law by phone, my grandson and my neighbor and I decided we’d better go.

Now I go to looking and I can only find three cats. I called the Cajun Navy and told them we had these dogs—they were okay with that. I put food out for the kittens in the bathroom and left the toilet seats up so they can get water, filled the sinks up with water.

We’re getting ready, and a boat pulls up. It’s not the Cajun Navy but other rescuers from Oklahoma. “Y’all need help?” We said yeah. Bless those guys. We called the Cajun Navy back, told them we had gotten assistance. We went by boat with all these animals and a fifty-pound bag of dog food.


Holly Hartman:I texted [a dispatcher] and said, “Do you know if anyone has gotten to the family in Orange whose two boys were electrocuted?” He said, “Yeah, we got to them an hour ago.” That was in the afternoon, and they had called me at 3 a.m. So I think for at least twelve hours, that family was in their house with these two bodies.


August 29, 2017 — 7:00 PM

Winds: 50 MPH

“I’m alive. I can rebuild. I’m sure there’s someone worse off than me.”

Tom Johnstone: We’re exhausted. Like so many others, we’ve been working around the clock. And now that things are slowing down, the reality of what we’ve been through is starting to hit. The whole experience is just emotionally overwhelming. But our work is not over. There is still so much to be done.


Bill Rogers: It took till Sunday evening for the water to recede. It looks like a tornado hit my house, or like a mortar hit right in the middle and just blew the walls out. This girl about my daughter’s age, about 38 or so, was standing in my front yard just bawling. I said, “What’s this all about?” She said, “I feel so sorry for ya.” She was so upset she couldn’t talk much. I said, “Well, don’t, ’cause I don’t. I’m alive. I can rebuild. I’m sure there’s someone worse off than me.”


Joe McComb:I went over to Port Aransas to take a tour and offer my help to the city manager, and I quickly realized we just got a brush compared with what they experienced. The city manager came out in flip-flops, shorts, and a Hawaiian shirt. I told him only in Port A would the head of emergency be wearing that. And he said, “Well, this is all I got. My house is gone.” That was a punch in the gut for me. Here is this guy being the head of an emergency operation and his own home is gone.


Bill Rogers:Once everybody got out and was moving around, everybody that stayed went around checking on each other, see if they needed any help, needed anything, needed a beer. It’s happened here before, so you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you go on. It’s the spirit of the people that share this place. There may be a lot of rich people here, but it was a fishing community, and there are a lot of working people here. We’re gonna be all right. We’ll be back, and I think it’ll be a lot quicker than people think.

The view from Roberts Point Park in Port Aransas.
Darren Braun

Wanda Wright: We’re just so grateful for the response from total strangers. I mean, guys have been up here driving trucks yesterday, and I’m out there with my gun in my pocket. I said, “Hi, y’all looking for somebody?” Because I’m real nice at first—he might be friendly. He says, “Ma’am, we’re from Beeville and we just loaded up every bit of water we could buy. Do you need some?” I said, “Really?” Every time I talk to these people, I start crying. Total strangers saw us on TV and bought all the water they could afford. We’re the only ones on the street that stayed. Idiots. Don’t put our names in there. [Laughs.] Next time there’s a hurricane, we’re going to be in Arkansas as soon as it hits Cozumel. We learned our lesson.


Bobby Sherwood:There have been a lot of tears. Everyone is distraught. When people heard about my house, they just started showing up with food and water. I have more stuff than a grocery store right now. My son Matt set up a barbecue grill and started feeding people who had not eaten in days. This is our town, and the people of Port Aransas are resilient. We care about each other, and we care about taking care of each other. Texans are tough. The people of Port A are tougher.


Claude Brown:It flooded all the houses that are close to the ground. It’s all slimy mud; a green booger can’t be any slimier than that stuff. It just coats everything in your house. It devastates the Sheetrock, devastates the wood. Everything’s just inundated with saltwater. I don’t know where to turn. My son is in the Navy, and he drove all the way down here to help me out. My son-in-law and my daughter’s here from Beeville. And bless ’em, they’ve helped me clean the house up. Everything I’ve worked my life for. I’m coming around the corner of sixty years old. I’m too far along to start over. I don’t think I have it in me. I’ve devoted a lot of my life to this town, and that’s why it hurts so bad.


James Canter: The outpouring from the community has been intense and amazing. This storm did not discriminate by color, race, age, class—you name it. I’ve seen everybody and anybody come through this door all in the same boat. And the one thing that remains consistent is a hot bowl of kimchi and chicken stew, a clean place to sit, a place to charge your phone, listen to some Willie Nelson, drink a cold drink. It puts a smile on and brought normalcy to a lot of people. We’re getting it done, man. We’re getting it done.


Dustin Johnson, 30, helicopter operator in Knox City, north of Abilene. [The Tuesday after the storm hit Houston], we saw on Facebook that Wharton [a town about halfway between Victoria and Houston] was asking for help. So we contacted them and I said, “I got three helicopters, you can count on us being there at daylight.” Our mission was to save livestock, so we picked up some locals and got a rap on what was going on and how bad it was. Two helicopters broke off to take care of people on rooftops. As soon as all the people were taken care of, we moved on to livestock. We would get next to them and from time to time have guys jump out of the helicopter and cut fences and open gates—we’re dealing with water five foot deep. We’d literally cut the fence—when I say cut, I mean swim to the fence with a pair of pliers. One guy probably swam, walked, and treaded water for two miles to get these cattle out. There were cattle stuck under bridges and caught in guardrails. I’ve no doubt half of them would have been dead if we hadn’t been there. We figure [we rescued] 2,500 head of cattle. We also rescued about 100 horses. Just get them to higher ground.

Scott Olson/Getty Images; Leif Reigstad


Veronica Batiste:[When I come back home to Houston,] I’m coming back to nothing. I live on the low floor. I don’t have insurance, so I have to start all over again. It sucks. People in my area [of the shelter] did a little group prayer last night. I asked my boyfriend and other friends to say some words. We try to keep each other lifted. There’s nothing we can do to change it, because that’s God’s will, and where there’s God’s will, there’s a way. So we gonna continue to pray.


Gretchen Smith:We’re staying with family. I’ll think to myself, “I know this is a short chapter in the life of our family. We’ll look back later and it’s not going to be so raw. When the house is all redone, and I have my new furniture, I’ll forget about the old stuff.” I try to think like that. But it’s like having panic attacks. What if we hadn’t gotten out? Somebody posted on Facebook jokingly about PTSD from rain. Hearing the rain here Monday night, it normally would have been, “Oh, nice, gentle rain.” But it made me want to vomit.


Andrew White:We’ve been back out in west Houston, doing rescue after rescue. I know in my boat alone, we’ve picked up close to a hundred people, twenty dogs, a bunch of cats, and one rabbit. We’ve picked up babies, children with special needs, a teenager with cerebral palsy, and an elderly woman who we found lying in her own feces, running out of oxygen. You would not believe the looks on their faces when we get there—the smiles and the gratitude, the sense of relief. But at the same time, you can see the fear in their faces about what is going to come next. Just about everyone we helped lost everything.


Dustin Johnson:Friday, we moved doctors from downtown Houston to Beaumont and swept neighborhoods in Beaumont. Neighborhood searches. And more cattle, before coming home. It was a life-changing experience.


Herby Etie:After Monday, all the water went away, and now we try to figure out what to do. I didn’t have flood insurance, or didn’t think I did. We’re trying to get ahold of FEMA. Do I need to start ripping things out? My house is turning into a lot of mold. I got kids here. I’ve been on the phone with everybody. Do I spray this with ammonia or bleach? We just got one big mess down here. Hopefully, some way, God will help us straighten it out.


Mary Degarmo:It was a long bouncy ride to Lake Charles, and I was so happy to be there, thinking we’re not that far from Vidor. We were at the Burton Coliseum, but there were only eighteen cots. It was a transition station. They told me we were going to Shreveport, to what they called a mega shelter. I said, “Oh my God, no, I can’t get that far away [from Vidor].” I called my son in Nederland. He said, “Gimme thirty minutes.” He couldn’t get to us in Vidor, but he was able to get to us in Lake Charles. He picked us up. I still can’t get back home, but we have a neighborhood watch, and there are people swimming in and out of there. It’s so crazy. We all want back in so bad. You could boat in, but you don’t have running water, you don’t have electricity. Do you do that?

Debris removed from a Houston house, photographed on September 2. Removal of water-damaged material in Houston will cost an estimated $200 to $300 million.
Bryan Thomas/The New York Times

Raynardo Battle:I hear Beaumont is flooded, the whole town under water. I don’t know what’s happened to our house. I can’t get any of my neighbors on the phone. But at least we got out. We’re dry and in a shelter. We’ve got food and we’ve got cots. I want to go back to Beaumont, if my home is still there. If not, we wait and start all over, like everyone else.


Sylvester Turner: The shelter population is way down. The airport system is back up. The transportation is running. It’s going to be $200 to $300 million for debris removal in the city of Houston alone. It’ll be costly. But the spirit of the city is high. I can’t think of too many cities that would manage to move forward at the level that the city of Houston has. Harvey didn’t defeat us. It just made us stronger.


Tom Johnstone:Harvey, ironically, made its way north to the very place where I first heard about it, getting to Nashville and dumping even more rain, four to six inches. It’s still mind-blowing to me that one storm could produce so much rain for nearly a week. Obviously, an enormous amount of research is going to come out of Harvey. Scientifically, we will be able to better understand these kinds of storms. But emotionally, who knows how long the toll will last? My employees are, like so many other people, experiencing a kind of post-traumatic shock. They work all day, tracking the storm, and then they go home to try to clean up their own homes that have been damaged. And there’s no time to rest. We are staring at our computer screens, looking at storms across the Atlantic—looking for the next one that might come our way. 

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

With reporting by Eric Benson, David Courtney, Wes Ferguson, Lauren Smith Ford, Michael Hall, Michael Hardy, Claire Hogan, Skip Hollandsworth, John Nova Lomax, J.K. Nickell, Doyin Oyeniyi, R.G. Ratcliffe, Leif Reigstad, Sonia Smith, Dan Solomon, Mimi Swartz, and Katy Vine. This story was compiled by Dave Mann and Jeff Salamon.

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of TEXAS MONTHLY. Subscribe today.

Maps by Haisam Hussein.
Opening images: Coast: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images; Car: Andrew Burton/The New York Times; House: Reuters/Adrees Latif; Woman with poodle: Reuters/Adress Latif; Flooded house: Alex Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Man with woman in arms: Reuters/Carlo Allegri; woman in flooded house: Reuters/Rick Wilking.

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