Beaumont slow to progress as help pours in faster than water recedes
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 4, 2017
BEAUMONT, Texas — In some parts of Texas, the one-week mark after Hurricane Harvey saw people return to their homes to assess the damage. In other parts, they were emptying debris — “muck outs” as one group called them. Some even started the process of rebuilding.
But here in Beaumont, where water levels were lapping at rooflines in the worst-hit neighborhoods, rescue crews were still out on boats, searching for trapped people or pets in the flooded buildings.
“The waters are receding and drying up in Houston and Harris County, but remember there are so many other parts of Texas that are impacted by this, such as the Beaumont region and some other regions near the Brazos River,” Gov. Greg Abbott told CNN on Sunday.
“We are still doing search and rescue missions as waters have not receded — not even come close to receding,” he said. “So we are still in phase one responding to the emergency.”
In Beaumont on Saturday, volunteers from the veterans organization Team Rubicon spread out on boats to search one of the worst-hit neighborhoods.
The rescuers came from all over. Most were veterans, bringing their penchant for serving and their military skills to the disaster zone. Some were police officers or firefighters, or people simply drawn to the mission. One thing they all had in common: They were here to help.
“We are great at being dirty and we are good at being miserable — just like in the military,” said former Marine Breaux Burns, an Iraq war veteran and now a firefighter paramedic in Durango, Colo. “We all hope that if it’s our community someone would do this for us.”
The work is rewarding, said Irene Mason of Waveland, Miss., who was an enlisted Marine before she commissioned as an Army officer and who is now a merchant mariner.
“We get so much more out of this than we give,” she said. Victims of disasters “are going to be in pain no matter what. At least if we are here, we can make their life a little bit easier.”
Along Tram Road on Saturday, the water got deep fast. Within seconds, it was easy to mistake this suburban neighborhood for a river.
The volunteers acknowledged that the chances after so long of finding someone in need of rescue — even a pet — were growing slim. But transitioning to the relief phase wasn’t possible in this area.
“Usually within 24 to 48 hours, we are able to get into neighborhoods and identify what the needs are,” said Jenna Brandolini, an ICU nurse from Philadelphia. “But now, nobody can do anything until the water goes down. So everybody’s in a waiting period.”
Brandolini has worked on several international disasters with Team Rubicon. She’s never seen the water stay in place for such a long time.
“It’s hard to picture this as a roadway,” she said. “It’s only when you get in and you see the homes and the rooftops — that’s when you realize this is not a river. It’s somewhere you are supposed to drive in with your car, not your boat.”
The volunteers had gathered that morning at the parking lot of Ritter Lumber, where the county set up an emergency operations center, to receive the day’s tasking.
Bob Obernier, commander of the Team Rubicon group in Beaumont and director of implement and support for Team Rubicon Global, explained the mission: going house to house, searching for any trapped survivors. He told people to take it slow and steady — there had been some pretty strong currents the day before.
“You know the drill, folks,” said Obernier, who served in the Navy and is a former Florida firefighter with expertise in incident command. “This is no longer an emergency.”
Before they could even pull out of the gate though, a woman showed up in distress. She needed to get to her home to collect medication for her mother.
The commander assigned a team to help her.
Van Ngo lives in the Hidden Valley neighborhood, where flooding was several feet deep. The crew of a small boat navigated their way to her house using GPS and Google Maps.
The tiny woman said she’d lost her husband five years ago. Her aging parents had moved in with her. Now, with no children, she realized that the entire cleanup was going to fall on her, she said.
“Look for Team Rubicon,” volunteer Megan McKee told her. “They will be here for the cleanup. Probably for months.”
As they turned through the neighborhood, the water level dropped somewhat so it was less than calf deep on Ngo’s lawn.
Volunteer Stephen Reid, a former New York City police officer, picked her up and carried her to the house. Inside, the floor was sloshing, but most of the water had receded. The walls were adorned with wedding pictures of Ngo and her husband. The water had not reached that high.
Reid helped Ngo collect the medicine, some clothes from the closet and some packaged foods. Then, he carried her back to the boat.
When they dropped her back at her car on dry road, Ngo gave Reid a giant hug. “You are my hero,” she said. “It makes me feel better that I am not alone.”
She teared up and walked away. Reid turned to the people beside him and made a joke about dropping his sunglasses in the muck before he said, “That was good.”
“That was good,” he repeated.
The team then went into the neighborhood along Tram Road, by the Pine Island bayou, which, along with the adjacent bayou, had overflowed into neighborhoods stretching west from Beaumont across several cities north of Highway 105.
For this flood, Tram Road was ground zero, with one of the deepest points on Saturday reaching 11 feet.
The water level was down, the volunteers said. But not enough.
The boat crew for this ride was three Texans: Brian Brown of Austin; Megan McKee, a former Navy search and rescue swimmer from Fort Worth; and Anthony DiToma, a loan officer from Plano, who was moved to join Team Rubicon by his father, an Army Veteran and a volunteer with the organization.
“I always wanted something more meaningful than writing a check,” said DiToma.
McKee learned about Team Rubicon when they came to her town, Moore, Okla., where her family lost their home in a monstrous 1999 tornado. “I just want to return the favor,” she said.
With Brown driving, McKee and DiToma sat at the front of the boat in waders, jumping out to pull when the water was shallow, and jumping onto the rooftops to pound in case someone was there to respond. They’d wait a few seconds, then mark the house searched with spray paint.
Along the waterway, they ran into other boats: teammates, local residents, other volunteers and Texas National Guard – the 551st Multi-Role Bridge Company from El Campo, Texas, who slept the night before in a Lowes parking lot in Beaumont.
The team worked for hours, riding up and down waterways to pound on rooftops. McKee said the team had rescued 33 dogs and five cats — many on Friday when they were tasked to work with animal control. After the storm, many people reported leaving their pets behind.
Most rewarding was a cat rescue by another Team Rubicon boat. The cat that had been seeking shelter under the cap of a chimney and, startled by the rescuers, either jumped or fell into the chimney.
“At first we didn’t hear anything and we were like, ‘Oh, it can get itself out,’’ said volunteer Marc Hurwitz. “Jonah (Thompson) and I turned around, and the next thing we know there’s this horrible splash and then this meowing.”
The cat was clinging to the inside of the flooded chimney. They threw down a rope, looped it under the cat’s arms and pulled it up. She was a little feisty at first, Hurwitz said, showing the scratch marks on his neck and shoulders. But she calmed down. Then, just as they were pulling out with the cat, a person came up in a boat and said that was their mother’s house. The cat had just had kittens and the owner was able to get the kittens out when she evacuated, but she couldn’t find the cat.
“It’s very rare to reunite an animal with their owner,” Hurwitz said. “That was kind of our little pick-me-up.”
With no rescues on Saturday, Team Rubicon started getting ready to transition. Most of the team would head to Dallas to get gear for the next stage — the “muck out.” Obernier said the organization will send 30 more volunteers with equipment to tear soggy walls, floors and fixtures down to the studs so houses can be rebuilt without mold.
The organization targets those with fewer resources, who have no insurance and don’t know how they are going to rebuild. Their work can save people a lot of money, he said.
“It is a lot of work but that’s why we are here,” said Terry Harvey, a retired captain with the LA Fire Department who now works as manager of Team Rubicon’s instructors. “Serving communities in need also serves ourselves. That’s kind of what we do. It’s a life of purpose.”
Team Rubicon volunteer Stephen Reid carries Van Ngo back to the boat from her flooded home in Beaumont, Texas after he and his team helped her retrieve medication and clothing items on Sept. 2, 2017. The non-profit veterans organization utilizes veterans skills to respond to disasters.
DIANNA CAHN/STARS AND STRIPES