Boaters trying to understand the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey might start with this fact: The storm dropped so much rain that the National Weather Service had to update the colors in its weather graphics. Before, its rain scale topped out at 15 inches. Now, with two extra colors of dark purple, it hits 30. All of that water turned the streets in Houston and southeast Texas into rivers—some of them raging, with the National Weather Service calling the storm “beyond anything experienced.” The sheriff in Galveston County told Newsweek, “We were using the freeway as a boat ramp.” Three days after Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 storm, the Coast Guard had rescued more than 3,000 people and was receiving more than 1,000 calls per hour, ABC News reported.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott went on CNN to say that rescue operations in asphalt-covered cities had become waterborne, with residents climbing to their attics and roofs to escape the rising tide and wave down boaters in the streets. “We need more people in these boats,” the governor said. “This is a door-by-door process.”
Everyday boaters heard the call—and launched to save countless lives alongside emergency responders and the National Guard.
Boaters grabbed their kayaks, aluminum skiffs, canoes, airboats, outboard-powered center consoles and more, cruising past street signs and powerless traffic lights to collect not only friends and neighbors, but also strangers and pets too. Social media lit up with simple posts that said so much, like this one from Texas native Diane Alston: “People came with boats, supplies. People giving rides.”
Average guys with a ski boat who might normally be at a local ramp on a Saturday morning instead prepped for launch from a street beneath an overpass, where a news camera spotted them. When asked what they planned to do, one boater said, “go try to save some lives.”
An oilfield tool salesman who usually fishes his 23-footer on the Gulf of Mexico, chasing speckled trout and redfish, pulled 10 to 15 people at a time out of the floodwaters, according to NPR. “We rescued 53 people into the night,” boater Ray Ortega told the news agency.
A Texas A&M student told Soundings Trade Only that, “We were actually launching boats off on I-45 on an overpass,” adding that he alone estimated 200 to 250 people had climbed into his boat seeking help.
Louisiana’s Cajun Navy—born in the floodwaters of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina—showed up in Texas with a flotilla of about 20 boats, organizing its efforts on Facebook and a walkie-talkie app called Zello. “Our goal is to help people get out if they are trapped in their homes or apartments, get them to safety,” one of the boaters said.
As official 911 and 311 emergency channels became overloaded, social media became a makeshift VHF channel 16, with people posting their locations on rooftops and everyday “dispatchers” coordinating the arrival of volunteer boaters. A website called Houston Harvey Rescue popped up as a sort of Uber version of boating rescues, letting people with boats register right alongside people who needed help, so they could geographically find each other. Even as rain continued to pummel the region, thousands of rescues had been logged on the site’s map.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency calls this type of effort a “whole community response,” one that presumes people will help other people, instead of all of them being categorized as victims.
Even commercial interests are pitching in. Bass Pro Shops is donating more than 80 Tracker boats to help with rescue efforts, while Walmart bought 2,000 kayaks from KL Outdoor, which is paying to ship them from Michigan to Texas.
“I think you’re seeing the best in our country when we have these situations like what’s occurring now in Texas,” KL Outdoor’s CEO, Chuck Smith, told WOOD TV. “It lets you know that if you ever got put in that situation, the other folks around the country would step up and help you.”
Editor's Note: The boats.com team would like to encourage our readers to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey by visiting the Red Cross, or by calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting the word HARVEY to 90999 to make a donation. All donations will aid in relief efforts as the Red Cross works to help people recover from this disaster. If you're interested in lending a hand at relief shelters, or assisting in the distribution of food, water, clean-up items and additional supplies, you can register online as a volunteer.