Riding With A Rescue Mission In The Harvey's Perilous Texas Floods Nearly a week since Harvey struck Houston, many people remain stranded by high water in their neighborhoods. NPR rode along on a citizen water-borne rescue operation.
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Riding With A Rescue Mission In The Surreal, Perilous Texas Floods

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Riding With A Rescue Mission In The Surreal, Perilous Texas Floods

Riding With A Rescue Mission In The Surreal, Perilous Texas Floods

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Six days after Hurricane Harvey first crossed the Texas coast, Houston is still in rescue mode with people stranded in houses and apartments. NPR's John Burnett rode along on a citizen-led rescue and sent us this story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Rene Galvan is worried. In a soaked blue hoodie, he sits anxiously in the bow of an aluminum boat, wondering how they're going to get to 14 members of his extended family who've been stranded by rising water.

RENE GALVAN: Oh, I'm trying to get my family out here, save them. They could help me bring my family back home.

BURNETT: OK, where's your family?

R. GALVAN: About five minutes away from here.

BURNETT: That's five minutes away by car. It will take considerably longer to reach the Galvan family in this boat and another one. They have to make their way through an obstacle course of underwater trees and concrete barriers, treacherous currents and submerged tractor trailers. After 2 to 3 feet of rain over five days, Greens Bayou has swollen into a lake that covers a large section of northeast Houston.

TED MIDDLETON: Had some free time, so - had a boat in the garage - seemed like a good match, you know? Come out, and try and extract some people.

BURNETT: Ted Middleton drove over from San Antonio, towing his V-hull 40-horsepower bay boat.

MIDDLETON: We got in late last night, and they suspended operations after dark. So we waited till daylight. We've just been riding around, trying to find an extraction. Finally this one came along.

BURNETT: He's joined by two soldiers in soaked uniforms who asked for a leave from their unit at Fort Hood to come down to Houston. They are Specialist Andrea Viela and Specialist Katie Cash, who speaks here.

KATIE CASH: She has family down here. So we came out initially to try to get them out. But then we met Ted, and we've been trying to save as many people as we can now.

BURNETT: The two skiffs motor through a dream sequence of surreal sights in this watery landscape. A big, black horse wanders along the shoulder of a highway bridge, confused and wet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, look at the horsey.

BURNETT: A fleshy man with a tattooed torso stands impassively in water up to his chest as though this is all normal and politely waves off an offer to climb in the boat. A short distance away, a couple hip-deep in water is towing an air mattress carrying two shivering Chihuahua dogs. Meanwhile, Rene Galvan has reached one of his brothers on his cellphone.

R. GALVAN: No, stay right there. We're going - we're trying to see if we could drive the boat over there.

BURNETT: We're cruising alongside a road whose name is - and I'm not making this up - Lake Houston Parkway. But the pavement is getting so close we can see yellow lane markers. Our captain is concerned.

MIDDLETON: We're running out of water here.

BURNETT: Both volunteers tie off their vessels. Rene Galvan hops out and sloshes toward a dry street intersection a couple hundred yards away. About 20 minutes later, a white expedition drives down the center of Lake Houston Parkway towards us, creating a wake in 2 feet of water. It's the Galvan clan. They're packed into the vehicle, six adults and eight kids all grinning ear to ear. This is brother Jaime Galvan.

JAIME GALVAN: We were at the apartment. I mean it wasn't flooded. The lights went out, so we were - I mean we had to move.

BURNETT: The family saw the water was not going down. The power was not coming back on, and they were about to run out of food. So they called Rene and asked him to find a way to get them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Dad, you ready?

BURNETT: The boatmen decide they'll have to make two trips for all the Galvans, the rescuers and two journalists. Only 1 of the 2 soldiers will ride in the first boat shuttle. How do Katie and Andrea decide who gets to go and who gets to stay?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Rock, paper, scissors, shoot.

BURNETT: Rock, paper, scissors, of course.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Two out of three.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Rock, paper, scissors, shoot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Unintelligible).

BURNETT: On the way back to the highway ramp, I ride in the second boat. It's piloted by Troy King from the East Texas town of Carthage. He works at a lumber factory making plywood, and he fishes for crappie in this flat-bottom boat. He says he saw the Houston floods on the news, and it moved him.

TROY KING: I'll tell you something that I read in the Bible. There's a passage in first John. It says - I'm going to paraphrase - if a man has the resources to take care of people and to help people when they're in need and he doesn't do it, then it's - is wrong. And that's something that's just been on my heart when I read that. I knew I had the ability to do it. And I came down here.

BURNETT: You cannot overstate the danger of this epic flood. Earlier Wednesday, a sheriff's spokesman reported that divers have recovered a family of six, including four children, who drowned in a van that tried to drive through this same body of water, Greens Bayou. Troy King, dressed in camouflage hip waders, squints at a section of churning floodwaters flowing through a tangle of trees off to our left.

KING: You don't realize how close to death you are right there.

BURNETT: The Galvan children, some as young as 8, are shivering in their life preservers. But they're clearly having the adventure of their lives. They hold hands and high-step in shallow water on a freeway bridge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOSHING WATER)

BURNETT: And then nearly three hours after we started, it's over. The boats nose up to the concrete ramp.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Thanks so much.

BURNETT: You're welcome. You're welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: We really appreciate it. Thank you, guys.

BURNETT: The Galvans pile into two waiting pickup trucks with the kids sitting in back in the drizzling rain and drive to their grandmother's house. There they have hot showers. Eat some tomato soup. And all take naps. John Burnett, NPR News, Houston.

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