Water started sneaking through the side of Sharlene Hearne’s home in Dickinson, Texas, shortly after midnight on Sunday. The flood reached three feet by about 3 a.m., spilling in from the Dickinson Bayou behind her property. Hearne and her fiancé began moving valuables to the highest shelves, the water loosening the wooden floorboards so they popped up and banged her shins as she trod through the muck. Meanwhile, the water kept rising. It was getting so high that it licked at her nightstands until it finally tipped one over, taking a big white lamp, still plugged in and lit, down with it. “We looked at each other and we thought, ‘Okay, we’re still standing and we’re alive,’” Hearne said. “God and angels were looking out for us. And we just — we just made it out of there.”
Dickinson lies about 30 miles southeast of Houston and is one of the hardest-hit areas in Harvey’s wake. Dozens of residents were rescued by helicopter and boat from washed-out homes. Hearne and her fiancé and their two cats escaped their house Sunday morning in their Chevy Suburban, but she said the streets were impassable, and they only made it as far as the gas station down the road. They waited there, stocking up on bottled water from the convenience store, until the floodwaters started creeping past the doorway. The store closed and the couple was left stranded there by the floodwaters. “We’re just waiting and waiting,” Hearne said. They spent nearly 24 hours hunkered down at the gas station, until her daughter’s boyfriend found a roundabout route with passable roads and retrieved them, leading Hearne and her family back to her daughter’s apartment in Kingwood, Texas.
“I’ve seen total devastation in Dickinson,” John Dunaway, a 32-year-old captain in the merchant marine from Seabrook, Texas, told Daily Intelligencer. Dunaway had been out for three days, assisting with and documenting rescue efforts. He texted from the truck he was riding in, unable to talk. “It’s beyond comprehension,” he said of Dickinson, and beyond. “To happen in one area is a mess, but to encompass all of Houston and its outlying areas is an absolute tragedy.”
The scale of the disaster in Texas is already staggering. Hurricane Harvey smashed into the Texas coast Friday as a Category 4 storm. It weakened quickly to a tropical storm, but lingered in the southeastern part of the state for days and drenched some areas with more than (a record-shattering) 50 inches of rain. Overflow from rivers and bayous have deluged low-lying areas, and reservoirs near Houston have been overwhelmed, forcing officials to do controlled releases so the dams don’t burst. More than 30 people have died so far, a number expected to rise as authorities go door-to-door and discover who was left behind, or who got swept away.
Diamanda Castro, 24, said the emergency in Kingwood, Texas, in northeast Houston, also began on Sunday. She and her family got a notice from FEMA that water was rising a foot every hour, and the agency warned that power would be out for an unknown amount of time. Castro, her mom, and her brother contemplated leaving. “[We] decided it was best that we did,” she explained over text, because her phone service kept cutting in and out. “It took two boat rides, a ride in the back of a dump truck until we reached dry land.”
The people who rescued Castro and her family were volunteers, some of whom lived just a few miles down the road and stuck around with their boats to help. “In pouring rain, many families with children and pets packed up and made the same exit we did,” she said.
Castro, her mom, and her brother are now safe at her uncle’s house. Last she heard, the floodwaters had risen as high as nine feet near her Kingwood home.
And those citizen-volunteers who assisted Castro have blanketed the Houston area, pulling people to safety. Dunaway, the merchant marine captain, observed that uniformed authorities have just been overwhelmed by the need. He said, for example, that on the first day of flooding in Dickinson rescuers seemed almost split between officials and volunteers. “But once the rest of Houston began all going under,” he said, “they were just stretched too thin.”
Dunaway spent Tuesday morning helping to clear three neighborhoods in Baytown — which got hammered with 51.88 inches of rain. On one road, he photographed cars lined up along the shoulder, all belonging to volunteers getting ready to launch their boats. “The scale of citizens putting themselves out there surpasses all imagination. It has truly been an all-out effort from people near and far,” he wrote. “Without them, the loss of life would already be mounting.”
State and local agencies say at least 13,000 have been rescued so far, even as evacuations continue in Houston’s inundated neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs. About 17,000 are already displaced, and at least 30,000 people are expected to seek shelter by week’s end.
The George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston has been turned into temporary housing, and has taken in nearly double its normal capacity, at more than 9,000. Kristie Barnett, a CrossFit trainer in Houston, went to volunteer, hosting a mini CrossFit class for the young kids cooped up in the shelter. She said besides her small efforts, donations for food and clothing and blankets had been pouring in. “It’s incredible,” Barnett said. “There’s a line outside the convention center and people are waiting in that line very patiently to volunteer.”
Houston will get a reprieve from the rain on Wednesday, as a weaker Tropical Storm Harvey has moved and made a second landfall near Cameron, Louisiana — where it’s still expected to dump up to a foot more of rain on south and west Louisiana and eastern Texas. But the floodwaters are unlikely to retreat quickly, and when they do, left behind will be the full scope of the destruction.
Hearne’s refuge in Kingwood only lasted until Tuesday morning. At 6 a.m., she awoke to find water kissing the bumper of her Suburban in the complex’s parking lot. Her family moved their vehicles to higher ground, and returned to the apartment, but the rain just kept coming and it started flooding. “We had to get out of there because it wouldn’t stop,” Hearne said of the floodwaters. “By the time we were getting out of there it was, I would say, two and a half to three feet on my legs just wading from the apartment to the truck.” Hearne escaped, this time with three other adults and five cats, to her son’s house in Houston’s the Woodlands district.
There, with electricity and some sandwiches, she started grappling with what was lost in her Dickinson home. Hearne started a GoFundMe page to raise money for repairs — she and her fiancé had just spent thousands fixing up the place. But the fundraising site turned into something of a diary, where she posted photos and wrote down memories of the house, built by her grandfather and in her family for three generations. A place they called the Lodge that looked out on the bayou, until the bayou came through the walls. “It’s surreal,” she said, about the flood. “You’re seeing it. It’s reality, but it’s just so hard to comprehend, to register in your brain.”
“I’m just —” she said, and paused. “It’s just crazy.”