Lending a helping hand during Hurricane Harvey

When Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas at the end of August, there was no doubt the impact would affect the area and its residents for years to come. What I didn’t expect, was how much the experience also would affect me. 

My family and I had retreated for a four-day weekend with my god parents at their log cabin 10,000 feet above sea level in Colorado. Although we’d determined to get away from all electronics while we were there, we couldn’t help peeking in the evenings to see how our friends down south were doing as the hurricane and the water arrived. I told myself there were plenty of folks to go help and that everybody probably would be just fine. In my mind, I judged those who were stuck for fools (some of whom were even close family and friends), because during the four years that my wife Jenni and I lived in Houston, we drove north long before a hurricane got near.   

By Sunday afternoon, two of my friends were calling for help (mainly to help others who lived around them).  My next words to my wife were, "Jenz, I think when we land at DFW, it will probably be best if I drop you and the kids, load the boat, and head south,” as things were deteriorating faster than we first thought.

About that time, my bowfishing buddy and local contractor Bob Peters called to ask if I was going. He said he had a new project and the first day on that job was scheduled for the next day. I replied, "Bob, I just canceled two days of patients. It wasn't cheap nor easy.”  He called me back minutes later and said he and another friend were going to join the rescue effort with their boat. While he went and had magnetic “Rescue Boat” signs made for our trucks, another pair of good friends, Matt Spivey and Kyle Carrigan, headed to my house to ready my boat.

After returning from Colorado to a dry home and safe family, there was no question about my going to help, only how fast I could get there. I hooked up my boat, Leakin’ Billy III (which is actually more sea-worthy than the name suggests), loaded up my truck and headed south with another buddy named Josh Wallen, who I was blessed to have join me on my boat.  

When we arrived in Kingswood, we found a What-a-Burger and H-E-B underwater, along with thousands of completely submerged vehicles, and crazy currents that ripped in between houses and businesses. I expected a certain measure of chaos. I expected fear and desperation. We found some of all of that when we got to Kingswood and the surrounding areas. What I didn’t expect was the humor, hope and heartwarming acts of humanity that ended up making the experience as much if not more of a blessing to me than it was for anyone I helped.  

Our group from Corsicana spent 36 hours in Kingswood and Spring. During that time, we spent about seven hours a day just wet. We’d go into the water and back in the boat, rescuing people from flooded homes, apartments and nursing homes, taking them and their few trash sacks of belongings to higher ground sometimes miles away all while unrelenting rain came down and the water around us came up.

Along the way, we battled insanely strong currents and saw more than one boat capsize. We learned that the local, state and federal authorities on the ground didn’t have any more information than anyone else. Everyone wanted to help, but no one knew where to go. We started following the red helicopter we saw as it tended to hover over areas where the flight crew saw people in need of rescue from the air. The news helicopters flying around were horrible, spraying water in our faces to where we could not see to rescue. Initially, we had to bypass people who had access to a second floor in order to quickly get to those who didn’t. Once we got to people, we struggled to keep our boat balanced and keep passengers still as we worked to carefully make our way back to drop-off points carrying more weight than we ever had before. And then we went back and did it all again, and again. 

There was devastation. There was frustration and there was anxiety. But what I saw was gratefulness, kindness and Texas-sized resilience.  When we came across a three-story assisted living facility that no one had been to yet, our group stopped to help. Some of the residents were quietly gathered on the second-floor landing at the top of a flight of flooded stairs waiting patiently when we arrived. After making several trips to bring people down to my boat, I headed up again and picked up a 95-year-old lady who must have weighed less than 95 pounds. As I gathered her up, she draped an arm around my neck, gave me her best smile and said, “Does this mean we are going to dance?” To which I replied, “Well, of course. What’s your preference?” Without missing a beat she said, “I jitterbug!” 

The last four steps were completely underwater and I remember shuffling my feet as I waded through the main room and out the big front doors so as to not trip and dunk my new dance partner. Still waist-deep in water, we headed down the covered entrance to my boat. She looked at the sheets of rain coming down, likely thinking of her friends still upstairs in need of help, and she leaned back to look at me and smiled. “You think I might could get a RAINCHECK on that dance,” she asked. Ninety-five and she had lost everything except her humor and wit, and she shared every bit of that with me that day. 

There were lots of grateful smiles, heart-felt appreciation and shared laughs from those we helped. And there were lines of volunteers from all across the country wading in beside us. Loads of food, supplies, water, blankets, clothes, animal feed and more poured in almost as fast as the rain. It was amazing to see how quickly and readily strangers became neighbors just lending a hand wherever they could. 

The rain finally stopped, and in Kingswood and the surrounding areas, the water began to recede. Rescuers headed east to Vidor and into Louisiana. We loaded up and headed home with a new appreciation for our families and warm, dry homes. Behind my truck was good, old Leakin’ Billy III, looking quite a bit worse for wear. In the process of rescuing folks, my poor fan boat’s propeller chopped up anything that happened to be under the water – cars, street signs, and who knows what else. 

A mangled propeller is expensive to replace and made the boat useless, but I felt guilty even thinking about that when I knew it happened while I was using it to help people who had lost everything they owned. Over the years, I have constantly reminded myself that God blesses us when we’re faithful. But sometimes, I still ask myself, “Well, who is going to fix it though?”  That thought was still in the back of my mind when I finally asked about the Amazon box from UPS that had been sitting in my entryway for more than a week. I figured it was for my wife. She thought it was mine. Finally, she told me to open it.

What I found inside was not just a brand-new propeller sent anonymously by kind friends Michael and Kristina Kraatz, it was one more example of God’s faithfulness and how he uses people to bless and meet the needs of others in truly amazing ways. 

Dr. Justin Wright is a general dentist in Corsicana with an affinity for implant dentistry and bow fishing. When he’s not regaling his patients of his outdoor exploits, he’s spending time with his wife Jenni and their two young sons, Cooper and Cy. To learn more about his practice or how he and his team can help you or your family keep your smiles healthy, call 903-225-2330 or visit www.justwrightdental.com.