Monday was supposed to be the first day back at school. Instead the Magee daughters boarded a boat with their parents and floated down a Texas Interstate to rescue friends from dangerously rising flood water.
“Ain’t nothing different than us going out on the river,” mused Alissa Magee, 34, as she and husband Mike, 37, ferried Carol Brown and her four children to higher ground in Hamshire, Texas.
“I ain’t never seen anything like this,” said Mike, a construction worker, after plying the I-10 highway in his boat under thick clouds and torrential rain from monster storm Harvey.
In this stretch of Texas, ordinarily just over an hour’s drive east of Houston, the small, close-knit farming community came together Monday as Harvey wrought devastation, sending families fleeing for shelter.
Almost a year’s rain fell in days, ravaging rice farms, sinking cars and forcing evacuees to wade to safety, as volunteers joined thinly stretched emergency workers to help where they could.
The Magees sped past an elderly man wading up to his waist, abandoned cars submerged to their rooftops, trash cans bobbing on top of floodwaters and mail boxes proving an outline of sorts of the sunken road.
“Their home is drowning,” said four-year-old daughter Macee as Carol’s mother’s home slowly came into view between tree branches and murky waters, where some spoke of seeing wads of floating toilet paper.
– ‘We’ll lose it all’ –
Everybody with a boat, or a canoe who hasn’t left already was on their way out. “We were supposed to be there three hours ago,” explained Alissa, only other people needed their help on the way.
When Mike jumped out to steer the boat through shallower stretches on the hard shoulder, jokes about snakes and alligators lurking beneath were quickly laughed off.
“It was just crazy,” said Carol’s son Gabriel Fulenchek, 12, of the speed at which the floodwaters rose from just covering the ground last night. “What the crap happened to my house.”
“Everything’s pretty much gone,” said his step grandfather James Sargent, 71, standing on his flooded wooden porch, his ankles sloshing in the water as chickens run around at his feet.
“Put the life jacket on the chicken, we’ll take it too!” cried Alissa.
Sargent and wife Lorena moved from Oklahoma 11 years ago and were four years from paying off the mortgage on the three-bedroom $46,000 property when Harvey struck.
“Before it’s over, we’ll lose it all,” said Sargent. “It’s within a half inch of coming within the house and they say it’s going to keep rising, so I imagine it’s going to be in the house before morning.”
He never imagined it would be this bad.
“It’s almost five feet deep,” he said of the flood waters. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing much farming with it now.”
– ‘God’ll take care of us’ –
He and Lorena grew flowers and vegetables, and kept chickens. Until last year they were covered, then Sargent says the company abruptly cancelled flood insurance.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do. The main thing is that we’re alright, our family’s alright and God’ll take care of us. One way or another it’ll all work out for the best.”
Ron Nichols, the emergency medical services coordinator in nearby Winnie and Stowell, said his staff were using everything they could — from boats to a tractor fitted with a flat bed borrowed from a farmer — to rescue people.
While Houston — the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States — drowned under devastating floods and soaked up the media focus, Nichols said it was also tough for small communities to cope.
“We’re pretty much almost like on an island because we don’t have any resources that can get in right now,” he said.
From Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, his staff responded to 31 emergency calls and plucked 101 people from their homes — nearly half their monthly average of 77 calls.
By the time the Magees delivered Carol to the dry warmth of a friend’s car, torrential rain had soaked everyone to the core. The couple bundled their children into the car, and set back out to rescue the Sargents.