Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to describe U.S. Coast Guard veteran Israel Lopez’s duty in the Coast Guard. He was an aviation mission specialist or flight medic.
As south Texas recovers from the devastation last month from Hurricane Harvey, several lower Kenai Peninsula men have started relief efforts in the Houston area. Former Anchor Point resident Chase McKinney, now living in Sugar Land, Texas, this week shifted his work from rescuing people stranded in flooded areas of Houston to getting supplies to people in shelters.
Another area volunteer, Lucas Wilcox of Homer, arrived last week in Texas and through his humanitarian nonprofit, Altruist Relief, has started feeding people in the poorest, least served areas of Houston.
McKinney, the son of Anchor Point residents Angela and David McKinney and a 2003 Homer High School graduate, got involved in the hurricane disaster response on Aug. 28 when the Houston area started flooding. Stalled over south Texas from Aug. 26-30, Harvey dumped up to 50 inches of rain. McKinney’s subdivision escaped flooding. When he saw how surrounding areas had been flooded, McKinney said he told a friend, “Somebody up in Heaven is looking out for me. I’m going to grab my boat and go out.”
McKinney got together with a friend, Israel Lopez, a former U.S. Coast Guard flight medic. He and Lopez belong to a hunting and fishing group, MadMen Xtreme, that helps people develop outdoor skills. It took almost four hours to drive to their storage facility and get their 15-foot bass boat.
“There was so much standing water in Houston, it’s like a maze,” McKinney said in a phone interview on Saturday. “I was four-by’ing it over medians. We were going the wrong direction on the opposite side of the highway.”
Boating through flooded neighborhoods, McKinney and Lopez started rescuing people from homes. McKinney said he saw about 30 to 35 boats in the area, with hardly any police or official presence. Some people had kayaks, canoes and flat-bottom boats. Rescuers waded through the brown, muddy water pulling the boats.
“The civilian response in this area — it’s been incredible to fathom,” McKinney said. “It’s an amazing thing to see, people coming together.”
Most wealthy or able-bodied people had been able to evacuate earlier, McKinney said.
“We were pulling out sick people, young people and kids, disabled people, elderly,” he said. “We were pulling out people who couldn’t get out or they were going to die.”
Most people had no more than backpacks or plastic bags with a few possessions, McKinney said.
“We would pull up to their house, we’d tell them, if you can’t pack it in 5 minutes, leave it,” he said.
Once in the boat, they would take the survivors to higher ground and a staging area, where buses took them to shelters. Other than boats, McKinney said he saw a lot of big trucks. The Houston Texans football team sent their bus.
Videos shot by a GoPro camera McKinney carried with him showed the range of backgrounds of people being rescued: white, black, Asian, Muslim and Hispanic.
“It didn’t matter what background you came from. We were just saving people. They were getting in our boat,” McKinney said.
McKinney said the only things that scared him were downed powerlines and alligators. One day he saw a dead alligator that had died of blunt-force injuries. That impressed him with the power of the hurricane.
“I knew it was going to be pretty bad if an alligator can’t survive,” he said.
He also saw several live alligators — one in a front yard, another swimming and a third sitting on the roof of a car.
“Jumping into muddy, murky water you can’t see in — jumping into that kind of water, it’s scary,” McKinney said. “If you step on the head of an alligator, he’s going to eat you.”
He and Lopez worked three days rescuing people, from Aug. 28-30. Last Wednesday they went to Port Arthur to help. The first day they rescued about 80, the next about 45 and on the third day about 20. By Wednesday the official response had powered up, and Coast Guard and other teams worked to rescue the most serious cases or people who needed to be medevaced.
McKinney said that he mostly kept his emotions in check, but one time he almost lost it when he came upon a large family in a subdivision that didn’t have much help. He and his wife Sarah have two children, Aiden and Olivia. When McKinney pulled up to the house, he asked the childrens’ names.
“His name was Aiden,” he said of the first child. “It was like lifting my own son. The girl who came over, I saw she was an infant. I said, ‘What’s her name?’ ‘Her name is Olivia.’ God is killing me on this thing. I’m lifting my own babies out of this house.”
Now that the flood has mostly receded, people have shifted to cleaning up and rebuilding their lives. McKinney said he drove through one of the streets in Sugar Land.
“Every house in the subdivision has carpet, sheetrock, two-by-fours they’ve started to pull out of their houses,” he said. “It looks like a war zone as you’re driving through these subdivisions. They’re gutted.”
That’s what Lucas Wilcox has been seeing, too.
“People are trying to get back to their homes, trying to find pets,” he said. “Just finding anything they can — a blanket, a meal.”
Wilcox arrived in Houston four days ago. Buses with his Homer-built disaster relief group, Altruist Relief, will arrive soon. For the past six years, Wilcox has been building his program, working and saving money, building supplies. He has a 50-foot tipi-style tent he uses for a cooking shelter and a system where he can cook 1,000 meals in several hours. Altruist Relief has responded to refugee camps near Syria and to the Baton Rouge, La., floods.
Using maps showing the worst flooded areas and the lowest-income areas, Altruist Relief has been focusing on the most desperate neighborhoods.
“I was able to pinpoint those areas of greatest need are those areas that have the least income of Houston and also received the greatest damage,” he said.
Wilcox identified northeast Houston and Orange, Texas, a town near Houston, as places to concentrate efforts. He’s been working with a council woman, pastors and community organizers to find places to set up kitchens.
“They have this sense of shock, like they’re baffled by the enormity of it,” he said. “Twenty trillion gallons of water fell on the fourth largest city in the U.S. Nothing like that has ever happened before.”
Altruist Relief also is completely transparent, Wilcox said. On its site it shows accounting with donations and amount spent, so people can see where their money goes.
“I’ve got this really radical design in the sense of trying to avoid those pitfalls where people feel like they’re donating to a black hole,” Wilcox said.
That’s also the approach McKinney is taking with his fundraising. With the rescue over, McKinney has shifted his efforts to raising money to buy basic supplies for people in shelters. Every dime will be applied to buying things like diapers, clothing, and toiletries.
“We’re going to take all the money and spend it and get it (supplies) to the shelters as they need it… I want people to know we’re actually going to buy things and give it directly to people,” he said.
McKinney said that as he edits video of footage he took during the rescue, it’s been hard to process emotions.
“You’re happy they’re being rescued, but you’re torn up at what they’re going through,” he said. “Now it’s just more weeks and months of clean-up. … Right now is the most important time. We saved them. Now the real work starts.”
In all the chaos and trauma of the rescue, McKinney said he saw some hope.
“We hear about everything going on in the U.S. with social injustice and the politics of it all,” McKinney said. “When I pulled up, nobody asked me who I voted for. It was black people helping white people. Everybody was helping everybody, humans helping humans. All of these things became trivial. It opened my eyes to what the world could be like.”
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help:
Providing supplies for people in shelters recovering from Hurricane Harvey
Go Fund Me:
Mad Men Xtreme
Chase McKinney YouTube channel
Providing hot meals to people as they recover from Hurricane Harvey:
Lucid Lorax YouTube channel