HOUSTON — Neck-deep in water Kingsley Blancher hoped he was walking on the street in Dickinson, Texas as rain pelted him in the face on Saturday night.
“You have to watch,” he said. “We were walking close to the bayou so you don’t want to fall in and when you are that deep, you have to watch for mailboxes; they can cut you.
“You have to watch for bubbling water because it means a manhole cover comes up. If you step on it, it’s over,” he continued. “You won’t stop going down.”
As Hurricane Harvey dropped its first band of heavy rainfall through the upper Gulf Coast of Texas, the San Leon resident waded through five feet of water. He was looking for strangers stranded in their homes and apartments.
“I’m a vet,” said the 29-year-old who served in the Iraq War. “I was a medic so I don’t care who you are, what you are, where you come from. If you need help, I help.”
Dickinson was the first catastrophic site in the Galveston County when Hurricane Harvey moved from Rockport east towards the Greater Houston region. Dickinson Bayou filled rapidly and trapped low-lying residents.
By Monday, city officials called for a mandatory evacuation of the entire town. At least 20 people have died and thousands more have been rescued as of Wednesday afternoon.
Blancher said he brought a small group of friends with him to rescue the city’s first victims. They looked for people on rooftops and windows.
When part of his crew took their boat to help victims, the rest of them began walking along the flooded streets. They found a man and a woman with a dog.
Then they realized they needed a boat, he said.
“We saw one floating nearby so I began calling out that I was taking the boat,” he said. “You have to because you could get shot.
“People think you are looting,” he said. “So I kept screaming that if no one told me to stop, I was taking this boat. I took it, my friends helped, and we got them out.”
Tuesday morning, Blanchard recalled that rescue while he surveyed a long flooded street in Friendswood where another major evacuation effort was entering its third day.
Clear Creek and its tributaries flooded overnight on Saturday in the south Houston suburb. Waters were continuing to rise Tuesday as Hurricane Harvey moved east and left 50 inches of rain to drain into the region’s watersheds.
Historic levels were expected to be seen throughout the system of bayous, tributaries, creeks and rivers that sprawl across southeast Texas. Weather forecasts expected flooding and rescue efforts to continue through the week.
Blanchard said he brought his friends to Farm to Market Road 528 so they could rescue his boss from her home but she had already evacuated. The group stayed anyway, he said.
“My friends left to go on rescues,” he said in the front lawn of Heritage Park Baptist Church on FM 528. “I stayed behind to see if I could help them get the church open. This is going to be a launch site.”
Harris County firefighters were organizing the residents who were launching kayaks and fishing boats west towards the Kroger Shopping Center. The group estimated the pool at the grocery store was five feet and it got deeper past that.
“You can’t walk past there,” Blanchard said. “You will need a boat. We think it’s the creek and it’s getting deeper.”
Within the hour, church members opened the doors and members of the nationwide Cajun Navy pulled into the parking lot. The network of rescuers made quick introductions to church officials and firefighters before beginning operations.
Brian Fontenot of Friendswood was the Cajun Navy coordinator for the local effort. He became involved with the group when they learned he had a search-and-rescue nonprofit that operates in the region.
The Tuesday rescue would continue into the night, he said.
“They knew that I had connections at the (emergency operations center,)” he said. “I called an attorney friend of mine and we were able to get the curfew lifted last night so we could come in now.”
About 30 minutes later, Texas Park and Wildlife officials arrived hauling airboats. They wanted to know which of the city’s overflowing shelters would start shuttling residents to Heritage Park.
Winnie Norris, chaplain of the Friendswood Fire Department, told them it would be a nearby church. As they sped off to the next rescue, Mimi Roberts of Nassau Bay introduced herself.
“We have a small boat,” Roberts said to Norris. “What can we do?”
Norris pointed to a man sitting in a corner with a blanket, pillow and a fresh, dry-cleaned suit.
“He needs to go to Kroger,” she told Roberts as she turned to go inside the church.
Josh Mains rose from the ground, gathered his suit and sleeping gear, and walked over to Roberts.
Mains, the assistant manager of the town’s largest supermarket, Kroger, said he needed to open the store. He had slept in the store alone since Friday when Harvey made landfall.
He opened it for five hours on Monday with a skeleton crew before the rain began again. He sent them home and then found a dry road to Texas City where he lives.
He took a shower and slept in a bed for the first time since the storm began. Tuesday morning, he drove to the church, parked his car and began looking for a way to get to the store.
He said he intended to permanently open the store that day. He would use whichever employees could come in.
“I’ll use Facebook to find out,” he said. “I know a lot of them want to come. We’ll restock the shelves. People need to eat.”
As Roberts and her friend brought the boat to the corner, she asked Mains if he would like to walk on the grass instead of the water so he would not get wet.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m changing into my suit as soon as I get to the store.”