Armed with a boat, a dump truck and a school bus, this volunteer crew rescued 14 flood victims

Gary Smith traveled about 100 miles east to the Houston area Monday with his 21-year-old twin sons, a truck and a boat in tow to help rescue those stranded by Tropical Storm Harvey.

First thing after arriving at about 8:30 a.m., they located a man and woman in a flooded home and escorted them to safety in their boat.

Some houses already sat empty; dogs left behind stared from front windows. Other residents refused to leave, despite rising water and the Smiths’ best efforts.

“The water was creeping up on their houses but they said they rode out these storms before. We tried to persuade them,” Blake Smith said as he left Monday afternoon with brother Brodie to help another family here in Katy, a western Houston suburb. By day’s end, both would be soaked, from drenching rain, wading waist deep and pushing the boat through tough spots with their shoulders in the waves.

The Smiths’ truck plowed through several feet of floodwater on their way to the Sanchez home. “Looks like we’re going swimming boys,” said Gary Smith, 47. And they nearly did, fighting the current on the river that Stockdick Road had become to reach the Sanchez home.

Smith runs a steel company, and his sons are students at Texas A&M University, where they study agriculture and construction; the three had no trouble fording high water.

Mike Sanchez, 33, met them on the porch of the tan wood-frame house. Water was halfway up the cyclone fence. Unrelenting rain battered surrounding trees. From the drenched porch, Sanchez shouted a request for a permanent marker.

Authorities had advised residents to write their names on their bodies if they stayed, in case they drowned. Sanchez proceeded to do just that on his forearm and that of his wife and young daughter.

His elderly parents and older brother, Sammy, had decided to leave with the Smiths. They spoke little English and were nervous, worried about where they were going and about the three relatives they were leaving behind.

“Take care of yourself,” Guadalupe Sanchez told her daughter-in-law, Belinda, who tried to reassure her as she left the house clutching a plastic bag full of prescription bottles.

Gingerly, she climbed into Smith’s 23-foot aluminum motorboat, joining her husband and son under a blue tarp. The volunteers struggled at times against the current. In places, the boat stuck and the Sanchez men had to get out and walk in sandals as fish and snails sloshed by their bare legs.

At one point, a volunteer driving a dump truck loaded with three evacuees passed. About half an hour later, the Smiths reached a main road, where a fire department rescue truck delivered the Sanchezes to a shelter. Soon after, fellow rescuers arrived with eight more flood victims, whom they herded toward a school bus heading to a shelter. One man toting a garbage bag of belongings balked, threatened to return home, but ultimately boarded.

As the Smiths prepared to leave, they were repeatedly delayed by yells for help that turned into residents dithering about whether to leave. They wondered how many more people they could have saved if the interstate into Houston hadn’t closed that morning.

They had delivered 14 people to safety, but as they left under gray skies and cold, pelting rain, they felt they had fallen short. Somewhere in Houston, people were trapped and fighting for their lives.

“I wish there was more that I could be doing right now,” the father said. They spent the drive back listening to reports of storm fatalities and debating which of the hardest hit areas they would head to the next morning.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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