In the midst of Harvey’s swirling floodwaters, residents make desperate treks to safety across Houston’s sprawling freeways

Evacuees huddle under a plastic sheet to guard from the rain as they wait for transportation to an evacuation center in Houston,.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles TImes)

The survivors’ cries for aid — “Hey! Hey!” — could be heard just beyond Interstate 610, the freeway that loops around central Houston. Fortunately, help was close by, perhaps even closer than they knew.

The floods that slammed Houston over the weekend brought the city of 2.3 million people to a near-total halt, and nowhere was that reality more obvious than along the city’s ubiquitous freeways.


The massive intersecting roadways thread like concrete veins through the city and tower over some neighborhoods, providing unexpected views both of the storm’s dangerous power and of the weapons Houstonians were bringing to bear against the storm: fortitude, bravery and mercy.

Daniel Gross, 15, is rescued by Houston Police after he was left stranded on top of his car on Greewillow Dr. in Southwest Houston.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In Houston, pleas for help go out over social media: ‘Please send help. 911 is not responding’ »

Across Texas, there were reports of citizens mobilizing with boats and boots to help pull people from the rising waters. Social media lit up with a video posted by a reporter for KARK News, in which a man from Texas City, near Galveston, was preparing to deploy his small boat. “I’m going to go try to save some lives,” he said.

The nearly abandoned freeway in southwest Houston was no exception.

The thoroughfare was nearly empty of traffic except for trucks large enough to ford through the rising water and the carcasses of unlucky vehicles that died trying to. On the highway’s shoulder, biblical processions of families and other flood refugees ambled wearily on foot through the torrential rains.

Crews helps Frank Andrews, 74, into his walking chair after rescuing him from his flooded home in the Braeswood Place neighborhood, Southwest of Houston.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“You actually can’t get on our street, ...[but] there were plenty of people willing to help us,” said Anthony Jones, who was one of about a dozen people making their way along the freeway, carrying a small plastic bag filled with the possessions he’d gathered from his flooding home.

Here in one of many low-lying areas of in southern Houston, surging waters had washed across the interstate, rendering it impassible and inundating the nearby neighborhoods of Braeswood Place and Willow Meadows.

It was from there that the pleas for help were coming, audible on the nearly deserted freeway from behind the sound wall.

In the housing tracts below, floodwaters had risen more than halfway up the street signs and into parked cars and houses, higher than anything with wheels could ford.

No matter. One person’s flooded freeway is another person’s boat ramp. Both professional and amateur brigades of rescuers turned the flooded road into an ad hoc rescue lane for residents who had been trapped in their homes by the rising waters.

At the water’s edge, a Houston Police Department high-water rescue boat hauled out a trio of men in their underwear: Alex Domingues, 41, Mitchell Calderon, 19, and Emanuel Calderon, 20, all of them grinning. They had stripped down to their skivvies to swim to the rescue of an elderly man and woman, who by now were also in the boat.


“We seen the lady in her walker trying to walk on the other side of the water,” Emanuel Calderon said. “We took off our clothes — less weight.”

The man they helped rescue was Frank Andrews, 74, who has difficulty walking after four back operations in recent years. One of the Houston officers asked Andrews if there was anyone the authorities could call to notify that he was OK.

“I got nobody to help me, bottom line,” Andrews replied, sitting in a walker that converts to a chair. “It’s just the way it is. I don’t have a wife or a girlfriend.”

The night before the storm, he had gone to the H-E-B grocery store and got some hickory smoked barbecue, which he enjoyed as he prepared to wait out the storm. As the flood invaded his home, he shifted from room to room to avoid the rising water, to no avail.

Jesus Nunez carries his daughter Genesis, 6, as he and numerous family members flee their flooded home in Houston, Texas.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It was the first time his home had flooded since he moved there in 1973. “And I don’t have flood insurance, shame on me,” he said. “It’s a quagmire, man.”

As another band of rain approached, and Andrews sat alone on the side of the freeway, waiting for transportation to a shelter, Domingues, one of his rescuers — now fully clothed — ran up with a roll of plastic, which he unfurled, cut with a knife, and wrapped around the old man’s shoulders to help keep him dry.

The flooding came as less of a surprise to others, including Tim Conrad, 65, who was being yanked around the edge of the freeway by his raccoon-hunting dog, Bailey. “Fourth time, it’s a pleasure,” Conrad said.

Both man and dog had been rescued by police. Conrad’s house had filled up with 4½ feet of water, sending him into his attic.

Not all pets were so lucky. Beth Berens, a nurse who had stopped to help rescuees on the freeway, said that one family’s boat had overturned while they were shepherding two dogs to safety. They could only choose one dog to grab and had to leave the one furthest from the boat to its fate.


Presently, a group of onlookers gathered on a nearby freeway overpass began hollering. Out in one of the flooded neighborhoods, an older woman was wading toward the freeway in chest-deep water, holding a bag over her head. She had just cleared a sign that bore the name of the mayor and an enthusiastic political message from a now-bygone era: “Better streets, better drainage, better future.”

Kenny Bank, a local business owner clad in hip-wader boots, shouted encouragement to the woman. “Take your time — good, take your time,” he said.

Another man waded out to the woman to steady her and they slowly made their way closer to the freeway walls, where the flood currents were not so strong.

Daniel Gross, 15, a sports columnist at his Jewish private school’s newspaper, had joined his father in a kayak to rescue stranded acquaintances in his neighborhood.

“I needed to do something,” he said.

It proved tricky, though, and on one trip, he got separated from his father and the kayak. Daniel had to climb on top of a car until police rescued him.

Now he was on the freeway, alone, still holding his oar. Soon, out on the water, his father reappeared in the kayak, along with another man wearing a yarmulke. Daniel’s father asked his son, in a shout, if he wanted to go back out again.


Daniel didn’t really need to answer. He headed toward the water.

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.


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