Its been one week since I flew back from Europe in an attempt to make it home to Galveston Texas before Harvey hit. With 2 days notice i booked the cheapest flight to America.. Brussels Belgium to Miami Florida with Tui Airlines. The night before my flight suspected terrorist attacks took place in Brussels and London, and at the time that felt huge but it is a pin prick in comparison to what is now going on in my home state of Texas.
My connecting flight from Miami was cancelled leaving me exactly where I needed to be; Miami Florida where my parents live and could house me with a computer and solid internet access. In that office chair is where I spent the majority of my time… assisting with the Cajun Navy. At first I was just trying to fall in with whatever help I could be but as I began joining the Facebook groups popping up, I realized that my strength wasn’t data entry. It was recruiting. It was getting information out there to go viral, and before long we had plugged the Harvey Evac Map and form enough for it to go from 500 addresses to 4600, but we weren’t done there. With a team of 50 in the spreadsheet plotting the addresses to a real time map, color coding for priority cases, we began tweaking it with boat launch points, rally points and shelters. Medics were added and a boat mechanic offering his services.. the map grew to 8000 and began to crash with the influx of information.
I remember having the NOAA site open in one browser, the map in another, my Zello app active with boats requesting addresses and safe ways to launch their boats, and people frantically chirping in asking for help. Dispatch teams were formed, groups broken down by geographical sectors, and an IT company began helping with the functionality layering the NOAA water level markers over the map to show if water levels were predicted to rise in the upcoming 12 hours to be ahead of the devastation.
Zip code 77044 was expected to get an increase of 10 to 13 feet and there weren’t any boats in the area. At the time there were only a couple of pins, and it felt impossible to get thru to the dispatch channels with what I felt was vital information. I began searching the spreadsheet for the zip code, plotting only their addresses, marking them maroon if life or death situations were already present and it was heart breaking. I can’t tell you how many elderly, or disabled, or families with children were listed. I remember at one point there was one boat and 3 emergency situations.. a man havibg heart problems post surgery, a rooftop with 13 children and 6 adults, and a lady in labor. Having to make the call on where to send the boat is taxing on a dispatchers psyche.
The dispatchers so far have been pretty unnoticed. They are the team’s in the background handling both sides of the panic. The people needing rescue and the boats coming in, wanting to help but having no clue about the area and where they are needed. The family members of loved ones who are desperate to find out anything they can. Dispatchers have worked tirelessly around the clock all week being the rescue boats eyes and ears. Thrown into a role where people want answers, and knowing that every moment a life is at stake, with little or no training… just a simple desire to help.
It’s been a rough week. One of the moments that stands out for me was when a boat reached its rescue point and cane over the radio saying “we weren’t in time, what should we do with the bodies?” An admin responded with “we have been advised to leave the bodies in the water” another moment was just this morning when a desperate man was ready to end his life. Armed with a gun he felt he would rather die quickly than slowly and a code purple was issued.
Several pictures being submitted putting a visual on the urgency kept dispatchers at this deals around the clock.
News of boats being lost were taken personal.. these strangers we had never met were now our family .. our people.. our responsibility. One label.. volunteers.
The stress doesn’t just come when actively responding, it stays during short breaks. The guilt of stepping away is so enormous that it’s practically impossible to do, knowing the lives that are still out there, trapped in attics, stuck on rooftops or in vehicles. It’s endless, and every day the hope of it almost being out of life or death threat level is obliterated with a new urgent call for help.. a dam being opened 10 hours earlier than originally announced, explosions at a chemical plant, a levee breaching, the storm making landfall again and dropping more rain on areas already receiving the run off of the flood.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to write when I opened this article. I knew I wanted to write to kill the nervousness that I feel with being on a plane, flying home to Houston, and being offline while someone may need me. Now I know that this is a Dear Dispatchers … thank YOU for the role ypu have played in saving lives!
When I boarded this plane we had over 11k addresses submitted each with multiple people needing rescue.. of those over 9k addresses had been rescued or resolved in some way and others were no longer needing rescue. I can personally tell you as a Katrina survivor, and a Cajun Army volunteer last year in Louisiana, the death toll of this disaster would be huge in comparison to what it is.
Thank YOU to Lisa and Captain Zuniga for creating the form and spreadsheet that grew into such a life saving tool. I’m super excited about the meeting with uber on Monday to discuss creating an app that uses your idea and creates a user friendly app for boat to evacuee rescues. This will be huge in saving lives of those in future flood disasters… the number of lives that will be saved is immeasurable!
Thank you JESUS for answering our prayers. Thank you for drawing a line of protection around each and every one of my family members and their homes in and all around the disaster area. Thank you for sparing the island of Galveston. Thank you for bringing so many souls to our church. Thank you thank you thank you!
Well… my flight attendant just confirmed that the captain will make the announcement about signing up with the Cajun Army for assistance and to volunteer! AND … Jesus decided to show off because she has a friend who is an uber developer in San Francisco! Back up plans are always welcome!
Stormes Shelters is still seeking tools, cots, towels, blankets, pillows and meal boxes for the volunteers coming in that will be housed at Turning Point Church of Galveston. If you’d like to purchase one of those from our Amazon Wishlist that would be a GREAT help! We are also asking for our Evacuee Wishlist to be filled so that we can distribute clean baby supplies, toiletries, new clothes and shoes etc to flood victims. EGift cards are always welcome and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or money donations can be sent here.