HOUSTON — With floodwaters lapping at her front door and a veritable lake in the parking lot behind her southeast Houston house, Annette Goree decided she should take her grandchildren and leave.
A boat carrying her, two grandchildren and a niece, Destiny Earl, floated to the edge of the Sam Houston Tollway just as Clay Vaughan, Emmitt Reed and Harris County deputy sheriff Trent Stegall pulled up in a pickup truck pulling an aluminum fishing boat and a jet ski.
Stegall grabbed one of the children and carried her to a truck waiting on the highway, wind and rain pounding them in the face.
Goree and her niece, who also lives in the neighborhood, waded through the water carrying plastic bags with blankets, medicine, cellphones and chargers.
"In 12 years we have lived here, we have never had this much water," Goree said. "Never, ever."
Goree really didn't want to leave but as Earl said, "Our streets are flooded, so it's safer to be with family."
Vaughan and his friends were sent to the inundated area Tuesday afternoon through a makeshift emergency command center in the Primary room at the Cypress Stake Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in nearby Tomball. Nearly 60 boaters, Mormon and non-Mormon, heeded a Facebook call to rescue stranded residents, including some in a high-rise care center near the temple. They plucked about 500 people from their flooded homes Tuesday.
"It was a Facebook call that blew into an amazing organization," said Phil Garner, Tomball 1st Ward elders quorum president, who went with a friend in a canoe looking for people in need Saturday, hours after the massive storm struck.
The rescue effort grew organically from there. Former police dispatcher Debbie Murphy took phone calls from various law enforcement agencies directing the boats to people in need. Others tracked the watercraft on a Google document. They also scoured Facebook and Instagram for posts from distressed residents.
"Acutally, the police and fire have been calling us," Murphy said, adding 911 is running three hours behind. "Right now, they're calling our phones to give us addresses."
Garner received calls from all over the country from people wanting to help.
"It's amazing what people can do when they want to help their own," he said.
Authorities started dispatching resources and people to the stake center that also become a shelter for dozens of wet and cold residents displaced by the unrelenting remnants of now Tropical Storm Harvey. About 50 spent Monday night in rooms throughout the building, their names posted on the walls outside the doors. There was even a room for people's dogs.
Hassan Mohammed, his wife and mother-in-law slept on cots in a classroom after being rescued by boat from their flooded apartment not far from the Houston Texas Temple.
“Good people came and picked us up from the apartments,” he said as he sat on an inflatable pad in his temporary shelter. “We’re thankful to God. These people are like angels for us right now.”
Mohammed and his wife, Mary, live on the ground floor of the building now inundated with several feet of water. His mother-in-law, Mary Tucker, was staying with them after fleeing her home in Magnolia.
“Our angels are right there behind you,” Mohammed said, as Stirling and Maureen Pack poked their heads into the classroom.
Stirling Pack, the former Cypress Stake president, is the regional disaster coordinator for the Houston region, which covers 22 stakes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and three missions.
“It’s a very dynamic, a very challenging situation,” Pack said. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in the continental United States where we’ve had something as big and as complex and as dynamic as is going on right now, and that does not exclude Superstorm Sandy.”
Decisions, he said, have been pushed down to the local level.
“What we found is local government officials, the Red Cross, FEMA are overwhelmed,” he said. “We have members and nonmembers working shoulder to shoulder to accomplish this.”
Pack said he was initially told that local church members would bring displaced people to meetinghouses to feed them and get them to Red Cross shelters.
“There are no Red Cross shelters — none,” he said.
Later Tuesday, however, the evacuees at the stake center were driven to a new, more-permanent shelter. With no more displaced people expected that evening, area LDS Church members in "Mormon Helping Hands" T-shirts were cleaning the building — still well-stocked with food, water, clothes and towels — preparing for the next phase of assistance: getting the muck out of houses.
Members also were hoping to get boat owners to shift their attention to Sugar Land, where levees were expected to breach about 35 miles southeast of Houston.
Water-covered roads have made it difficult for rescuers to get into Houston from Dallas and other areas.
“What we’ve seen is a collapse of the infrastructure in the city, and I say that not disparagingly, but it has overwhelmed everyone," Pack said.
After putting out a call for private watercraft Monday, 22 boats, three jet skis and a slew of canoes and kayaks descended on the church to go out into neighborhoods looking for people. More volunteer boaters showed up Tuesday, filling the parking lot with trucks and trailers.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Pack said. "What you saw here today was a miracle."
The Primary room has turned into a command center to coordinate boat rescues. People with bags and bins of clothes filled the cultural hall in the stake center. A couple of young boys tossed a football to pass the time. A local restaurant brought in dinner Monday night, and a nearby subdivision provided breakfast.
“This is where the decision level is pushed down to the very local level, and these guys have responded magnificently. It is humbling. It’s very humbling," Pack said, tears welling in his eyes.
Mike Mazariegos also became emotional as he steered his fishing boat through the floodwaters along the Sam Houston Tollway. He and his buddy didn't wait for anyone to call them. They loaded up Mazariegos' rig and hit the water Sunday. He figures they picked up more than 100 people in southeast Houston alone.
"We're here to help. We're Texas. We're going to make it. We are. This how we do things. We always help each other. There ain't no strangers in this state," he said.
Mazariegos said people tried to pay him for rescuing them. He turned down the money.
"We're doing it because they'd be doing it for us. This country's gotta heal and this is how it starts," he said.
As Mazariegos cruised the waters, people carrying plastic bags trudged down the wet, windswept highway. U.S. Coast Guard airboats roared through a lake that had been a Target parking lot the day before.
Abandoned vehicles with water up to the windows, including what appeared to be a FEMA command center rig, littered the road. Ambulances with sirens blaring periodically raced down the highway that would normally be choked with traffic. Shuttered businesses turned that part of Houston and neighboring Pearland into ghost towns.
After being dispatched to the area from the stake center, Vaughan and Reed jumped on jet skis looking for a mobile home park were authorities believed people needed to be retrieved. But the two young men found most of the residents didn't want to leave.
Vaughan, who heard about the command center at the LDS Church building through his pastor, said he felt helpless after going out Monday knowing how many people still needed assistance.
"I literally couldn't help everybody who was asking for help yesterday," he said.15 comments on this story
And emergency authorities apparently couldn't either. Vaughan said he and others called 911 10 times for an elderly woman who broke bones in a fall, but no one answered. He and others carried her through a ditch to dry ground where they flagged down a passing ambulance.
Vaughan said he felt much better Tuesday after he heard the Coast Guard say everyone who wanted help got it, at least in that part of the city.
"There was a very big feeling of hopelessness and then seeing the victory or whatever you want to call it, today was just a big thing for me," he said. "Knowing, hey, there's no one else to help, that felt good."