SALT LAKE CITY — As the Hurricane-force winds of Harvey died down to tropical storm level and the rain intensified, veteran Deseret News journalists Dennis Romboy and Jeff Allred made their way to Texas to cover what was quickly becoming a Katrina-level event.
"When we got here the storms and the rain were in full swing," said Allred, who as a photojournalist has chronicled Huricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and post-earthquake Haiti in 2010, when Romboy also was on scene describing the devastation and recovery.
"In Haiti there were some similarities (to Houston), but we were just dumped there and we had MREs (meals ready to eat) and blankets. But we didn't have any connections or transportation. We were just at the mercy of whomever we could find. Here we have transportation," Romboy said by phone late Thursday night as he and Allred drove from gas station to gas station in Sugar Land, Texas, searching for fuel to fill their tank.
Finding gas was an issue in many parts of Texas in the days after the main storm hit and is another obstacle for residents coping with the disaster and those working to help them.
Our journalists flew into San Antonio on Monday and were able to secure a rental car. They made their way toward Houston and hit a checkpoint in the town of Katy blocking an onramp toward areas dealing with rising flood waters.
"We're media," they said.
"You going to Buc-ees?" said the worker at the checkpoint. Media were apparently gathering there.
"Yes, Buc-ees," they replied, though they had no idea what Buc-ees was, only that they needed to get into the area and find a place to land for the night. Media were not being restricted.
Our journalists obey the law and respect those working an emergency. They also know the best way to cover a disaster is to talk to as many people as possible; one person knows another and another, and stories are discovered by word-of-mouth. Those stories highlight needs both immediate and long-term, and help the Houston area and the nation knit itself back together.
Hotels were full, but Romboy and Allred made one last attempt at a Courtyard Marriott around midnight. There was one room left and it was reserved. But the person hadn't shown up so the manager let them have it for $129. They flipped a coin to see who got the fold-out couch.
"Jeff lost the flip," said Romboy. But it mattered little. The following two nights they wouldn't be in a hotel, and they'd left for Houston prepared to sleep in their car if they had to.
The next morning they headed toward the flooded Houston LDS Temple, but couldn't get close enough to check any damage. They talked to a man named Jed Clark who offered some alternative routes, but they proved to be impassable, and Clark eventually directed them by phone to the church's Cypress Stake Center in nearby Tomball, where those rescued or flooded out were now living in church classrooms.
"So Tuesday we spent most of the day in a makeshift boat command center in the Primary room," Romboy said, referring to the room used on Sundays to teach elementary-age schoolchildren gospel principles.
Volunteers with boats were dispatched from there, headed out for rescues with Romboy and Allred reporting on both the pain and the joy of rescue. As Romboy wrote in a dispatch last week: "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."
"At one point, two guys took off on a WaveRunner to scout out a trailer park, so Jeff and I were standing on the highway for a few hours getting battered by the wind and the rain," Romboy told me. "We met another guy who picked us up (in his boat), Mike Mazariegos, who took us around."
Mike's story included rescuing a grandmother and two grandchildren. Another boater rescued 100 people himself. Covering such a disaster requires many journalists, contributors and the network of partners that news organizations have, such as the Associated Press and other wire services.
Reporters embed with rescue crews, some are at official press conferences on the scene and elsewhere, such as in Washington, D.C. Our Deseret News reporters chose not to embed with any team so they could more freely cover a greater area.
Deseret news reporter Tad Walch in Salt Lake City spent time texting back and forth with a women resulting in "A young Mormon mom's evacuation story," as the woman, Beth Green, together with her husband, Sheridan, watched the water rise, inching up a prized family piano.
Walch and others in our Salt Lake newsrooms also provided names and leads to Romboy and Allred in the disaster area, as well as reporting on the Utah response.
Jed Clark, the man who gave directions, had a home that wasn't flooded, and that night he invited Romboy and Allred to stay, part of the graciousness one finds in such circumstances.
Our partner, KSL Broadcasting, sent Nicole Vowell and Steve Breinholt there. In Salt Lake City their reports helped inform viewers who then contributed to a KSL telethon that over a few days had raised nearly $900,000 as of Friday.
Romboy and Allred's role was to find people who needed help and those who were providing the help. Our print and digital audience is wide. Many are members of the LDS Church and are concerned about their fellow church members. Many Utahns have transplanted to Texas, and of course there is a desire for all of us to know how to help.
The church itself is a story as it mobilizes money, goods and resources, and a willing volunteer network to help all who need help. Volunteers will be in Houston and Beaumont for months providing aid.
When people refer to the hurricane and torrential rains, Houston, the nation's fourth most populous city, gets the overarching headline. But hundreds of communities in the greater Houston area, including Beaumont, are ravaged.
Beaumont had Romboy and Allred's attention days later as they sought out two Utah Army National Guard units helping in the rescue effort, after getting a tip from Marc Giauque, who was also on the ground in Houston covering the event for KSL Newsradio. The Deseret News and KSL teams are part of the combined multi-platform newsroom enabling comprehensive coverage in Utah and also of events such as the hurricane aftermath.
Romboy and Allred needed to make their way to Sugar Land Regional Airport to find the National Guard:
"Normally it would be like driving from downtown (Salt Lake City) to Sandy," said Allred. "But due to low roads and underpasses, the water had them all blocked. It took four hours."
The National Guard team was gracious and allowed them onto the Blackhawk helicoter to join in the search. They found Kent and Hersey Kirk living in 4 feet of water that was rising, and it was five days after the main storm. The crew pulled them from their home in Rose City near Beaumont.
The assignment to cover such an event takes a toll on journalists, but it, of course, is nothing compared with the trauma experienced by those who live there.
Said Allred of the experience: “We feel really bad for them. I ran into one woman yesterday who was riding in the back of a pickup truck and she lost everything. She was grateful to be alive, but imagine if you’d lost everything how you'd feel."
Romboy and Allred did find gas that night, after waiting in a line of cars. The station was about 25 miles south of Buc-ees, which it turns out is an enormous gas station and travel center whose grand opening in Katy was delayed due to Harvey.
This week its parking lot offered a gathering place. When it opens, Texans will make good use of its 120 gas pumps to help fuel what promises to be a long recovery.