Using a pool float and a borrowed boat, Houston lawyer Hal Hale helped rescue as many as 75 people in west Houston last week—Hurricane Harvey victims who were trapped in houses or apartments filled with floodwaters from the hurricane’s downpour.
A two-hour drive away in Port Arthur, lawyer Julian C. Gomez, who transported his fishing boat from South Texas, rescued dozens of people from two flooded nursing homes in Port Arthur with the help of some fisherman friends.
Hale and Gomez are just two of many lawyers who literally jumped into the floodwaters and spent time on the front lines rescuing people who needed a way out of their flooded homes to dry land.
“I couldn’t work, and once I kind of did it the first day … I felt like I was compelled to do it,” said Hale, of The Hale Firm.
Gomez said when he woke up on Monday, Aug. 28—his birthday—he wasn’t feeling celebratory because of all the destruction and flooding in Texas caused by Harvey. The hurricane made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25 as a Category 4 Hurricane, and later dumped 51 inches of rain in Houston.
Gomez, who holds a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license, decided that day to take his boat to Houston to help in the rescues, and he registered with the Harris County Fire Marshal Office, which was in charge of dispatching boats. The office told him to sit tight until the next morning, but he and a fishing buddy decided to drive to Houston anyway on Aug. 29 after they talked to another friend who had already spent a day rescuing people with his boat.
Gomez said they got to Houston the evening of Aug. 29, spent the night at his cousin’s house, and at the direction of local search-and-rescue networks, headed to Port Arthur in the morning. Gomez said he and two other boat crews spent the whole day transporting people from two nursing homes to a dry staging area, where hundreds of volunteers were waiting to help unload the passengers and get them something to eat.
Because of the size of his 22-foot South Texas bay boat, Gomez said he was able to accommodate nursing home residents in their wheelchairs.
He headed back to South Texas with his boat on Aug. 31.
Hale didn’t have to travel as far to join the rescue operation. He and his wife, Cathy Herrington, who is also a lawyer, live in west Houston but their house stayed dry.
On Aug. 27, Hale said he and his neighbor, Rick Ngo, took Ngo’s sturdy pool float out into the floodwaters and got some people out. Herrington helped in dispatching Hale and Ngo.
The next day, Hale said, they got access to a fire department boat, and he, Ngo and some others spent the next few days rescuing people from flooded homes and apartments, and then later ferrying people back into their homes so they could retrieve some necessary items.
Meanwhile, on Aug. 30, Herrington and her friend, solo practitioner Jakki Hansen, hitched a ride on a boat to a dry bridge in west Houston where boats were offloading people before further transporting them to dry land. Herrington and Hansen brought sacks of fast-food burgers and insect repellent, and spent the whole day helping to load people and their pets on and off boats.
Hansen said many of the people coming off the rescue boats were “shell-shocked.” Many had thought their homes had escaped the flood waters, only to experience flooding after the rains stopped because of releases from two burdened dams located upstream from their neighborhoods.
“Some people had nothing more than a small backpack. Some people… had a couple of trash bags with them,” Hansen said.
This week, Hale, Herrington, Gomez and Hansen are back at work, getting through paperwork, filing discovery responses, preparing for trial and, in Gomez’s case, organizing a CLE course. Other lawyers in the region are also going back to work, although the return isn’t easy.
“It’s hard to concentrate on work,” Hansen said.
That’s also true for Hale, who was back in his office Tuesday morning but was back on a boat in the afternoon after a friend texted Herrington and asked Hale for help. The woman had bought a boat but didn’t know how to run the motor. So instead of preparing for trial, Hale put on his waders and used the boat to take a Houston couple to retrieve belongings from their still-flooded house.