During a lull between rain bands on Sunday afternoon, Greg Buckles and Lauren Neely walked from their Near Northside home a few blocks to the Quitman bridge over I-45 to survey the water level of White Oak Bayou. The bayou was already high, covering the bike path south of the Leonel Castillo Community Center and quickly rising over the low parts of the freeway. In the middle of I-45 they saw a semi truck, lights on and windshield wipers beating, water already up to the hood of the vehicle. Concerned that someone might still be inside, they went home to grab their kayaks.
The semi, thankfully, was empty. But just behind it there was a line of cars—people stranded on the freeway by the rising waters.
That image—the semi halfway submerged, the hazy skyscrapers of downtown in the background, and two kayakers paddling the freeway—was captured in two Reuters photos (see 5 and 6 at this link) that have shown up in dozens of news outlets' coverage of Harvey, taken as Buckles and Neely joined the ever-growing roster of private boaters who used their personal crafts to rescue and ferry people to safety as the storm waters rose.
The request from Harris County Judge Ed Emmett that Sunday has been called "unprecedented" and "extraordinary." "We desperately need boats and high-water vehicles," he said during a press conference with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. "We can't wait for assets to come from outside."
Both Neely and Buckles are experienced paddlers. Neely was a canoe guide for the Boy Scouts years ago, and formerly worked for Buffalo Bayou Shuttle Service. In calmer times, the couple frequently paddles Buffalo Bayou. They knew the rushing current of White Oak Bayou would be impossible to navigate. "We thought it was just people with motor boats," Neely said of the judge’s call. "And we know we're not crossing White Oak or Little White Oak."
But the area near their house was more of an eddy, which made it possible for them to reach the semi and the cars waiting on the other side. "It worked out fairly well, because in those areas, we're out of the main current, in the backwater," Buckles said. "When we were in the midst of checking out the cab of the truck, we had people taking photographs from the bridge, and it turned out there was a fireman there who immediately was like, 'Can you go get our fire captain?'"
"As soon as we were told there were people stuck on the overpass, we came right back here, grabbed our canoe and extra PFDs (personal flotation devices) and went out."
The fire captain the two ferried across was with Station 9, also located in Near Northside. He told them he'd been stuck on the freeway for 13 hours. "He had his full uniform in a plastic bag," Buckles said. "The guy he was relieving had been on shift for a stupid amount of time. He had already surveyed everybody on (the overpass). He told us there were two folks who were bound and determined to stick it out with their cars—they didn't want to leave their cars. But there were three more who wanted off right then and there, and he was overdue."
Neely and Buckles made three trips ferrying people from I-45 to the Castillo Community Center, bringing the captain in last. Though the water was calm when they first put in, by the third trip the current was becoming unmanageable. "It was pouring rain still at that point, and it was going up quick," Buckles said. "By the third trip we had a rough time getting back."
Once everyone was rescued, the couple returned to their home, where friends from low-lying neighborhoods were seeking refuge from the flooding. The couple said that their love of paddling Houston's bayous prepared them for the rescue. "If Lauren and I hadn't done tremendous amounts of paddling before, I'd have been a lot more concerned," Buckles said.
Once the storm waters recede, Neely is thinking about organizing a clean-up paddle for Buffalo Bayou. She said the things that can be found in the water after a heavy rain are surprising—mattresses, shopping carts, tons of trash. "In fact," she says, motioning to one of the boats hanging off the couple's back fence, one of two boats they used to first check on the stranded semi, "that kayak was scavenged from the bayou."
(Houstonia reached out to the Houston Fire Department for a statement from the fire captain mentioned in this story and will update when we hear back.)