Heroes of Harvey

The Finley Family: Kayakers Turned Rescuers

During the height of the storm, this family from Maplewood paddled into action and saved lives.

By Roxanna Asgarian October 2, 2017 Published in the October 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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The Finleys with daughter Catherine

Image: Daniel Kramer

Helena and David Finley gave up trying to stop the water from getting into their home around four in the morning on Sunday, in the thick of Harvey’s never-ending downpour. They live in Maplewood, near Meyerland, two streets back from Brays Bayou, and they would come to feel lucky, because their home sits on the high end of their street. “We only got about seven inches,” Helena said. “Our neighbors down the street, the water was chest-high.”

At first light, the two began knocking on doors, checking on people. Their elderly neighbors said they needed help, that they wanted to get to their daughter, who was nearby in a home that had remained dry. “So we got the boats out,” Helena said.

The Finleys were uniquely situated to perform what Helena estimated grew to 60 water rescues that day. A native of South Africa, Helena is a former kayak coach who’s completed the Colorado River 100, a 100-mile canoe race from Columbus to Bastrop, six times; she came to Houston more than 30 years ago on a swimming scholarship to UH. David also kayaks, and the couple’s son, James, was packing for college the weekend Harvey hit—he’s attending the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, on his own swimming scholarship, this fall.

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Helena Finley and son James

The Finleys pulled out two double kayaks and a canoe from their garage, and for the next 14 hours, worked to get those stranded in their severely flooded neighborhood to safety. There was a woman who had four dogs with her. There were two families of four. There was a mother walking through the water with three small children balanced on an inflatable raft. There was an elderly woman who didn’t want to leave. “Her son-in-law told us, ‘You just have to go in and tell her she’s going,’” Helena remembered.

There was the man who spoke little English and had abandoned his car in the floods trying to get home from his job; he’d been walking for hours. “His home was on the other side of Brays Bayou; we had to tell him, ‘There’s no way you’re going home tonight.’” They set up a camping mattress in their home for him to stay the night, along with an elderly couple who had nowhere else to go; the Finleys’ daughter Catherine looked after the guests during the ordeal.

At one point, a City of Houston dump truck pulled up and began loading evacuees; the Finleys brought out a ladder and used their kayaks to ferry people from their homes to the truck. As Helena was loading up a family, she noticed a woman waving a towel to get her attention. “She told me she needed help—her husband was on oxygen, and she was worried it was running out,” Helena said. She dispatched her son, James, to get them with the canoe.

The towel-waving woman had helped her husband, with his sensitive medical equipment, to the attic. The water was approaching their kitchen countertops. The man, who is immune-compromised, had open sores on his body and couldn’t touch the flood waters. So James picked him up like a baby and carefully set him, his medical supplies, and the couple’s two dogs into the kayak, before carrying them to dry land and helping them get to a safe place with family.

Helena stressed that what her family did wasn’t unique. “We are just one of thousands of people that were doing exactly the same thing. We, as a family, physically are relatively strong, and we’re lucky that we could do that for people,” she said. “The greatest thing Harvey has given us is the spirit of kindness and giving; we live in a fantastic city, and it’s the people that make it great. You have to look at the silver lining, and that’s it.”

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