When 911 Is Overwhelmed, Americans Keep Each Other Afloat

I told the man in the boat that we were paramedics trying to reach a patient. ‘Get in,’ he said.


At a hospital in Houston, Texas, after heavy flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, Aug. 28.
At a hospital in Houston, Texas, after heavy flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, Aug. 28. PHOTO: MARK RALSTON/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES


‘Do you have a gun?” That question isn’t one I hear often as a 911 paramedic in suburban Houston. But then again, it’s not often that America’s fourth-largest city gets 50 inches of rain over a few days.

It was Monday, the third day of heavy rain from Hurricane Harvey. I was responding to a call for a woman who’d fainted in her apartment, in a complex notorious for its crime. The woman lived on the second floor, but the floodwaters by that time had risen to the landing outside her door.

We’d driven the ambulance as close as the water would allow: a Shell gas station about a quarter-mile away. It had been turned into a makeshift refugee center for those living nearby and capable of wading through chest-deep water with what little they could carry.

We were waiting for the fire department to bring one of its boats to ferry us into the apartment complex, but we weren’t sure how long it would take. First responders were doing the best they could, but the volume of calls for help was overwhelming, even after the storm moved on to Louisiana. During a typical day, my suburb’s 911 communications center has maybe 14 calls outstanding at any one time. On this day there were more than 700. To help out, the National Guard had deployed its rescue boats, but they were kept busy shuttling into neighborhoods and evacuating as many stranded families as they could.

So we hitched a ride with a civilian, one of the army of volunteers who showed up to help. He drove us into knee-deep water in his Super Duty pickup to a rendezvous with a 12-foot flat-bottomed boat that was bringing a family of six to dry ground. The boat belonged to a guy in his 40s and his dad. I asked if they would take us into the apartment complex. That’s when the dad inquired whether I was carrying a gun.

“Do I need one?” I asked.

“You might,” he said. “Last time we went in there, we had to fight off some guys who tried to take our boat.”

I told him we were trying to reach a 911 call.

“Get in,” he said.

We navigated our way into the complex through a hole in a wooden fence that had been opened by floodwaters. We had an apartment number but weren’t sure where the building was. As we navigated past the roofs of submerged cars, people yelled to us from balconies on the upper floors.

“We’ll be back,” the son said.

Thanks to this pair, we were able to find our patient. She had low blood pressure and was feeling lightheaded, but she was stable enough to walk down the stairs and into the boat. We motored out to the low water, where another guy in a Texas-size pickup agreed to take us back to our ambulance at the Shell station. We gave the patient some fluid and warm blankets and then took her to the closest hospital. There were maybe 100 people in the waiting room, either pending treatment or simply looking for a place to get out of the rain that never seemed to stop.

Multiply that call by about 3,000—each day—and you get an idea of what Houston’s first responders have been trying to manage. It would be impossible to reach many of these patients without the help of the private flotilla, with boats ranging from inflatable kayaks to large pontoons.

My takeaway from all this, as someone who has worked through a handful of disasters big and small, is that most people are inherently decent. Yes, there are some jerks, like the Houstonians who are still texting and driving, oblivious to the ambulance alongside them, lights and sirens blaring. There are the gawkers who clog side streets to photograph neighborhoods underwater, or pull over on major highways to take selfies with half-submerged restaurants in the background. But their abhorrent behavior is overshadowed by the countless acts of kindness taking place in every corner of this city.

Not one of these volunteers, many of whom I suspect are the typical Trump voters routinely ridiculed by the media and politicians, has asked about the race or religion of the patients we’ve been trying to reach. Like the father-son duo, they simply say, “Get in. Tell me where you need to go.” Strangers have dropped off food at our police, fire and ambulance stations, and those restaurants that are dry and open are feeding us free.

By Tuesday night I looked west and saw the first blue sky in a week. But the work is far from done. First responders, who do this for a living, will still be out in the community, doing our best. So, too, will be the numerous Harvey volunteers who are putting their own boats at risk on their own nickel. If nothing else in this polarized age, that should reaffirm your belief in the goodness of your fellow Americans.

Mr. Yost is a paramedic, former firefighter and regular contributor to the Journal’s Arts in Review page.

Appeared in the August 31, 2017, print edition.

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