In Harvey's aftermath, small acts of kindness, mercy, hope

Kris Wartelle and Greg Toppo
Marissa Nunez, 19, who was rescued Aug. 27, 2017, along with her family in northeast Houston.

HOUSTON — As Tropical Storm Harvey swallowed this city Sunday night, floodwaters rose in the home of 19-year-old Marissa Nunez and her family.

“That’s when we knew we might need to get to higher ground,” she said. “Our entire house was under water. We didn’t know what we were going to do.”

Nunez and her family escaped to the second floor of a neighbor’s house, but it wasn't until Monday morning when a group of volunteers with boats appeared to rescue them.

Nunez was in the first of several boatloads of neighbors to be delivered to higher ground as the entire northeast Houston neighborhood — and much of the city — faced the rising waters.

While waiting for her family, Nunez sought shelter from the pelting rain in a reporter’s vehicle, saying, “They let all the women go first. My mom and 14-year-old sister are in another boat.” The men were following in another.

“We're trying to get dry and waiting for our families,” she said. “I have no idea where we’ll go after that.”


R.J. Ellis, 29, tries on a pair of socks at George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Ellis, who was laid off from his job about two months ago, was homeless and living under a bridge when Harvey hit coastal Texas.


All R.J. Ellis wanted was socks.

The 29-year-old was wandering among thousands of evacuees at the George R. Brown Convention Center in the heart of downtown, looking for nothing more than a pair of clean socks.

Ellis, who was laid off from his job about two months earlier, was homeless and living under a bridge when Harvey hit coastal Texas and brought massive rains and flooding.

"I was looking for housing," he said. "I was hoping someone here knew about that. I was supposed to hear something, but then when it flooded, I came here looking."

Along with Ellis, about 3,000 others from across southeast Texas made their way to the shelter after floodwaters forced them from their homes. Many had nothing more than the clothes they were wearing and the possessions they could carry.

Ellis, who has family in Shreveport, La., and elsewhere in the state, had only a few possessions. He carried them in a small trash bag.

The line for clothing was long. Dry socks were in short supply at the shelter. Ellis' feet were in thin, wet, dirty socks and sandals.

Red Cross volunteer Tina Jamieson, managed to find a pair of black, low cut socks to give to Ellis.

"They may be too small," she said.

Ellis tried them on. "I think I can make them fit," he mumbled. He slipped them on and looked up.

"I'm so happy," he said. "This is so much better."

MJ Torres gives her sister, Valere Garza, left, a hug after being rescued from a subdivision off Highway 90 in the Northeast corner of the Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 28, 2017.


Stories like Ellis' were everywhere in the shelter, said David Schoeneck of the Red Cross.

Nearby, Kira Promise and her 17-year-old daughter, Kayla, said they'd lost their car and a portion of their home to floods in Clear Lake, a suburb southeast of downtown. Promise said her son's room was downstairs.

"He lost everything," Promise said.

She had originally thought they’d find shelter at their local high school, but Promise and her kids were first piled into an Army truck, then a Metro bus. It brought them to the convention center.

“It is humbling,” she said. “But I have my two children and we're safe."

Brandon Polson brought five children, ages 7 to 11, to the shelter from Clayton Homes, a housing complex northeast of downtown. He told the Houston Chronicle that the floods poured three feet of water into his apartment.

Once his family was settled, he said, "You have to have faith and stay positive for the kids. They're cold and sad, too. You've got to find a way to balance them not being all down and then protecting ourselves."


John and Cathy Cservek hold their dogs Lacy and Iggy while being rescued from their home as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise on Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas.

Late Sunday, CNN reporter Ed Lavandera and a camera crew were leaving a Houston neighborhood in a small boat when he heard people hollering from a nearby home. They intervened and rescued a family from a home being overtaken by waist-high floodwaters.

With a camera rolling, Lavandera told a studio anchor that he’d just been told by one of the family members that her mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. He told his crew, “Let’s be a little bit delicate because I don’t know what kind of condition her mother’s in.”

As the crew awaited family members, Lavandera appeared to hesitate, then said to a studio anchor, “Let’s give us a second.”

CNN cut away, then returned to the scene once Lavandera had the family safely in a boat.


Dat Nguyen, a former Dallas Cowboys linebacker who grew up in Rockport, a tiny coastal Texas town hit hard by the storm on Friday, said most of his hometown is gone. But he wants to help the folks who remain.

“The church is demolished, our house is demolished,” he told The Dallas Morning News. “All the places where I grew up — all the mom and pop stores, the school, everything is torn and damaged.”

Nguyen, who lives in Fort Worth, said he was trying to organize an effort to bring supplies to the city, but that the area had been evacuated because of gas leaks. He said he’s got “a bunch of friends ready to send trucks of food, but we can’t do anything now. It’s overwhelming. All we can do is just pray.”

Nguyen, 41, the first Vietnamese-American to be drafted and play for an NFL team, now owns and runs a Chick-fil-A franchise in Fort Worth. He said he hopes people don’t forget about his hometown. “Right now, we’re on the back burner.”


April Robertson plays with a dog after she and friends, including Nicole Hicks and her family, were rescued on Monday from Hicks' home in Houston. In August 2005, rescuers plucked Hicks and her family from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina in eastern New Orleans.

In August 2005, rescuers plucked Nicole Hicks and her family from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina in eastern New Orleans. On Monday, nearly 12 years later to the day, rescuers saved her again, from another hurricane in another city.

This time it was Houston, as the remnants of Harvey sat atop the city, dumping inch upon inch of rain, more than the drainage system could handle.

“We had 12 feet of water in our house for Katrina,” Hicks said. “We lost everything.”

The family moved to Houston and started over.

“Now we’re going through it again,” she said. “I’ve done lost everything again.”

Eight people and a dog woke up in her house Monday morning as water entered. By the time they left on a large rescue truck, three to four feet of water were in the house, said April Robertson, a guest of Hicks'. 

When Katrina drove them out, Hicks’ children were too young to understand what was happening. Now, they’re older and know. 

“It’s hard,” she said. “I’m just trying to stay positive.”


Port Aransas, Texas, resident Heather Miller, 53, reacts after Harvey's 132 mph winds blew apart many of the seaside businesses and houses.

Heather Miller had a shocked look on her face as she walked through the rubble left behind by Hurricane Harvey in Port Aransas.

Miller, a hotel maintenance worker, had a front row seat to Hurricane Harvey’s horror show. She witnessed the destruction through two big windows.

“A lot of times, all you could see was just straight water,” she said. “We just watched everything fall, little by little.”

She became alarmed when the Category 4 winds blew up two hotel doors. Miller said when she went to grab one of the doors to close it a 10-foot piece of sheet metal “flew right in front of me.”

“That’s when I knew how serious it was,” she said.

Miller said her boss urged her to stay at a local hotel because it would be safer than Miller’s townhouse.

“The roof actually came off (my) house. The whole house,” she said. “All the windows were busted out.”

As she assessed the damage all around her, she came to her own conclusion.

“Probably should’ve left,” Miller said. “I’ve never been through anything like this. Didn’t have any idea how bad it could be.”

Contributing: Claire Taylor and Kristin Askelson, The (Lafayette, La.) Daily Advertiser, Tim Archuleta, The Corpus Christi Caller -Times. Follow Kris Wartelle of The Daily Advertiser on Twitter: @KrisWartelleTDA. Greg Toppo reported from McLean, Va. Follow him on Twitter: @gtoppo