In the two weeks since Hurricane Harvey hit, there have been many stories of heroism. Stories about regular people answering a call to help people they did not know escape situations of mortal peril have been common.
On the night of Aug. 26, 18 people were in La Vita Bella, an assisted living home in Dickinson. Fifteen of those people were women in the care of the facility. Three were employees. Harvey had made landfall about 200 miles south the night before, and forecasters were predicting days of rain — as much as 30 inches over five days. Almost twice that amount fell in a matter of hours.
While Dickinson city officials had called for a voluntary evacuation of people with exceptional medical or mobility needs, La Vita Bella’s owner, Trudy Lampson, had decided not to evacuate the facility, particularly since the rains had already brought some flooding to the area on Saturday morning.
The next heavy rainfall began about 10 p.m. Saturday night. Within hours, floodwaters had begun to rise around the county, spurring hundreds of 911 calls.
Tammy Odom, Texas City’s municipal court supervisor, reported to the Texas City Emergency Operations Center and was initially directed to help handle nonemergency phone calls. But the scope of the emergency quickly grew, she said.
Odom: We first received a call that was forwarded to us by dispatch. I believe it came in as a bounced 911. We were advised by a young lady at the nursing home that she was there, along with her mother, and they were the evening sitters for the facility.
They had several ladies, and water was coming into the building.
At that time, we did not realize Dickinson was overwhelmed by 911 calls and they were actually bouncing. Once we were able to obtain the address, I advised them to call back to their local 911, since they would be more easily accessible to their own department.
We didn’t realize that Dickinson was having issues with their communication system. That came several hours later. She did attempt to dial 911 again, and ended up back with us.
She was extremely distressed. She was a young girl in a very high-stress situation, and obviously she was very concerned about the residents.
Assistant Texas City Fire Chief Jesse Rubio: We’re talking a high-stress situation within our EOC where hundreds of calls were coming in. For Tammy to be able to single that moment out and reassure her that somehow, some way help was coming was incredible.
Odom: I just reassured her that she was OK. At that point, the water was only about ankle deep. I asked her to assess the patients, to check on them, to put hands on each one of them, and check them and make sure they were OK and reassure them that help was on the way and that we were doing everything we could to get resources there to her.
She did that. I also asked her to make sure that everyone was in a common area, to get them out of their rooms and into one location. Since it was just the two workers there, I wanted them to be able to see each one of the ladies until we could get help there.
When the water got up to their laps, was really when we realized that it was going to be us. We were going to do whatever it took to get those folks out safely.
Rubio: We had multiple rescues going on in Texas City at the time on South Point and the particular boat that we were going to need for this was in the back of a dump truck and they were headed back with people they pulled out.
When they got done with that, that’s when that crew — Joe Tumbleson, Mike Rusnak, C.J. Soto and Edwin Newton — I had them stop. I gave them the address of what was going on and how many people we were looking at.
There was a lot of concern. Those guys came into the EOC cold, soaking wet, tired. I didn’t know the last time they ate, and when I told them what was going on, they never hesitated.
They looked at me and said “Yes, sir” and they left and they never hesitated.
Texas City Fire Department Engineer C.J. Soto: I live in Katy. Me and another engineer drove in together. We had a bunch of floodwater in Dickinson that we had to get around, and we finally got into Texas City. As far as we got was (Emmett F Lowry Expressway) and FM 146. We had to park his truck on EFL above the water. Joe Tumbleson and Rusnak came and picked me up.
This was 7:30-ish.
There was a lot going on, but it was handled very well. There was order. It wasn’t just pure chaos, but you could tell there was a lot going on.
Texas City Fire Department Battalion Chief Joe Tumbleson: Mike and I were in a dump truck with an inflatable rescue boat in Texas City, rescuing people from their homes. Then we got a call to pick up a motor to put on the back of the boat. We went to the EOC and talked to Chief Rubio and he was talking about the confusion at the nursing home.
We took a dump truck from there to Dickinson, to the exit ramp on 517.
Texas City Fire Department Capt. Mike Rusnak: It was still raining. There was a good current on 517. I think I saw that a boat was flipped, too.
Odom: We coordinated with the Coast Guard to get some helos sent that way, to visually get an idea about what was going on.
Rubio: We initially got a report that they were rescued, so we thought we were going to be able to stand down. Then we found out that they weren’t. I actually made a phone call and talked to a gentleman at the facility. That’s when he told me, “We’re not rescued, we’re still here.”
Tumbleson: The current was moving hard from west to east. It was like a river under the freeway. It was definitely difficult. We were looking for the street sign for Oak. We didn’t have our phones with us, because we didn’t have any waterproof cases or anything like that, so we left our phones in the truck. I didn’t have a GPS or anything, so I just kept hoping we didn’t pass that street.
Soto: I stayed at the intersection with the dump truck as kind of command. I was arranging what trucks we needed to pick the people up. We didn’t even know what was going on at the nursing home at the time.
Rubio: There was a lot of problems getting to the nursing home. It wasn’t just get in the water and go. It was worse than what we could possibly imagine trying to make a rescue.
Tumbleson: We came to a couple bridges. I guess the creeks ran under the bridge to go to the bayou. They were low bridges but they were just out of the water. So we’d have to get out of the boat and drag it across those bridges, get the motor out and drag it back down and go to the next one.
Rubio: He called me several times on the radio to tell me it’s not going to be that easy getting to them.
I’ve worked with Joe for 20-plus years and he’s the type of person that he doesn’t embellish. He tells you straight from the hip what’s going on. I could tell from the sound of his voice that it wasn’t going to be easy. What they were facing was hard.
Soto: All we knew was that it was off of Oak Street. I was asking the people with me if they knew how far down it was. I didn’t have a map in front of me at the time. I was trying to get as much information as I could from people that were around me.
The Texas City crew eventually reached La Vita Bella. They had been beaten there by a family member of one of the facility’s residents, who had driven a small bass boat to the building and was trying to retrieve residents.
Rusnak: We actually asked if this was the nursing home. It was one of the staff that was outside. The bass boat was already there, they were pulling in the same time as us.
Tumbleson: It was shocking to walk in that front door to see all those ladies with water up to their necks. Everyone was real calm. Nobody was panicking or anything. But there was furniture floating around the house. The doors were real hard to open because of all the water pressure.
It was disturbing. I guess that’s a good word for it.
We started talking to them and telling them we were going to get them out of there. Mike helped carry a couple out to that bass boat.
The bass boat then left the house, leaving Tumbleson’s crew behind with more than a dozen people.
Tumbleson: There was nobody else there but us and our boat was too small to put anybody in, especially to drag them across the bridges.
Rusnak: The nursing staff was excellent, they were very calm.
Tumbleson: At one point, we went into a closet with the staff and found an oxygen bottle that was under water to get oxygen onto one of the ladies. It was in the closet, on a shelf under water. She felt for it and brought it out.
There was a time after that first boat left that I was concerned that if the water got much higher ... I didn’t know what else we would do. I just didn’t know. I knew there was a lot of current coming though there and the rain was off and on, and heavy.
Soto: I’ve known Battalion Chief Tumbleson for eight years, and I’ve never heard that kind of tone in his voice. I knew it was serious. I’ve never heard him sound like that on the radio. He’s a very happy-go-lucky guy who loves his job and I’ve never heard him with that kind of tone.
Tumbleson: I was really hoping to get a helicopter. We put Mike on the roof. We thought we heard it, but we never saw it. I don’t know how much time passed.
Soto: I ended up getting a private boat and two air boats that were private as well to go out to the nursing home to help pick up people. They were willing to go out.
As that was being arranged, the Texas Army National Guard, which had been coordinating its efforts through the Galveston County Emergency Operations Center, arrived with two large trucks.
Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark: We deployed as quick as we could in those predawn hours, from what I can recall. We were scrambling to marshal our forces to begin the rescue effort. Even though it was predawn, we were focusing all the rescue efforts starting at daylight. Because it’s hard to rescue people in the dark.
When you have a nursing home, you have people that are not as ambulatory as you or I might be. It was an issue we took very seriously. We wrote it up on the board. It was our major focus. It was, honestly, one of the first locations that had resources dispatched to it.
Tumbleson: It was nice to see those two National Guard trucks rolling up, it was a big relief.
Rusnak: The rest we found floated on mattresses really well. So we put them on mattresses to float them out to the National Guard that had big deuce-and-a-halfs (Army slang for 2.5-ton utility trucks) that we were able to load them into.
Soto: The first boat that we had, they were able to take four people from the nursing home and those four were all wheelchair-bound. We had the dump truck back as far down the feeder as it could after the intersection and we had the boat pull up to the dump truck.
They were all hypothermic, of course. They were very lethargic. Definitely cold and wet.
There was normal old-people chatter. They were worried about their hair getting wet, stuff like that. I think a lot of that was hypothermia.
Tumbleson: After everybody was gone, we went back through the house one more time to triple-check that there was no one left. This was a house converted into a nursing home, so there were rooms everywhere. We walked all through that thing. We noticed six cats in there still and a couple of chickens. They looked safe.
The cats and chickens survived the night and eventually also were rescued, La Vita Bella owners told The Daily News.
Rubio: It was big relief, but, it was like, that challenge was out of the way, but we had four or five more looking at us.
Like many other departments, The Texas City Fire Department continued performing water rescues for the next 48 hours.
The residents and employees of La Vita Bella were taken to local hospitals, and later to an assisted living facility in Alvin for shelter.
As the rescue was going on, a picture of the residents taken by the owner and sent to her relatives began to circulate online, sparking nationwide interest. All of the groups involved in the evacuation say the rescue was well underway before the picture went viral.
Tumbleson: We had no idea it was up on social media.
Clark: By the time you saw the picture, they were rescued.
Rubio: It’s in Boston, it’s in Time Magazine. You hear a lot about the bad things that happen. The take from this is the good things that happen. These agencies came together, citizens came together, people that don’t necessarily answer phones all the time had that calm reassuring voice.
Tumbleson: I know that same story was played out over many counties that had this same problem that will probably never be told. A lot of people did the same stuff we were doing. I don’t think it was a unique rescue. I imagine there was a whole lot of people doing what we were doing.
I know for a couple days, every time you laid down or closed your eyes you’d think about all those people. Not only just the nursing home, but all the people sitting in cars or walking down the street with little kids. That level of devastation was hard to look at.
Clark: It was a sense of accomplishment. One of many that day. It really restored my confidence in mankind. If you listen to the mainstream TV media, you’d think we’re all at each other’s throat. That’s not the case, it was a real humbling experience, to be able to have gone through this and seen how people have come together. It’s made the community much tighter-knit.