Hurricane Harvey — Jon-Boat Navy to the Rescue

The boats and the circumstances are all different and yet each in its way is the same, from the “little ships” of Dunkirk, to the Manhattan Boat-Lift of 9/11, to the jon-boat navy of the Texas Gulf coast. When people need help, mariners of every stripe come to the rescue. 

The flooding caused on the Texas Gulf coast by Hurricane Harvey is unprecedented. A third of Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, the fourth largest city in the US, with a population of 4 million, is now fully underwater. And the flood waters just keep rising. Rainfall totals in some areas are expected to exceed 4 feet.

The US Coast Guard and local first-responders have been rescuing people by boat since the flooding began but have been overwhelmed by the scope and scale of the disaster. On Monday alone, the Coast Guard rescued 3,000 from the waters.

Local officials issued a call to private boat owners to join in the rescue efforts. From all over Texas and Louisiana, the jon-boat navy answered the call. Hundreds of private citizens towed their fishing boats to the waters’ edge and launched their own rescues of those trapped by the rising waters. 

To be fair, not all the boats are jon-boats, although the flat bottomed skiffs are perfect for navigating the flooded streets which had become streams and rivers. Many of the boats are larger fiberglass fishing boats and some are smaller inflatables. A small armada of Cajun-style airboats have arrived as have boaters on jet-skis. All the boats are shallow enough to float where the water could reach from just over knee deep to depths of more than ten feet. 

The local boaters coming to the rescue have been dubbed the Texas Navy while veterans of Hurricane Katrina, the self-titled Cajun Navy, hauled their boats in from Louisiana.

NPR reports: “I’ve been able to rescue 10 to 15 people at a time. Yesterday was a very good day. We rescued 53 people into the night,” says Ray Ortega, an oilfield tool salesman, who drove up from his home in Victoria pulling a 23-foot fishing boat that he usually uses in the Gulf to go after speckled trout and redfish. Ortega was looking for a place to launch his boat and rescue more people….

Brothers Jay and Manuel Cano came out with their green rowboat to rescue a relative stranded in the flooded Denver Harbor neighborhood.

“We got my wife’s sister in there without no light or water since all this started, so we’re gonna see if we can help her get out,” says Jay.

Some residents of the flooded neighborhoods have begun to panic and grow desperate.  CNN quotes Clyde Cain, of the Cajun Navy, describing a boat which had broken down. While the crew sought shelter in a delivery truck, people tried to steal the inoperable boat.

“They’re making it difficult for us to rescue them,” he said. “You have people rushing the boat. Everyone wants to get in at the same time. They’re panicking. Water is rising.”

Because of the hostile responses, the Cajun Navy has been forced to halt some rescue attempts, Cain said.

“We have boats being shot at if we’re not picking everybody up. We’re having to pull out for a minute. We’re dropping an airboat right now to go rescue a couple of our boats that broke, and they’re kind of under attack,” he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers has floodgates and is releasing water from two major reservoirs that are perilously full from the tropical deluge. This is expected to push Buffalo Bayou — which flows through the middle of Houston — even higher. Some worry that will cause the flooding to get even worse.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service reports that Harvey is expected to produce 15 to 25 inches of additional rainfall over the upper Texas coast and into southwestern Louisiana through Friday.

Thanks to Irwin Bryan for contributing to this post.

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