Inside Houston, the City Is Running Out of Sleep, Fuel, and Lives to Save

Storm-tracking technology offers a glimmer of hope but volunteers and rescue workers face unprecedented operation to reach families trapped by the floodwaters.

Joe Raedle/Getty

HOUSTON—As darkness fell over Houston on Tuesday evening, three military helicopters circled above Tidwell Road, while near its intersection with the Sam Houston Tollway, a huge dump truck plowed through the water toward the highway carrying at least seven children to safety in its giant hopper.

But Tidwell Road isn't technically a road at all: Since the weekend, it’s become a vast river snaking into the distance. It’s also become a kind of ground zero for the Houston floods—a staging ramp from which the police, sheriff's deputies, the National Guard, ATF, Border Patrol, and a host of other agencies and civilians take to the water throughout the day and night in air boats, fishing skiffs, ATVs, and jetskis to assist in a search and rescue effort that has already saved 13,000 people and shows no signs of slowing down.

The first responders are tired. One Harris County sheriff's deputy told me: “There are no days off during something like this. I’ve been working five days straight, sleeping in my truck. I’m wearing the same stuff I was five days ago. My family’s OK. My house is OK. But I haven’t been home. Tonight I’ll go to sleep in my truck at the station then I’ll wake up and do it over again.”

Since Sunday, Houston has been effectively cut off from the outside world— with almost every road in and out blocked by flooding. Restaurants are mostly closed, gas pumps taped up. The city feels sealed off, and if floodwaters don’t recede and roads don’t open soon, what provisions it does have could run out.

Tuesday began with rain but by the afternoon the sun was pushing through the clouds and the forecast for Houston looked brighter. According to storm-surge models published by the Coastal Emergency Risks Assessment at Louisiana State University, Tropical Storm Harvey will now track east of Houston over the next few days, up through western Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

That doesn’t mean the danger is over, or that the death toll—which local officials say stands at 18—won’t mount. As one local reporter told me: “Once the floodwaters go down, that’s when we find bodies in sunken cars or in homes we couldn’t reach.”

What’s more, in some areas water levels are rising again after officials released water from a crucial reservoir in the west of the city to try to prevent catastrophic flooding there. According to forecasts this could result in Buffalo Bayou, the river that flows through downtown Houston, to rise by 3.5 feet over the next few days.

Tri and Kim Le have lived in Lakes of Eldridge North, a community above Addicks Dam, for the past decade. “Addicks Reservoir runs into Buffalo Bayou but it’s backing up; it’s getting too full,” Tri Le told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. The couple’s house was high enough to escape flooding, but try to turn left out of the neighborhood from the Le’s driveway and you’re met with a river where a road once was.

“We’re fortunate though,” Le said. “My brother-in-law’s house down the road has water up to the garage and it’s getting deeper. South of here, in the communities on Lakes of Eldridge, they’re in three feet of water.”

Le said he and his wife thought about leaving yesterday but they figured they couldn’t get anywhere.

Despite the grim outlook, there are still tales of heroism and charity in this city—stories that seem to act as an engine powering this community’s spirits. Milton Esteva, who lives with his wife and two children in the Briar Hills community, close to the dam, was evacuated and the family decamped to a nearby Holiday Inn, only to find 24 hours later that they were hemmed in by flooding there too. What’s more, their youngest daughter, Viviana, was just 21 days old and they desperately needed supplies.

That’s when Esteva bumped into Heather Wagner on the street outside the hotel. Wagner, who lives in Westchase, said she had just gone to the area to see if she could be useful. “I’ve just come out with my three-quarter-ton truck to see if I could help. And this man needed to go to the store so I’m going to give him a ride.”

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On the far east of the city, not far from Tidwell Road, Billy Breedlove was launching his fishing boat with two friends after hearing that people in a nearby apartment complex needed evacuating after the first floor was submerged.

Breedlove, a high-school swimming coach for the Texas Terrapins in Cypress, Texas, uses a smartphone app, Zello, which acts like a walkie talkie, and during Houston’s floods has helped give rescuers up-to-the-minute information about who needs rescuing. “I came down with my buddies Phil and Chris,” Breedlove said. “I have a boat, a little bit of technology. You’re supposed to help your neighbor out and that’s what we’re here for.”

The problem for rescue workers like him is that Houston is so vast and there are neighborhoods still overwhelmed by floodwaters all over this city. Like those trapped during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans 12 years ago, some of those needing rescuing here are stuck inside their attics or waiting on rooftops. Others have become trapped when their vehicles stall while attempting to drive through floodwaters.

But there is a glimmer of hope: At the moment at least, for the next four days, there is no rain in the forecast.