Helicopters, pickups and airboats: How your donations are getting to Harvey’s victims

Originally published Sept. 4, 2017 in The Dallas Morning News.

ORANGE, Texas — A coordinated effort between the National Guard, American Red Cross volunteers and regular folks with boats and trucks is getting supplies from generous Texans into the hands of people who need it most.

To see this goodwill in action, zoom in and study an informal supply line from Central Texas to a flooded town northeast of Beaumont.

Private planes and military helicopters are transporting loads of Pampers, canned food and bottled water from Georgetown and other Texas cities to airstrips in Southeast Texas. National Guard troops and volunteers haul the supplies from an emergency operations center in Orange, on the state line between Texas and Louisiana, to smaller “pods” in towns like Vidor.

From Vidor, the donations are carried by a pickup truck, to the deck of an airboat, to the stranded community of Pine Forest.

All before finding the hands of the people still stranded in rural parts of Orange County as the floodwaters just now begin to recede.

The plane over Orange

Flying high above his old hometown, Fred Brent sees miles and miles of water where roads and churches and homes and schools should be. It brings back old memories of growing up in Orange.

“It pretty much broke my heart when I saw this,” he said. “It takes a long time for people to recover, but these people know how to recover.”

He was born and raised here. He once was principal of nearby Mauriceville Middle School and Orange High School. He lives in Georgetown now. There, volunteers packed private planes with supplies and flew them down to small regional airports around Southeast Texas.

Brent was helping out in Georgetown when he heard a pilot say he was headed for Orange County Airport, just west of Orange. He hopped on and flew home.

Now, with the pilot still on the tarmac in Orange, Brent hops out and runs toward a group of volunteers — local families whose homes have been flooded but who want to get out of the house and help give back.

“Y’all loading up stuff where it’s needed?” he says. “I’ve got a plane full of water.”

The crew of young volunteers goes to work, creating an assembly line to empty the plane’s cargo of water, mops, diapers and Big Red soda. Using forklifts and pickups, they carry the supplies into a large hangar. They stack and sort the donations and prepare to send the boxes into the county.

At the emergency operations center

By the next afternoon, the airport is abuzz with activity. Literally. The thumping of large military aircraft is nearly constant.

The Texas National Guard has had a presence at Orange County Airport since it became an emergency operations center. They were joined by Louisiana National Guard troops, U.S. Special Forces soldiers and more state and local law enforcement personnel to help coordinate efforts.

A Black Hawk helicopter lands. A group of soldiers gathers to empty its cargo onto pallets. Then a massive Chinook helicopter lands nearby, and drops even more big pallets of water. Then another Black Hawk. Then another Chinook.

LIVE from a donation distribution center in Orange.

Posted by The Dallas Morning News on Sunday, September 3, 2017

As packages are unloaded and sorted, large military trucks — the kind that can easily barrel through flooded streets — back up to the hangar and are loaded by forklift with big pallets of water.

A soldier climbs to the top of the truck, and notices that there is empty space between pallets. “Hey, let’s fill this space with diapers and all that critical [expletive],” he shouts over the din of a nearby Black Hawk.

The troops carry diapers and formula and other essentials to fill the space, packing  every spare inch of the truck’s bed with donations destined for the community.

Orange County is operating four “pods,” or distribution centers, to help get needed supplies to rural communities. Once the truck is loaded down, it rumbles to life, rolls out of the airport, down the highway and toward those pods.

Down a flooded highway

Eugene Collins, a volunteer, has been making runs between a distribution pod at Vidor Middle School and a flooded area around Pine Forest for the past two days.

He fills up the bed of a pickup truck with iced-down coolers, stacks of water cases, MRE boxes and more. He drives north on Main Street to FM 1131 and heads west.

The road is flooded. Around a corner and across a flooded bridge, is Pine Forest, where 100 to 150 people are stranded without power and food.

The National Guard has not made it out this far, so volunteers with long guns and unholstered pistols hop onto different boats to provide security. Search and rescue means neighbors in flat bottom boats and kayaks slowly paddling out into the neighborhood.

These are the kind of folks all of the donations are meant for. But the going is slow in small boats, and the residents of Pine Forest are on the other side, waiting.

“It’s what we do, just the way it is around here,” Collins says. “We’re just trying to keep helping people.”

While Collins waits for another flat-bottom boat to putter back from Pine Forest, a bigger boat pulls up alongside his truck at the water’s edge.

The custom-built Diamondback airboat with LED lighting and camouflage siding was not made for this kind of thing, but since Harvey rolled into Houston, Brooks Bonin has been using it as a rescue vehicle.

Bonin is a local business owner who took his airboat to Houston for water rescues last week, then turned back home when he heard his own neighbors were in trouble. He’s been pulling long hours of ferrying as many as two dozen people at a time, getting little sleep in the meantime.

“Can you bring in supplies?” Collins shouts.

“You got someone who needs it?” Bonin says from the airboat.

“Yeah, about 60 families.”

Bonin motions for him to load it up, and another assembly line appears. Volunteers from as close as Vidor and as far as Arlington load the dock with cases of water bottles, MREs and bags of ice.

The airboat idles down the flooded highway. The water is starting to go down, and in some places, Bonin has to crank the airboat engine to coast over dry asphalt, destroying the polymer bottom of his vessel.

Yet for most of this low-lying neighborhood, the flooding is far from over. Murky brown water is up to the eaves of many homes, covering trailers and mobile homes, reaching up flagpoles toward tattered Dixie flags. Some cars are floating. Some mailboxes have been crushed flat by rushing water.

In front of one home, long abandoned, someone has nailed a makeshift sign to a tree just above the water line: “Gone Fishing”.

The water’s edge

Bonin’s airboat makes it to the other side of the flooded highway. There, on dry land, a blue Toyota pickup truck is waiting.

Gary Bickens, a volunteer whose wife works as a local police dispatcher, puts the truck in reverse, and backs it up to the water’s edge. Bonin cuts the boat’s engine and coasts onto the asphalt. Bickens splashes into the water in jeans to carry boxes and bags of donations into the bed of the truck.

“They’ve got so much stuff,” Bonin says from the boat’s deck, handing off cases of water. “They’ve got guys with planes coming in to Orange. They’ve got so much stuff from everywhere.”

The drop-off lasts just a few minutes. Soon, the truck is full, the boat is empty, and Bickens quickly drives off, over a hill and into a setting sun. The ice is melting. Another boatload of donations is headed for Pine Forest.