Triage: Behind the Scenes with a Navy of Good Samaritans
August 31, 2017
Last Friday, I dropped by the HEB after lunch to pick up a few supplies for the weekend. San Antonio was on the outer edges of Hurricane Harvey's path, and weather reports warned that we might get up to 15 inches of rain with high winds and flooding.
HEB was clotted with people. The water aisle was empty except for a case of Topo Chico (not the best advertisement), and the toilet paper aisle was the second most plundered. There was a sense of nervous excitement as people filled their carts with what remained on the shelves. ("Americans love a good end-of-the-world preparation," Adrian joked when I sent him photos.)
Only afterwards, when I was back in my car, did I realize how poorly I had done: no water, no canned goods; no candles, matches, or batteries. I had grabbed little more than berries, apples, and dried mango before annoyance with the crowd drove me from the store. Like many people, I suppose, I didn't truly think we would be stuck in our home for days on end.
And we weren't. While rain poured into the city and we hunkered down for the weekend, by Monday, things were back to normal. But not in other cities. Coastal towns, devastated. Houston, drowning. I couldn't look away from the news reports, the social media updates, the photos of water swallowing homes and highways, of soaked strangers pulling other soaked strangers onto leisure boats that were now lifesavers. I quickly donated to Red Cross (which, granted, now reports discourage), the Texas Diaper Bank, and San Antonio Pets Alive, which is accepting dozens of displaced pets. It wasn't enough, but I didn't know what else to do.
Then I saw a Facebook post from an old school friend, who said she'd just spent 24 hours on "dispatch" for hurricane relief. It turned out that Lisa Zuniga was spearheading a massive effort to help the Cajun Navy and Texas Navy--bands of civilians-turned-rescuers--on the back end. Using a walkie-talkie app called Zello and establishing and monitoring various channels, Lisa and a growing team of volunteers recorded addresses needing rescue into a spreadsheet, then onto a Google map, where blue pins indicated homes needing rescue and green pins indicated completed rescues. Using these maps and the dispatch channels, rescuers would be able to find those who needed them.
By the end of those 24 hours, there were more than 3,000 requests.
On Tuesday, I watched several tutorial videos another volunteer had made and jumped on spreadsheet duty. My job: texting people on the list for status updates--had they been rescued? had the situation worsened?--then updating the spreadsheet and the map to reflect them. Dozens of other volunteers were on the spreadsheet as well, and my heart soared as I confirmed 40 out of 60 rescues that day. But there were thousands, thousands, left, with more coming. The need was devastating, overwhelming.
Meanwhile, beside me, voices emerged from the Zello app. Dozens of them, once strangers, now identifiable to me. Lisa was clearly the group's leader, with another woman named Jasmine who was a strong, capable voice answering questions in multiple channels. Then came the voices of the rescuers, relaxed Cajun and Texan drawls belying their purpose and determination:
"We got boats pullin' up to that nursin' home now."
"Hey, I got 250 hot dogs I'm ready to cook for people if you can give me a good location."
"Comin' in from Lake Charles, what's the best route to get to Port Arthur? Over."
"Got heavy assets here: boats, trucks, and one, two, three, four, five, six Jet skis. Just gotta know where to take 'em."
In the background, the sound of rushing water.
In Zello, somehow dozens (hundreds?) of organizing volunteers had coordinated to make the process seem smooth. They accessed maps with various layers, calmly calling out water levels, docking sites, and nearest shelters. They advised the rescuers to use Waze and DriveTexas.org for the latest road conditions. They answered questions from data inputters. Everyone was astoundingly calm, despite uttering heart-wrenching updates like, "There is already one deceased in the house. They're waiting on the funeral home." No one, despite lack of sleep, snapped or lost their temper. Voices sometimes shook with tears barely held, but then throats were cleared and the reports continued. I was in awe.
I worked until 10 p.m. that first night, then hopped on as soon as I could yesterday afternoon. In addition to the spreadsheet work, I was trying to coordinate a rescue of three dogs and two cats that a family had been forced to leave behind when they evacuated. The owner, Gina, had texted me photos.
Photo credit: Gina Tolley
I couldn't imagine the heartbreak of leaving Lola and Cleo, and I promised I would do everything I could to try to get them rescued. I added the apartment's address to two animal rescue groups in Zello, asking for updates, listening in to rescues in progress.
"We have a goat on the roof with a bag of food."
"The four horses were deceased when we arrived."
"There's an elderly man with eight weenie dogs stuck in his apartment."
"There are twenty bulldogs at the volunteer fire station."
I kept an eye on the maps, but addresses kept being added. Meanwhile, the owner told me her husband was looking for a boat. We promised to keep each other posted.
I'd intended to continue my spreadsheet work, but Nichole was leaving the 911 dispatch group for some much-needed rest and Jasmine was looking for a replacement. I was terrified, but I volunteered, with no idea what the role actually entailed.
It turned out we had been given permission to access 911's call logs. Our job was to screen shot the logs to the spreadsheet group so that they could add the addresses to the sheet and map. Then someone--I--needed to call the ones listed as URGENT to get more details on the situations. From there, I would need to triage: a chemo patient running out of oxygen was given higher priority than the bedridden elderly man with prostate cancer whose family was retreating to the attic. The eight-months pregnant woman and her diabetic husband trapped in neck-deep water were higher priority than the seven people, including two 90-year-olds, stuck on the roof. The disabled 77-year-old grandparents and their 25-year-old caretaker, trapped in their Honda minivan since 5 a.m. without food or water, were higher priority than the disabled couple inside their house without food or water, the water rising outside. And the nursing home with 20 seniors over 70 years old, with various medical concerns, water up to their necks? There was no question.
The situations that were deemed the highest urgency were immediately dispatched to the rescue crews and, sometimes, the medical team, in addition to being added to the spreadsheet and map.
The calm voices on Zello the day before had inspired me. A few days ago, I wouldn't have thought I could do that job without crying, panicking, getting too flustered to be helpful. But my voice never wavered. I asked the important questions, the necessary questions: how high was the water now? How quickly was it rising? Did they have any medical issues? Could they swim? Were there any elderly or children? How many pets?
In the middle of the day, Gina, the pet-owner, contacted me: her husband had found a boat. Her beloved pets had been rescued. She sent me a photo, and for just a few seconds, I let myself look at it and cry in relief, and in sadness for all those who still needed help.
Photo credit: Gina Tolley
Then it was back to the 911 group, a channel of only three--later, four--of us working seamlessly together.
Occasionally, Jasmine returned with updates:
"The nursing home with 20 seniors has been rescued!"
"The man with prostate cancer has been rescued, but I'm not sure about the rest of the family. Can we check on that?" (I did, and they were.)
"The eight-months pregnant lady and her husband are safe!"
How to describe those moments? That sense that we'd formed a virtual human chain, voices calling out, hands outstretched, together performing the monumental, miraculous task of saving other human lives? How to describe what fell away? Everything. Everything that might separate us, everything that might trick us into believing we are individual, apart, fell away. We were connected, united, the volunteers on Zello, the ones feverishly inputting addresses into the spreadsheet and maps, the ones on the ground, forging paths through the unpassable, the ones waiting for the kindness, no, the duty, of strangers. Caring for each other, loving each other, is our duty.
On the screen, the 911 calls kept pouring in, as fast as Erin could screen shot them and sent them to the spreadsheets group. Several times, my phone rang with 832 or 713 or 281 area codes--people still awaiting rescue, counting on me to help them--and I felt a shiver of enormous responsibility.
One of those people was Lily Youngblood (whose name I only found out today, when I finally asked). Her grandparents were the disabled elderly couple trapped in the Honda with their caretaker. They were in the parking lot of a Chevron, or was it a Conoco, in Orange, Texas, off I-10 and Route 62, across from a Flying J. Their phones were dead. It had been more than 12 hours. Every time Lily called, I checked in with Erin and Jasmine, hoping to get an update from the rescuers. All I could tell Lily was that we had it on the map; our team knew about her grandparents and would get there as soon as they could.
Finally, at almost 10:00 last night, Lily texted me: they were safe. We had gotten there in time.
All night, I thought and dreamed about the stories I heard yesterday. I felt guilty for sleeping, or trying to, when I knew others were still manning those 911 dispatches, along with a million other, equally important tasks, and still thousands were sitting in the darkness, listening to water crawl up the walls. I thought of Gina, the pet-owner, who hadn't let me forget about them, even though I ultimately couldn't help, and Lily, who made sure her grandparents got the help they needed. And I suppose that's why I'm writing this.
I don't want you to forget.
I see how quickly the news cycle changes. I see jokes on Twitter and selfies on Instagram and memes on Facebook, and I think--No. This is so far from being over. There is so much more to do. And you can do something. You should do something. It is our human duty, to realize how deeply connected we all are, to understand that they--the other, the unfortunate, the despairing--might be us next time around and, in fact, they already are us.
The Salvation Army will remain in communities that have been impacted by Hurricane Harvey and is in need of donations to provide long-term disaster recovery efforts and ongoing assistance to those in need.
The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center is in urgent need of blood donations, especially type O negative and O positive. To donate blood, schedule an appointment at southtexasblood.org or call 1-(800) 292-5534 ext. 3500.
Food, monetary donations and volunteers are need at the San Antonio Food Bank, which is in response mode to support local and statewide needs. Most wanted items are nonperishable food, water, baby food, diapers, flashlights and batteries, new or packaged clothing , hygiene products and cleaning supplies. Donations can be dropped off from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. at the Food Bank warehouse, 5200 Enrique M. Barrera Pkwy.Donations and volunteer registration can be made online.
The Texas Diaper Bank is in need of monetary and diaper donations to provide kits to the families that are being displaced. Donations can be made at texasdiaperbank.networkforgood.com or by calling (210) 731-8118.
The City of San Antonio has coordinated donation drop-off locations for evacuees at district offices. Needed items are nonperishable food, water, baby food, diapers, hygiene items and new clothes. Donations can be taken too D1 Field Office, 1310 Vance Jackson; D2 Field Office, 2805 E. Commerce; D3 Field Office, 3319 Sidney Brooks D4 Field Office, 5102 Pearsall Road, D6 Field Office, 8373 Culebra Road; D7 Field Office, 4414 Centerview Suite, 160; D7 Field Office, 4414 Centerview, Suite 160; D8 Field Office, 9830 Colonnade, Suite 165; D9 Field Office, 1635 NE Loop 410; and D10 Field Office, 1635 NE Loop 410.
If you're in Laredo, there will be a Hurricane Harvey donation station set up at the Falcon Bank at 7718 McPherson Road on September 2, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Items needed: baby bottles, formula, food, clothes, powder, wipes, diapers, and blankets; blankets and pillows; clothing; toiletries; bottled water; canned fruits; granola/energy bars; instant soups; animal food and blankets. Please search your pantries, closets, and hearts, and donate what you can.
I know it's easier to look away than to face the devastation, and what feels like our own powerlessness in its wake. But please--don't look away. If every one of us does what we can, not just for this disaster but beyond, it will matter. It will make a difference.