Meet The Veterans Who Set Up A Volunteer Rescue Operation After Harvey

After Harvey slammed into Houston late last week, a group of veterans from across Texas descended on the region to save lives. By Wednesday, their ranks had swollen to more than 200.

HOUSTON — Buck Buchanan was at home in San Antonio watching the news when Harvey, then a tropical storm, slammed into Houston. As the former US Marine — who served from 1999 to 2006 — watched the scene unfold, he realized two things: first, that the situation looked really bad; and second, that he might be able to do something.

"I called a couple of guys and said, 'We should go help. It doesn’t look like they were ready for this,'" Buchanan told BuzzFeed News.

By Wednesday, Buchanan's idea had grown into a small army of more than 200, mostly former US service members, who had shown up to traverse the city in boats and truck convoys, looking for people to pull from their homes and carry to safety.

The group — which sprang up almost literally overnight — is one of many that have responded to the disaster with boats, supplies, and manpower, and which have played a major role this week in saving lives.

Buchanan's group goes by the name Houstonrescue on Facebook, and operates out of a small office space in west Houston. From here, leaders in the group dispatch teams, usually of four people, in a boat to flooded areas.

The office is half military headquarters and half clubhouse, with a rotating cast of veterans coming in as they returned from missions on Wednesday. In the front, a whiteboard displays logistics such as key assets and target areas, while in the back, couches and pizza greet new arrivals.

Volunteers in the group have different roles depending on their skills, and there is a loose command structure that works, it appears, because nearly everyone there has experience of taking orders and working as a unit.

This has allowed the volunteers to move quickly from site to site, including on Wednesday morning when a team was dispatched to help an older woman retrieve her medication from a home that was under several feet of water.

Dan Alarik — a 35-year-old former Army drill sergeant who is now using his clothing company to raise money for Houston — went on that mission.

"An older lady who was a school teacher, an art teacher, said 'I just need my meds,'" Alarik — another organizer of the veterans' group who has used his social media skills to raise its profile — told BuzzFeed News. "And we boated all the way out there."

When they arrived, the water reached Alarik's chest and the woman's neck. In order to get inside, he ended up having to lift her out of the inflatable raft and carry her through the flood. But they managed to get the woman's medicine, as well as a mink coat.

"Her mom just died, and she wanted her mom's coat, which is soaked in sewage water," Alarik said. "But she's like, 'It's important to me.'"

Alarik said the woman was in good spirits as they floated back to safety, but not every situation goes as smoothly. Johnathan Wojtewicz, a 33-year-old former Marine, described one rescue in which a family initially didn't want to abandon their home — despite it being under 4 feet of water.

"There are some people who want to be rescued and there are people who don’t," he said.

Wojtewicz, who lives in Austin and runs a nonprofit with his wife that helps veterans start businesses, brought his boat to the Houston rescue effort. Over several days, it has been loaded with both people and pets.

He was part of a group that rescued a deer on Tuesday.

John Litton, a 38-year-old Army veteran from Rockwall, Texas, told BuzzFeed News the deer was "very bad off" when they approached it behind a flooded house.

"Both hind legs were raw and bleeding," Litton said. "When they got it in the boat it was as calm as can be."

The rescuers eventually handed the deer over to an emergency veterinarian for care.

Many other members of the veterans group told BuzzFeed News about other rescues. They spoke of climbing up to the second floors of flooded homes to find people, of wading from block to block to get through flooded neighborhoods, and of negotiating hazards like live electrical wires.

"We were swimming around pretty much most of the time," Litton said of one recent rescue.

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Like the military branches most of the volunteers used to be members of, the army of rescuers relies on a significant outside support network — though in this case it's based on donations. The office that serves as headquarters was donated by Derek Sisson, a 51-year-old Marine Corps veteran who normally uses the space for his bourbon company.

"During these conditions, I'm certainly not using my office," Sisson told BuzzFeed News. "And since its centrally located, what better central staging point is there than this place?"

Sisson has also been going out on rescues, including staying out until about 3 a.m. Wednesday morning.

"I spent the night here," Sisson said, gesturing toward his office. "Then I went over to my place and now we're flooded because of the levee situation."

The group also relies on donated supplies, a large shipment of which arrived Wednesday afternoon on a huge former military transport truck. With the need for water rescues diminishing — the rain ended a day earlier and the water levels in many areas were holding steady or falling — the volunteers set about packaging the donations so they could be distributed to people who were displaced.

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Wojtewicz's wife, Sabrina — who helped organize donations — told BuzzFeed News that things like food and towels were donated by a variety of Austin-area businesses, churches, and nonprofits.

Most of the veterans who spoke with BuzzFeed News Wednesday had a matter-of-fact attitude about why they decided to volunteer, and in many case take time off work, to crisscross flooded Houston neighborhoods.

And many said it was the Texas way.

"It's Texans helping Texans," Wojtewicz said.

"This is Texas, we’re helping Texas," Shilo Harris, a 42-year-old Army veteran, told BuzzFeed News. "This is home for us all and when something happens we rally and make it better."

Buchanan agreed, explaining his reasons for helping by saying simply that "people needed help."

"That’s what we kind of do in the military," Buchanan said. "If you can do something, you do it."

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