Special to The Gardner News
The disastrous flooding in Texas from Hurricane Harvey prompted three local men to respond to a need for shallow water boats. Tim Berger, who lives in Edgerton and works for Century Link in Gardner, recruited a couple of his buddies – they all took time off work and loaded up in Berger’s truck with his boat in tow and hit the road south for Texas.
Responding to the call
On Sunday night, Berger had heard on news reports and social media that some Texas towns were in need of people with trucks and shallow water boats to assist in local rescue efforts. He said he thought to himself – “I have a truck and I have a boat. I should go.”
He talked with his wife, and she was OK with it. The next day he told his supervisor at Century Link what he wanted to do and they said go for it.
Berger knew this was definitely not a trip to be taken alone. A crew was needed, so Berger recruited a couple of friends, Josh Hamberg and Brian Elvis Britt, who also had to take time off work.
He posted about his plan for the trip on Facebook and soon got inquiries from people wanting to help. One set up a fundraiser account to help pay fuel and expenses. Others asked him what kind of items people would most need.
Berger was in the military in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and was involved in setting up and running a large emergency supply distribution site. He had some suggestions on what type of products to collect based on that experience.
“What people were struggling with was hygiene products, products for babies and dogs, and things like that,” he recalled about 1992 flooding.
On Tuesday donations were collected for Berger to deliver. That evening they loaded the supplies into the boat.
The road south
The team left Gardner Wednesday morning at 6 a.m., expecting to end up in Houston, Texas.
First they needed to find a location to deliver the supplies in the boat. The boat trailer isn’t intended to carry the extra weight, and they wanted to get it unloaded as soon as they could.
“We found a place in Dallas that was collecting for hurricane relief. Everyone there was grateful it was hygiene products. No one else had dropped off a load of hygiene products, so that was good,” he said.
They left Dallas with a lighter load and headed towards Houston. As Berger drove, others were working to determine the precise destination.
“My wife was online trying to make contact with emergency services down there, on where we needed to be routed, and the two guys that were with me were on the phones were doing the same thing. Whoever came up with the meat and potatoes on where we needed to go, we were going to go there,” he said.
Before they got to Houston, they learned the waters were receding and there were now too many boats there.
Change of destination
Berger asked his wife back home to find another location. Before long she directed them to Beaumont, which is about 85 miles east of Houston, near Port Arthur on the coast.
The closer they got to the coast, the more roads were flooded, and the more difficult finding a route into the area became.
“That’s when we first started getting a glimpse of the devastation and how far the flooding actually was,” he said.
Interstate 90 into Beaumont was flooded. They were soon going to be driving on flooded roads and didn’t want to do that on unfamiliar roads in the dark.
They pulled into the parking lot of an abandoned gas station and decided they would get a few hours sleep and venture onward at daylight.
The owners of the gas station had apparently left in a hurry and forgot to turn off the music looping on the PA system.
“It was completely abandoned, shutters pulled, and the music playing over the PA system. There were no other buildings, nobody around – and that music playing, like a Stephen King movie,” he says with a laugh.
Before the night was over, another truck and boat team of two men from Springfield Missouri pulled in. After talking a while, the two groups on a common mission decided to team up.
“Turns out they would be with us for the rest of the trip. We had two boats and five guys now,” Berger says.
Getting to work in Beaumont
It was again a strange scene that morning – almost all the other traffic was heading west, leaving the area they were entering.
After a while, they did find traffic moving east – a convoy of larger trucks loaded with relief supplies. They merged with the convoy and traveled with it into the town of Beaumont.
Once in town, they split from the convoy and reported to emergency services, whom they had been in contact with the night before. They were directed to a location where they could park the trucks and launch the boats.
“As soon as we got there, there were people needing help – before we even got a chance to set up,” Berger said. They gave a man a ride part of the way to the Greyhound bus station. A woman asked them for water for her children and they gave her some.
Soon after being launched, Berger’s boat hit something and broke the prop. He had an extra prop onboard. They dropped anchor and changed the prop there in the middle of the river.
It was one of many difficulties the crew would face.
Berger said his primary rule for the entire trip was to not be a burden – meaning not becoming someone who needed assistance – so he had tried to prepare in every way he could.
East to Orange
After moving south towards Port Arthur, they were directed northeast to the town of Orange, Texas, by emergency services.
Orange became their responsibility that night. They received dispatches to go to specific addresses, check on residents and report back.
One home was known to have two known heart patients in it, and authorities did not know if they were out or not.
That was a typical dispatch. There was no one home at the majority of the addresses they were sent to, yet the task of verification is an essential part of the overall recovery work.
They had to enter residences and go room to room to ensure there was no one injured and in need of help.
Among the many potential dangers was running across looters or a homeowner who might mistake you for a looter. They did not confront any looters but they did see damage they caused.
That night when the dispatches stopped coming in, they found a Wells Fargo office that had a dry parking lot. They were getting ready to get some sleep when another call came in.
During this response, they threw the serpentine belt on the truck. Berger didn’t have a spare one of those. The next day, with some help from locals, they got a serpentine belt at the abandoned auto parts store. A police officer connected them with a man, who used to work there at one time and knew how they stocked inventory, who helped them locate the belt.
They changed the belt in the parking lot and were back in business. The rest of the day was spent doing more verification.
By Saturday morning, water levels had receded and the National Guard had moved in full force. The situation was much improved from the previous days, and the group decided it was time for them to go home.
“We saw a lot of good people out there trying to do good things,” said Berger.
He said everyone in his group had expectations of what they might accomplish before they left and had time on the way home to evaluate on how the actual experience measured up.
“After we left and started heading north, after reflecting and talking through it openly with each other, we felt pretty good. We contributed.”