By Kyle Wintersteen, Managing Editor
Kyle Vecsey clutched the familiar grip of his surface-drive outboard, reading the water for changes in currents and subtle signs of submerged debris — skills honed, he says, while “growing up” in his grandfather’s boat. But this was no ordinary water, for beneath it lay the city streets of Port Arthur, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 25 and dumped 26 inches of rain in 24 hours.
“I can definitely say I never expected to run a mud motor down city streets,” said Vecsey, 23, a volunteer for the Ellis County Chapter of Delta Waterfowl in Waxahachie, Texas. “But some hunting buddies and I decided when the storm hit that we needed to do something. We felt like God was calling us to go serve and we were prepared to do whatever that meant.”
Vecsey was not alone in his sentiments and desire to help. Hundreds of Delta Waterfowl volunteers and nearly every Delta chapter in Texas and Louisiana have participated in Hurricane Harvey rescue, relief and recovery efforts. Many of them joined forces with the “Texas Navy,” as it’s come to be known, a civilian rescue effort largely consisting of duck hunters and anglers who reportedly outnumbered government rescuers by the hundreds.
“Delta volunteers and duck hunters as a whole are built for these types of disasters,” said Jason Douglas, Delta Waterfowl regional director for Texas. “They have the equipment, outdoor know-how and courage to provide assistance while government rescuers are still mobilizing. I’m once again blown away by the character and selflessness of our Delta Waterfowl volunteers.”
It took Vecsey and his friends six hours towing a bass boat, Vecsey’s duck boat and a “lifted” ATV to reach the floodwaters just before midnight on Sept. 1. Not knowing where to start, they made camp for the night in a mall parking lot.
“That’s when a National Guard unit approached and explained they didn’t have any boats, so they were just going to be sitting there waiting unless they could use civilian resources,” Vecsey said. “Their appreciation for our offer to help was really special.”
At dawn, a military escort with sirens blaring led Vecsey’s convoy to flooded Orange, Texas. Two National Guard reservists were assigned to each boat, and then they were underway.
“We performed 16 rescues that day,” Vecsey said. “We found people who were out of food, had lost their vehicles and were stranded in their homes. There were elderly people, families and pets. We rescued a guy who was stuck in his truck with his dogs, and we found six horses tied and saved all of them. The next day we were told about a neighborhood that’d become an island. The homes had power but were running out of supplies, so we delivered diapers, baby formula, food, water and other donated goods to 200 people.”
In addition to Vecsey, volunteers from the Delta chapters of Houston, Greater Longview, SE Texas, Brazos Valley and numerous others also participated in rescues.
Brian Davis, 27, who volunteers for Delta’s Coastal Bend Chapter in Port O’Connor, Texas, was among them. Given that the north Houston resident found his neighborhood initially blocked by an 8-foot wall of water, who would’ve blamed him for thinking of his own needs? But Davis was determined to lend assistance.
“I just felt so helpless being unable to do anything for the people in need,” he said. “Then, on Aug. 29, a duck hunting buddy in San Antonio found a 5-ton military vehicle for sale online for $12,000. He said his wife may divorce him, but he was buying it so we could go help people.”
They drove the vehicle into west Houston and found a rendezvous point bustling with military and law enforcement. Three police officers promptly climbed aboard the truck and directed Davis to a bayou with significant flooding.
“TV coverage doesn’t do justice to how many people were stuck in some areas,” Davis said. “There were people floating in kayaks and inner-tubes with their pets and a trash bag or two with a few belongings. We rescued one lady who was just floating in a raft, because she’d lost everything and had nowhere else to go. It was heartbreaking.”
In all, Davis rescued about 30 people and an equal number of pets. If any good has come from the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey, it’s that America has been reawakened to the bravery and generosity of people like Davis, Vecsey and hundreds of Delta Waterfowl volunteers.
“It was really inspiring to see duck hunters and other outdoorspeople take time away from their families and sources of income to lend a hand to people they’d never met,” Vecsey aid. “It embodies the Texas spirit — the spirit of living here and helping others.”