The First Responder During Harvey Who Flooded During Imelda

This is the story of a first responder who helped rescue dozens of families during Harvey. His own home later flooded during Imelda. Then he was the one calling for help. But that’s just the start of this gripping story. A house he rented (next to Woodridge Village) had flooded months earlier in May 2019, but Camillo Properties, the management company, said it had not. Within days of moving in last September, it flooded again. And that was after being in the emergency room most of the previous night with his stepson, who was diagnosed with pneumonia. Then the management company sued him for non-payment of rent – which he had paid. You don’t want to stand next to this guy in a lightning storm. Despite all his troubles, though, he says his relationship with his fiancé is stronger than ever. For job reasons, he needs to remain anonymous. I will refer to him only as John.

Rescue of Friend Turns into 12-Hour Marathon

Rehak: You had worked for a fire department in Montgomery County before Harvey. During the storm, you got a call from a terrified friend in the Barrington who was trapped in rising floodwaters. Tell me what happened.

John: Six to eight hours before calling me, she posted to Facebook saying she was in her living room, watching a movie, sipping wine, and “Everything is normal.” Then she called at 2 a.m. asking if I had any contacts who could rescue her.

Every back-channel contact was overwhelmed. So, I went down there in my Jeep to see if I could make it in. When I arrived, it was a lot deeper than I thought. Then a gentleman showed up with a huge aluminum boat – the kind that HFD uses for water rescues. 

He said, “Hey, I’ve got a couple of friends back here, too. Let’s go see what we can find.” This was just before dawn. We got everyone into the boat. Then we started looking and realized, “It’s not just a few people who didn’t evacuate.” There were hundreds upon hundreds back there.

That’s about when rescue organizations started showing up. Eventually, there were dozens of boats pulling people out.

Rehak: How many times did you go back in?

John: I couldn’t say. But I didn’t leave till about four that afternoon.

Rehak: You evacuated people for 12 hours!

John: We had to stop when we ran low on fuel.

Rehak: Could you estimate the speed of the current in the Barrington?

John: No. But I’ll tell you that it got real hairy, real quick, even with a 150 horsepower motor. 

Delayed Emotional Impact and Navigating Hidden Dangers

Rehak: What was it like emotionally as the day wore on?

John: After the fact, it was like…”Holy crap! How many people just lost everything that they had?” But at the time, we were too busy to think about it.

Coast Guard Rescue in Barrington filmed by John during boat rescue.

John: Coast Guard Seahawks were doing hoist rescues in areas boats couldn’t get to. And we were dodging submerged obstacles. We hit a couple of communal mailboxes. Those aren’t typical hazards you think about when operating a boat.

Rehak: Were there any other dangers that made things hairy?

John: Desperate people. Many weren’t thinking clearly. Some families didn’t want to leave, including those with kids.

Rehak: Were they in two-story homes?

John: Yes. But they had no access to resources past the initial push. Food, fresh water, working toilets.

Rehak: It was unsafe.

John: And water was creeping up to power meters. CenterPoint had not yet killed the area.

Rehak: Were there cars under water, too?

John: Oh, yeah. You could barely see the tops of some. 

Rehak: Any other stories stand out in your mind? 

John: Some families with kids had to make decisions about who would get in the lifeboat first and who would stay behind. It was heartbreaking.

“No. No. No. That House Never Flooded”

Rehak: Let’s talk about YOUR flood experience now in September of 2019 during Imelda.

John: We had been leasing an apartment at the front of Kingwood. The lease was coming up for renewal. So, we started looking at houses to lease and found one in North Kingwood Forest. It looked brand new even though the neighborhood was several years old. Looking back, that should’ve been a red flag. 

Camillio owned many properties on the street where John lived. Photo taken 12/22/2019, after homes had been repaired from Imelda on 9/19/2019.

Rehak: What attracted you?

John: It had more space. It was affordable, and there were many young families with kids. We applied, were approved within a couple of days, and set a move in date. As luck would have it, that turned out to be just SEVEN days before Imelda.

Rehak: Your pictures looked as though you weren’t even fully unpacked when the flood hit. 

Still unpacking after move when flood hit.

John: We had only unpacked essentials. And we had just done a big Costco run with cases of water, six-packs of chili, everything you need to stock a pantry. And then…

Rehak: Before you signed the lease, did you ask whether this place flooded before?

John: Unfortunately, we asked just after signing. My dad talked to our neighbor next door when we were moving in. She asked him whether they told us that the house had flooded in May.

View of street from John’s garage during Imelda

Rehak: Surprise!

John: So, I called the landlord and asked, “Did that house ever flood?” I was told, “Oh, no, no, no. That never flooded. Only the other side of the neighborhood flooded.”

8 days after the flood

Relocation to Spring Triggers Landlord Lawsuit

Rehak: Did that become a point of contention between you and the owners?

John: Not immediately. The landlord offered us another place in Spring. It seemed like they were trying to be accommodating. So, I didn’t really call out their lie at the time.

Rehak: What happened later to change your mind?

John: Towards the end of October, beginning of November, we got a letter from them saying that we had not paid our rent at the Spring location. Of course, we had, so I called them and said, “Hey, this is an error.” I sent them copies of bank statements showing the rent payments cleared. We had even paid through their online portal. They said, “OK, we’ll look into it.” 

Fast forward, two weeks later, a Constable serves us with an eviction lawsuit. This was a couple months after losing 70 percent of everything we owned.

Rehak: What did you do?

John: I contacted an attorney friend and he began calling them. They fed him the same line, “Oh, we will need to look into it.”

My attorney called me two days before court and said, “I have not gotten any response from them. We’ll have to go to court.” 

There, we met Camillo’s representative from Nationwide Evictions. We showed her our bank statements. But their paperwork showed only a move in and then nothing being paid. The judge found our evidence overwhelming and ruled in our favor. That was the end of that. But it left a sour taste. 

At that point, I thought to myself, “As soon as our lease is up and we can get away from this management company, we’re going to.” And we did.

Impact on Relationship

Rehak:. You have a fiancé who is a paramedic. How did this affect your relationship? 

John: I tell people, “After two moves in 10 days, on top of a flood, you’re either going to split up or you’re going to last a lifetime. We’re still together! 

Trip to Emergency Room Night Before Imelda

John: To top it off, the night before Imelda, he developed pneumonia. We were in the Kingwood Emergency Room with him until the wee hours. Fast-Forward to 9:30 or 10 the next morning. My fiancé woke me up and said, “We’re flooding.” 

View out front door when John woke up.

Rehak: What went through your mind?

John: I felt this has got to be a nightmare. That’s what she told to me later – that I rolled out of bed half awake and said, “This has got to be a nightmare.” Then I stepped down into water. That woke me up real fast!

Water flowing between John’s house and neighbor’s during Imelda.

From Pneumonia to “Water Park”

John: You’d think my stepson would have been sad or scared. But like a typical 4-year old, he thought it was a freakin’ WATER PARK! I can’t help but think that contributed to his pneumonia. It took him two weeks to get over that. There were a lot of sleep-deprived nights for us. We were mentally drained.

Rehak: So, on top of the flood, you’ve got a sick kid during your second move in two weeks! How did the people at your workplace react?

John: They came together. I have to say. They gave me time off work. They established a “go fund me.” Financially, they took care of us. They did right by us. 

“Start Taking Out Fence Pickets”

Rehak: Tell me more about what happened during the Imelda flood after you woke up.

John: We reached out to family and friends and started stacking things on couches, countertops, anything to get stuff up off the floor. Then we called Camillo and said, “We are actively flooding. What do we do?”

She said to start taking out fence pickets to allow the water to flow around the house versus through the house. That’s when I suspected that they knew this house had a tendency to flood. Otherwise, why would you say, “Take out fence pickets”?

Fence slats removed from neighbor’s house in May 7th flood. Photo taken May 24, 2019.

Water Coming From Back, Not Street

Rehak: Your video shows water flowing quickly from the back yard toward the street. How deep was the water in your back yard?

John: About a foot above my knees. It was that much higher in the back than on the street side. There was sand and silt throughout the house after the water receded. 

Sand and silt in garage as flood receded.

Rehak: That didn’t come from the street. 

House where John lived in relation to Woodridge Village construction in background. Photo taken 7/15/2020. Note fence repairs. Every home in this photo flooded.

John: Nope. There was only one place it could have come from. The 268-acres they had just cleared next to us.

Woodridge Village on 11/4/2019. Arrow shows approximate location of John’s home. In this photo you can feel the slope in the land that funneled water toward Taylor Gulley behind the twin culverts near the far tree line.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/18/2020

1054 Days after Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.