First published in USA TODAY, Sept. 3, 2017
In city with no water, two men get permission to steal it
In a city with no water, here is a list of items required to break into a warehouse and steal 14 cases of bottled water:
- One (1) hand saw
- One (1) hammer
- One (1) hovercraft, capable of zinging over the flooded streets of Beaumont, Texas, at 60 miles an hour
Oh, and permission from the Coca-Cola Company.
Fortunately, Bill Zang recently found himself equipped with all four things. At a few minutes after 3 p.m. on Saturday he killed the hovercraft’s engines and floated toward the Coca-Cola warehouse on the northern edge of Beaumont. At the back gate, Zang hacked the lock with a saw, then his friend Sam Byers slammed the lock with a hammer.
The lock broke. The gate swung wide. Both men laughed.
“This is so much fun!” said Byers, happy finally to find water in Beaumont, where the water treatment plant had been offline for two days.
A week after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, most of the rescue and recovery efforts in south Texas are no fun at all. The work is simultaneously plodding and emotionally charged. Relief workers spend days floating through flooded neighborhoods, checking and rechecking houses to make sure all the people and pets have been evacuated.
Sometimes they rescue a cat. Sometimes they discover a corpse. Sometimes they find nothing but flooded homes and silence. At this point, as the adrenaline of early rescue efforts fades into fatigue, many rescuers find the inertia of routine becomes their primary fuel.
“I have no idea when we got here,” said Zang, president of the Hovercraft Unlimited company, who drove from his home in Rockport, Illinois, with two hovercraft to help rescue hurricane victims. “What was that, two days ago? Four? The days all start running
Sometimes, however, the routines get scrambled, and relief workers get the opportunity to do something they will remember for the rest of their lives. Their stories serve as a reminder that even though the sky over south Texas has brightened, and the nation’s attention has begun to move on with the rain, thousands of people are still in desperate need of help.
“There is still a lot of work to do,” Zang said.
For Edwin Toy, the break in the monotony came Thursday night, when he was the lead driver of a 16-truck convoy delivering bottled water from Houston to Beaumont. The trip normally takes about an hour and a half, Toy said.
On Thursday it took 10 hours. Toy sat in the cab of his truck with water lapping halfway up his gas tank.
“We just had to get through,” said Toy, 53, a driver for the H-E-B Grocery Company. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
For Cassidy Meeks, the adrenaline came from running up and down U.S. Route 69 northeast of Beaumont, looking for people to save. At 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Meeks met a woman at a nearby Shell gas station who said her brother was trapped on the highway by water rushing from the flooded Pine Island Bayou.
Meeks didn’t have any special gear at her disposal. She simply started walking. She went north as far as she could, hugging the highway’s concrete median for support as the water rose to her neck.
Finally she turned around and flagged down Zang, aboard his bright blue hovercraft.
“He’s out there somewhere, but I can’t find him,” Meeks, 20, of Joshua, Texas, told Zang. “We’ve got to find him. It sounds like he’s about to drown.”
Zang was not excited about the mission. The current was moving at about 15 miles an hour, he said, and one mistake could drown both himself and the man he was trying to save. He roared off anyway, sending a plume of spray behind his craft’s main propeller.
Seven minutes later Zang returned with Cory Adams, looking wet and sheepish, sitting in the backseat.
"He was in the nasty part" of the water flow, said Zang. "If you fall in there, you're swept away for 2 miles and nobody will ever find you."
No one else in the vicinity had a boat powerful enough to even get close to Adams, however. He had been in the torrent for an hour, he said, and he was losing strength.
"I thought I was going to drown," said Adams. "If he didn't come and save me, there's no way I would have made it."
Compared with most of his rescue missions after Hurricane Harvey, Zang’s effort to remove water from the Coca-Cola warehouse was a bit of a lark. Someone with the Coca-Cola Company informed Beaumont’s Fire Department that the facility contained thousands of bottles of fresh water, but flooding in and around the building prevented people in most
The firefighters asked Zang if he could help, he said. And so he and Byers found themselves standing behind the Coca-Cola warehouse a few minutes after 3 p.m. After entering the gate they motored to the building, where Byers broke a window with a hammer, reached inside and pulled a door open.
Inside they found tens of thousands of bottles of Fanta, Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola and Dasani brand bottled water. They loaded 14 cases of water onto the hovercraft’s flat deck, powered up and sped away. The cases later would be picked up by other volunteers and delivered to National Guard troops, who would distribute them to Harvey evacuees.