The water started bubbling up out of the nursing-home toilets around 3 a.m. It seemed like a bad sign – but not dire.
So when the overnight staff at La Vita Bella in Dickinson called owner Trudy Lampson early Sunday, she thought they had time to carry out carefully laid hurricane plans designed to ensure the safety of their 15 elderly patients battling dementia.
“We were so well-prepared,” Lampson said. “We even had containers for the charts.”
But by the time she arrived at the home on Oak Drive, water was already a foot deep. Half an hour later it was chest-high, and the meticulously curated medical notes floated atop a mess of debris and muck brought in with the floodwaters from the remnants of Tropical Storm Harvey.
And, despite frantic phone calls from staff – some at the home, some trapped in their own residences – help did not come.
“I was on the phone with anybody except for God,” said employee Tina Davis.
God didn’t answer the phone, but in the end it was the Army National Guard that showed up to save the day, floating the wet, half-clothed residents out on mattresses to waiting trucks – massive light-medium tactical vehicles well-equipped for such conditions.
“The house was pretty much underwater,” said an Army National Guard captain who asked not to be named.
Nine years ago, Lampson had evacuated the residents for Hurricane Ike. But this time, they stayed put.
First calls for help
David Popoff, emergency management coordinator for the City of Dickinson, located 30 miles southeast of downtown Houston, couldn’t understand why.
“The mayor issued an evacuation warning for low-lying areas and people that were medically fragile and for some reason they didn’t evacuate,” he said.
The staff made their first calls for help in the early-morning hours, they later recalled. They tried 911, state officials, the fire marshal, and the mayor of a nearby town.
At one point, Lampson said, she was on the phone with a state official who said there was help at the scene – even though there was no one in sight.
Eventually, Lampson snapped a picture of the inundated house and sent it to her daughter, Kimberly McIntosh.
When McIntosh’s husband shared the picture on Twitter, it went viral.
“Need help ASAP emergency services please,” he wrote.
Still, they waited.
As the hours wore on, workers tried to placate the residents with Gatorade and cookies.
One asked repeatedly for her son. Another insisted they call a firefighter who’d helped her once, towns away.
“I was so scared,” said Shantell Woodruff, a 17-year-old who works at La Vita Bella with her mother.
“I didn’t know if I was going to get out or not.”
Finally, around noon, help came.
Two patients were airlifted from the home, according to Popoff. Staffers said some were rescued by a friend with a boat.
And the Army National Guard pulled up with massive trucks to rescue the remaining 11 residents and five staff.
“It was about waist-deep water,” the captain recalled. “And we were evacuating them out on mattresses.”
‘I need to go back’
Early Sunday afternoon, the wet and tired workers and their charges arrived at Santa Fe Elementary School, where some transferred to a bus headed for a church shelter in Alvin. Others went to the hospital as a precaution.
Pelted by a steady drizzle in the elementary school parking lot, Lampson reflected on the rescue effort: “I thought people would come quickly.” And on the flood: “I thought we would have a couple hours.”
Popoff offered sympathy.
“I don’t blame her,” he said. “We have made over 600 rescues today and I guarantee that for every one you talked to, we didn’t come soon enough.”
Even as Woodruff dried her tears and was loaded on the bus, Lampson, the owner, planned a return.
“I need to go back,” she said. “We have like seven cats.”