Clay County Rescue Task Force Honored
In remarks to the crowd gathered at the Rector Community Center on Thursday evening in appreciation of the Clay County Task Force’s volunteer efforts in the Houston area, the group’s president Jeffrey Wolfenbarger said, “This group did what they do best – save property and lives. We appreciate our families supporting us. Our bosses made it possible for us to serve in this way. We appreciate Sheriff Terry Miller, too. It was an eye-opening and humbling experience. All of us are volunteers and we do this for anyone in harm’s way. If we’d take these risks to help strangers, just imagine what we’d do for our own neighbors.”
At 3 p.m. on Wednesday of last week during the ongoing disaster reports as a result of Hurricane Harvey, Wolfenbarger received a call from Ralph Schultz of Arkansas Department of Emergency Management with instructions to deploy for search and rescue to South Texas in the Beaumont area. By 4:30, eight men with their rescue trailer, three boats and four vehicles were on the road. Beaumont is due east of Houston on I-10, about a 30-minute drive from Louisiana. The task force hoped to drive into the staging area, but found all access routes impassible. By 2:30 a.m. they arrived at Jasper County Cowboy Church, about an hour’s drive north of Beaumont. The church served not only as a shelter and rescue area but as a command post for all Arkansas teams deployed to Texas. Clay County Task Force was the first search and rescue team to arrive in Beaumont since the storm made landfall. Wolfenbarger, recalling the team’s first view of the disaster before them, asked himself, “Where do you start? This will take forever.”
The morning brought a new view of reality. The team had to find a route that was not underwater to reach people who were stranded. The first assignment before the group was in response to a call to rescue one person and two dogs. When they arrived on the scene in the boats they found the whole neighborhood standing on one rise that was not submerged.
“It was basically chaos. So much needed to be done that the directors would send rescue personnel to an area with instructions: ‘get everybody you can, however you can.’”
Shane Casebier and Robbie Bearden shared stories of the joy expressed by everyone they saw, “even those who were ok…this older lady, perhaps 85, came toward us, extending her hand, her bottom lip quivering, telling us how much she appreciated what we were doing. It was overwhelming since we’d really done nothing specifically for her, but she and all the others were so grateful.”
Wolfenbarger continued, “The news reports didn’t touch what was happening in the Beaumont area. Justin Jackson explained, “Whole neighborhoods that were the size of Rector were completely under water. Water was over street signs and up to or over the roof tops. The photo in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette showing the street sign under water, that was where we were, Lumberton, Texas,” which is north of Beaumont.
The task force praised the Jasper County Cowboy Church which offered shelter to flooding victims and housed the task force and other groups assisting from Arkansas. The church members slept sporadically, upright in chairs or recliners, giving beds and cots to everyone else. They used drop lights and found a way to feed those sheltered there, though the church was without power. They asked about how they could help everyone, uninterested in themselves.
Jason Boyd said, “The food was beyond what anyone would expect. Even when we got in after midnight, someone would be finding a meal for us. Everybody loved the homemade strawberry cake. We would never have expected the service and the meals they offered to us.” The Task Force is planning to send donations to this church for their ongoing relief efforts, having begun a Go Fund Me account and accepting donations locally (contact Crystal Parrish). Concluding the conversations, the group of men agreed that they were pleased with their efforts, regardless of how long they were there. They had all their boats in the water and they not only rescued people but they performed reconnaissance, determining the best route through the city to get to those still needing help. Wolfenbarger stated in conclusion, “We were not totally able to see what was under the water and that made running our boats dangerous. The water was filthy with debris, garbage, waste and covering downed wires. We thank God that we are home safe. But, yes, we would do it again.”