Unlikely hurricane hero takes over chaotic Texas storm shelter

ROCKPORT, Texas, Aug 27 (Reuters) - When state emergency authorities pulled into the storm shelter in the small city of Rockport, Texas on Saturday, they asked the obvious first question: Who’s in charge here?

Everyone pointed to Zachary Dearing, who didn’t exactly look the part. The 29-year old was wearing shorts, an olive-green T-shirt and curly blond hair pulled into a man-bun.

Yet he seemed to have keen command of a desperate situation playing out in this beach community of about 10,000 people, which took catastrophic damage from a direct hit by Hurricane Harvey.

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HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 27: Andrew White (L) helps a neighbor down a street after rescuing her from her home in his boat in the upscale River Oaks neighborhood after it was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A graveyard is seen as it floods during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey August 27, 2017 in Pearland, Texas. Hurricane Harvey left a trail of devastation Saturday after the most powerful storm to hit the US mainland in over a decade slammed into Texas, destroying homes, severing power supplies and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A family is rescued from flood waters from Hurricane Harvey on a boat in Dickinson, Texas August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Local resident Kathy Neihaet walks through her damaged neighborhood after Hurricane Harvey hit Port Aransas, Texas on August 27, 2017. Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast with forecasters saying its possible for up to three feet of rain and 125 mpg wind. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A flipped over truck and flooding are seen after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017. As Harvey's winds die down, trouble for Texas has just begun as days of flooding rains across the heart of U.S. energy production threaten the country's fourth-largest city and leave farmers struggling to save horses, cows and crops. Photographer: Alex Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Flooding and a damaged home are seen after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017. As Harvey's winds die down, trouble for Texas has just begun as days of flooding rains across the heart of U.S. energy production threaten the country's fourth-largest city and leave farmers struggling to save horses, cows and crops. Photographer: Alex Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images
TOPSHOT - Hurricane Harvey damage is seen in Bayside, TX August 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Daniel KRAMER (Photo credit should read DANIEL KRAMER/AFP/Getty Images)
CITY-BY-The Sea, TX - AUGUST 26: Cows make their way through fallen power lines along the road near City-By-The Sea, TX as Hurricane Harvey hits the Texas coast on Saturday, Aug 26, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
People push a disabled car during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Hurricane Harvey left a trail of devastation Saturday after the most powerful storm to hit the US mainland in over a decade slammed into Texas, destroying homes, severing power supplies and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
ROCKPORT, TX - AUGUST 26: Firefighters search for survivors at an apartment complex in Rockport, TX as Hurricane Harvey hits the Texas coast on Saturday, Aug 26, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Sterling Broughton is moved from a rescue boat onto a kayak in Dickinson, Texas August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
People are rescued from flood waters from Hurricane Harvey in an armored police mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle in Dickinson, Texas August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Texas National Guard soldiers aid stranded residents in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 27, 2017. Lt. Zachary West, 100th MPAD/Texas Military Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
A condominium complex is reduced to rubble after Hurricane Harvey struck Rockport, Texas August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Tim Freiberg moves through what was his garage after Hurricane Harvey struck Rockport, Texas August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Housing surrounded by flood waters caused by Hurricane Harvey is seen from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter during an overflight from Port Aransas to Port O'Connor, Texas, August 26, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Johanna Strickland/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. AN UNPROCESSED VERSION WILL BE PROVIDED SEPARATELY.
A woman uses a coat hanger to try and retrieve an item from a destroyed house after Hurricane Harvey struck Fulton, Texas, August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
A man walks past a business which was left damaged after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, U.S. August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
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Dead cows killed in Hurricane Harvey lie on highway 35 near Fulton, Texas, August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
A storage facility that took damage from a tornado that spun off of Hurricane Harvey after the storm made landfall on the Texas Gulf coast, in Katy, Texas, U.S. August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Nick Oxford
Damage to the First Baptist Church of Rockport after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas on August 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
People make their way down partially flooded roads following the passage of Hurricane Harvey on August 26, 2017 in Galveston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A tree sits uprooted after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017. As Harvey's winds die down, trouble for Texas has just begun as days of flooding rains across the heart of U.S. energy production threaten the country's fourth-largest city and leave farmers struggling to save horses, cows and crops. Photographer: Alex Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images
People walk through flooded streets as the effects of Hurricane Henry are seen August 26, 2017 in Galveston, Texas. Hurricane Harvey left a trail of devastation Saturday after the most powerful storm to hit the US mainland in over a decade slammed into Texas, destroying homes, severing power supplies and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Vehicles drive through a flooded street as the effects of Hurricane Henry are seen August 26, 2017 in Galveston, Texas. Hurricane Harvey left a trail of devastation Saturday after the most powerful storm to hit the US mainland in over a decade slammed into Texas, destroying homes, severing power supplies and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Palm trees sit collapsed after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017. As Harvey's winds die down, trouble for Texas has just begun as days of flooding rains across the heart of U.S. energy production threaten the country's fourth-largest city and leave farmers struggling to save horses, cows and crops. Photographer: Alex Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Badly damaged light planes in their hanger at Rockport Airport after heavy damage when Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas on August 26, 2017. Hurricane Harvey left a trail of devastation Saturday after the most powerful storm to hit the US mainland in over a decade slammed into Texas, destroying homes, severing power supplies and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. / AFP PHOTO / Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Damage is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey August 26, 2017 in Katy, Texas. Hurricane Harvey stalled over central Texas on Saturday, August 26, 2017, raising fears of 'catastrophic' flooding after the megastorm -- the most powerful to hit the United States since 2005 -- left a deadly trail of devastation along the Gulf Coast. The latest forecasts show that Harvey, now downgraded to tropical storm status, will hover along the shore for the next four or five days, dumping massive amounts of rain. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Dearing rattled off basic facts and needs: The shelter had 126 people at last headcount. Six were medically fragile. Four needed oxygen. Two needed hospice care. Everyone was calm because they had just been fed, he said.

“What service are you with?” Katie Contrera, of the Texas Emergency Medical Task Force recalled asking him.

She was shocked to learn Dearing was a civilian with no medical expertise. The slim screenwriter had moved to Rockport from Lexington, Kentucky only three months before to live with his father, a cancer survivor, on a house boat.

The truth was that no one - at least, officially - had been running the shelter at Live Oak Elementary school. The city of Rockport, a coastal community about 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, had opened it before the storm hit Friday.

But officials provided no supplies or management for vulnerable citizens unwilling or unable to evacuate, according to Dearing, others at the shelter and three Texas emergency management officials who later took over Saturday’s rescue effort there.

Finding a drifting ship with no captain, Dearing took command.

He recruited 15 volunteers – most between the ages of 16 and 21 – and put them on 30-minute shifts checking on everyone inside, particularly the most frail. He got people in the shelter to pool their food and water so that all could be fed. He got the team to plug leaks from the driving rain as best they could. And he organized periodic trips into the Category 4 wind storm to rescue more stranded people, according to Dearing, the state officials and others in the shelter.

“That guy is a hometown hero – he pulled it off,” said Carlos Alarcon, with the state medical task force. “That's my definition of a hero – when someone does something out of the ordinary to help other people.”

Rockport city officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday morning made through the city’s police department, which is serving as an emergency hub for all local agencies.

The episode underscores how natural disasters can often overwhelm official efforts to plan and staff for the worst - in this case, a small South Texas city getting smacked with its worst storm in 47 years.

Dearing’s unlikely role at the shelter also highlights how volunteers often band together in the face of danger and to provide one another aid, comfort and life-saving care.

Dearing and his band of volunteers kept people safe and relatively calm in a dangerous situation that might have descended into chaos, said one Texas law enforcement official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

State officials “had assumed there was an actual shelter here – there wasn’t,” he said. Dearing, he said, had become “a one-man army running a triage hospital with nothing.”

A HARROWING NIGHT

Dearing, whose father evacuated to Houston, decided a little too late that he, too, needed to take cover. As he drove to the Rockport shelter on Friday afternoon, a piece of flying debris shattered both of his rear windows.

When he arrived at the school, it was clear no one was in charge, he said.

So Dearing started organizing people to “raid classrooms” for supplies including trash cans, hand sanitizer and rugs for people to sleep on. His ad hoc team collected food and water from people who brought it and handed it out to those who needed it.

“We pooled resources the best we could,” he said. “The city named this as a shelter but did nothing to organize it.”

Most people stayed in the gymnasium, which seemed to be the most stable as Harvey unleashed its force. The wind seemed to produce waves in the ceiling and basketball goals shook as people tried, often in vain, to sleep on the hardwood floor, shelter residents said.

Two emergency medical workers were there when Dearing arrived, but “did not seem motivated” to run the shelter and later left, Dearing said. Two Rockport police officers were also there for a time during the storm, and tried their best to help.

One of the officers told Dearing: “It looks like you have a system here; just tell us where you need us,” he said. “It was a weird feeling – I didn’t realize I had taken control.”

The first state emergency workers did not arrive until Saturday morning, when the worst of the storm had passed, Dearing and state officials at the shelter said.

Contrera, of the Texas Emergency Medical Task Force, arrived later to find little in the way of supplies or medical personnel. What she did find was a surprisingly calm population occupying the gym and the darkened hallways of the school, which had lost power and running water the night before.

“I was very surprised – and so thankful – that someone filled that role,” she said of Dearing.

WHAT DO YOU NEED?

The shelter’s self-appointed manager had grown frazzled and rambling by Saturday morning, having gotten almost no sleep. Alarcon, with the state medical task force, said he pulled Dearing aside and calmed him down.

“Stop – Zach, what do you need?” Alarcon asked.

Dearing rattled off the list: Bedding, food, water, cots, oxygen, sanitary supplies, a generator.

“And if we can’t get a generator – buses,” Dearing said.

State officials organized some supplies and medical care immediately and ordered transportation.

By the time the buses arrived about six hours later on Saturday, the shelter’s population had climbed to about 150 people, many with pets. Some had gotten stranded even after the storm passed.

Richard Loos, 68, ended up at the shelter Saturday afternoon after flooding his truck trying to get back to his home on Speckled Trout Lane, just off Rattlesnake Point Road. Trying to avoid one of hundreds of downed power poles in the region, he drove his four-wheel drive Ford truck into a drainage ditch and sank into four feet of water.

He had to climb out of the window to escape, and was picked up by an ambulance wandering through winds and rains that whipped up again on Saturday after a lull.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it out,” Loos said, smoking a cigarette and clutching his small long-haired dog, Bentley.

Nearby, in the school’s darkened main hallway, one extremely thin older woman crouched against a wall, mumbling about her terror of the hurricane.

“You’re okay; you’re safe now,” a medical worker told her. “The storm is over. We just have to worry about getting you out of here. What medicine are you on?”

Soon she would be pushed in a wheelchair to a line with others waiting for buses to Austin. A Texas state guardsman counted them, one by one, trying to put 40 people on each bus. “Twenty three, twenty four, twenty five,” he said, touching each one on the shoulder.

Watching the buses load Saturday evening, Dearing was elated that everyone at the shelter was finally getting what they needed.

He had broken into tears when it became clear that a collection of state law enforcement and emergency professionals had the solutions for the many problems he had been juggling.

“No one got hurt; the patients are alive,” he said. “These guys answered my prayers, and I cried.” (Reporting by Brian Thevenot; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

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