NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — A week after floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey barreled into Houston’s streets last Sunday, many residents remain trapped in their homes and are turning to social media as a lifeline. Some of their calls for help are being answered from an unlikely location: Northampton.
Over the past few days, roommates Holly Abair, 34, and Sky Sutton, 43, who live on Pleasant Street, have scoured the internet to locate survivors of the flood and connect them with citizen rescuers on the ground. They are acting almost like dispatchers, finding people stuck on roofs or trapped in cars, who need assistance, and routing their calls for help to volunteers on the ground who have come together to risk their lives in search of people who had been left behind.
“A lot of these people have no one to save them — we are trying to save them,” Abair said. “I wish I could be down there to pull people out myself, but this is the best I can do.”
They are monitoring Twitter posts flagged with hashtags like #sosHarvey and #helphouston. Then they use a walkie-talkie smartphone application called Zello to relay information to volunteers on the ground who are going door to door, often by boat, in search of victims. Abair says they have been communicating with members of the Cajun Navy, a group of boat owners who responded to the floods after Hurricane Katrina, and are now helping out with the disaster in Texas.
“They are out there fighting the good fight,” Abair said.
She doesn’t have any family or friends in the Houston area, but when she saw videos of the floodwaters rising and listened to the news reports of the devastation, she knew that she needed to get involved somehow.
So far, Abair and Sutton said, they have routed hundreds of calls for help, but they haven’t taken an official tally.
“People are in trouble, so I found a way to help,” Abair said.
Some of the calls are from family members looking to check on their loved ones, like the daughter of a 95-year-old man who was alone during the flood. Other calls came from pet owners, asking for help in rescuing dogs or cats that were abandoned. It’s work that has taken an emotional toll. “There is no way to get to everyone on time and that is awful, it’s really hard,” Abair said.
It all started last Sunday night, when the hurricane struck and the women saw a Twitter post that read, “Please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die,” from a woman trapped in her home. They got her address and asked her how high the water was before telling her to download the Zello application to connect with the Cajun Navy. With this help, the woman is now in a shelter.
Since the floodwaters started, Abair has been glued to her smartphone, on her bed where the Wi-Fi is the strongest in the apartment, listening on the radio application. During her lunch break at her job working security at a Northampton business, she will take a few moments to send messages over the radio.
She’s been staying up all night, building spreadsheets with names, and pinpointing the locations of victims on a map of Houston neighborhoods.
“I’m very tired. I can’t sleep. I’ll get in bed and think of all the animals and people I could be saving and then I’ll start dispatching again,” she says.
Recent reports show that Harvey’s floodwaters have damaged more than 87,000 homes and destroyed nearly 7,000 throughout the state. This has overwhelmed emergency workers and left more flood victims reaching out online.
“Without computers all of Houston would be dead,” Sutton said.
The two women will continue to monitor social media for as long as they are needed.
“We are doing the best with what we have got,” Abair said. “I just need to focus on the moment and keep doing what I am doing.”
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