HOUSTON — Ramonia McCarty spends quite a bit of time in a yellow MetroLift minivan.
The Houston Chronicle reports even for her, however, 18 hours was a bit of a stretch to be with one passenger, especially with floodwaters lapping at the doors.
“First, it turned from scared to frustrated to angry, then back to scared,” McCarty said with a smile, recalling the most trying time of her driving career for Yellow Cab, which contracts for MetroLift’s paratransit service.
McCarty drove into the early storm bands from Hurricane Harvey that Saturday thinking it would be just another heavy, rainy day behind the wheel. She left it with her spirits intact, along with a host of accolades.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner declared Tuesday to be Ramonia McCarty Day, with council members clamoring to heap praise on the driver for keeping her cool and helping her elderly passenger stay safe and dry. At-large Councilman David Robinson called it a “heroic, lifesaving effort,” while District J Councilman Mike Laster said McCarty embodied the newly popular phrase “Houston Strong.”
“We know where that strength comes from,” Laster said, noting the outpouring of support Houstonians showed one another during and after the storm. “You are one of those faces for those countless thousands.”
McCarty also was honored last month as driver of the year by the International Association of Transportation Regulators during the group’s conference in Austin, and by Metropolitan Transit Authority, which oversees MetroLift in the Houston area.
For McCarty, though, it was just a very unique day at the office. She picked up her passenger, Ms. Helen — who declined to be interviewed — outside the nursing home where the 76-year-old volunteers.
That was midday Saturday, Aug. 26, as early rains already had some routes closed in the Houston area. McCarty showed up at the nursing home near Beechnut and South Kirkwood, already sensing trouble.
“As she is coming out, the water is coming up to her knees,” McCarty said. “The staff was telling her not to go. She said she didn’t want someone to break into her house and she wanted to go home.”
So, off they went into the heavy rain, Ms. Helen taking the front seat where it is easier for her to get in and out of the van. McCarty snaked along side streets to U.S. 59 but kept running into high water. The closer she came to Gulfton, the more closed routes she ran into, and the more it appeared heading back would put them in worse straits.
She tried to make her way to Helen’s home along Hillcroft, but it proved impassable at the freeway.
McCarty said she realized they were in trouble when they passed a Denny’s that was closed, a lock and chain drawn across the front door.
“They don’t close,” she said.
She made a stand in a small strip center with a gas station. Waiting out the storm seemed like the only option. So they radioed in to MetroLift’s dispatchers, and McCarty kept the vehicle running — as is policy anytime a customer is inside.
They waited as the rains kept going. And they waited some more. Saturday night turned to Sunday and the sun came up again — but they stayed put.
At least, McCarty is quick to point out, they were well-situated. They had phone and radio access at all times. The gas station remained open, providing some relief in terms of food, water and a restroom — albeit one that needed a heavy Lysol douse, McCarty said, laughing.
She said her focus was on keeping Helen happy, or as happy as she could be. Sometimes they talked, McCarty said, but mostly the hours ticked by with little conversation.
She said she tried to keep both of them up and moving every so often to ward off physical problems with bunking so long in a minivan.
“For me, I try to think of her as my grandmother or mother and what I would want someone to do for her,” McCarty said.
Her own coping took the form of prayer, namely that the waters wouldn’t threaten their spot.
“I am thinking what happens if I have to save her,” McCarty said. “I don’t know if she can swim.”
Sunday afternoon, a break in the heavy rains gave them the opening they needed. McCarty crossed the freeway and the duo made it to Helen’s home.
“All I want to say is, I didn’t flood the cab,” McCarty proudly told City Council on Tuesday.
Stocked with a fresh appreciation of what her job can require, McCarty said not much will change in her routine. She always keeps water and peppermints handy. The only thing she said she may carry with her in the future is a set of headphones, just in case she has another long wait.
“Would I want to do it again? No,” McCarty said. “Will I do it again?”
She nods her head.
“Hopefully, if I get stranded again, it is near a store.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle