By Rachael Tolliver-IRAHC PAOSeptember 15, 2017
When hurricane Harvey rolled through the Houston area, all the country watched as people struggled to evacuate flooded areas and take stock of personal loss.
One of those people watching the challenges in Texas was Mark Ward, an engineer technician who works in facility management department at Ireland Army Health Clinic on Fort Knox.
He and members of the office in which he works were monitoring events in the Lone Star State, and Ward said, "…after listening to the desperate pleas for help, I couldn't just stay here and not help.
"I had several other friends from around the country going down so I drove down by myself, and linked up with other like-minded individuals," he explained. "I knew the timeline for search and rescue missions was critical. As soon as I could get a boat purchase organized, the truck loaded, and an hour or two of sleep, I knew I needed to get on the road south."
Matt Biscan, the facility manager at IRAHC, is Ward's supervisor and said he is a model employee. Biscan added that when Ward approached him about taking some time off and why, Biscan had no difficulty deciding to support his employee.
"I was impressed by Mark's initiative to help people in need around Houston, and I understand that as an Army veteran he has a desire to continue to serve when and where he can," Biscan explained. "He had time on the books so when he asked me if he could get the time off, I didn't hesitate to say yes. As an office we tried to help him as much as we could--things like find a boat, and gather extra supplies. We all wanted to help, and Mark was the catalyst."
The first item on his short list was a boat. But when he couldn't find one to borrow on short notice, Biscan tried calling MWR to see if it would rent Ward one. But MWR was unable to rent him a boat because of the distance traveled and insurance regulations.
"I still knew there was desperate need for help was in Texas, so (when he couldn't rent or borrow) I spent $2,000 and bought a used boat," he recalled. "This was my own plan. I couldn't just give cash to some organization and feel good about it, knowing that I am an able-bodied person and can help physically rescue people and animals."
The next part of his list went fairly quickly: securing supplies.
"I posted to Facebook, that I was heading down and that I still had available room if someone wanted me to take something down," he recalled. "My post was shared by my mailman, and within a few hours my truck and boat were full of donations from folks around the Rineyville and Elizabethtown area."
He carried 2,400 bottles of water; several boxes of diapers and wipes; several boxes of food; blankets and pillows; Styrofoam dishes and silverware; several care packages--all donated, he noted, by people who wanted to help. He also took 40 gallons of gasoline for the boat. And along the way, he met several generous people who instantly knew his one-man caravan was headed to Texas.
While Houston was where he was headed, he never made it--he said he got as far as Orange, West Orange, Vidor, Port Arthur, and Beaumont Texas. Houston was another hour west and there was a need for him where he was at.
"I've never seen so much water. Everything was under water from Lake Charles, La., all the way to west Houston," he explained. "I've never seen anything like this in my life. I'll never forget the look of desperation and fear in the face of the people and animals that were being rescued."
Ward said that he never saw the Red Cross, FEMA, or any other organized charity group. Instead, in the area he was working, the people he worked with were all volunteers who came with only one thought; "to help in any way they could."
Local law enforcement eventually organized efforts, Ward explained, by having boaters sign in and out at a dispatch center in order to track people, equipment and locations. He added that volunteers such as himself didn't have to sign waivers or anything. But they did have to write their social security numbers, blood type, and any allergies on their arms when they went out on rescues.
"In case something happened to us, they would be able to identify us," he said. "Search and rescue was a majority of the work. There were also missions of running supplies via watercraft to those that wouldn't leave."
Rescuers got maybe 2-3 hours of sleep a night, and he said that random people opened their homes to them so they could take a hot shower and have a place to sleep. He met some "awesome folks" at a restaurant when he was getting only his second hot meal of that trip, who insisted they pay for his dinner, "…as well as got me a location of a local gym that was offering showers to rescuers."
Ward posted a few entries about his experience on his Facebook page, and in one he wrote that he had met incredible people who either live in the area, or who traveled thousands of miles, to assist. For example, he met Marines who drove from California and Arizona with hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel to refuel trucks that were used in rescues; and people from Canada who knew Texans needed help.
He had made tentative plans to go to Florida if volunteers were needed in the wake of Irma. But many of the same people he worked with in Texas were already on the ground as Irma was leaving the state and told Ward "they had plenty of people at the moment."
He received many kind notes and people have called him a "hero." But Ward is quick to say--and has posted on his Facebook page--that he is no hero, he did nothing extraordinary. He thinks of himself as, "just a guy that felt compelled to go," wanting nothing more than to help anybody, in any way he could.
"Long story short, I was able to deliver a truck--and literally a boat load--of supplies from so many generous people around my neighborhood, from around town, and even from across the country," he explained. "There's so many people that need to be thanked that were involved in making this trip possible. With so many of you all helping, (we were able to help) hundreds if not thousands of Texans."