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Matthew Marchetti, a member of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, looks at three computer screens as he works to locate people who need rescuing during Hurricane Harvey. Marchetti, along with fellow Chapelwood member Oliver Carter, came up with a design for a web app, HoustonHarveyRescue.com, to help connect those in need with volunteer rescuers. Photo courtesy of Matthew Marchetti.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Marchetti

Matthew Marchetti, a member of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, looks at three computer screens as he works to locate people who need rescuing during Hurricane Harvey. Marchetti, along with fellow Chapelwood member Oliver Carter, came up with a design for a web app, HoustonHarveyRescue.com, to help connect those in need with volunteer rescuers.

Oliver Carter, a member of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, is interviewed by KHOU, a CBS affiliate station in Houston, about HoustonHarveyRescue.com. The web app, developed by Carter and fellow Chapelwood member Matthew Marchetti, helps connect locate people who needed rescuing with volunteers. Photo courtesy of Oliver Carter.

Photo courtesy of Oliver Carter

Oliver Carter, a member of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, is interviewed by KHOU, a CBS affiliate station in Houston, about HoustonHarveyRescue.com. The web app, developed by Carter and fellow Chapelwood member Matthew Marchetti, helps connect locate people who needed rescuing with volunteers.

The Rev. John Stephens, senior pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, (left) and the Rev. Josef Klam, directing pastor of Adult Discipleship at Chapelwood, (right), assist with a rescue during Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of Chapelwood United Methodist Church.

Photo courtesy of Chapelwood United Methodist Church

The Rev. John Stephens, senior pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, (left) and the Rev. Josef Klam, directing pastor of Adult Discipleship at Chapelwood, (right), assist with a rescue during Hurricane Harvey.

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Enlisting tech, boats for Houston rescue efforts

 

By Mary Jacobs
Sept. 1, 2017 | UMNS

The pleas were heartrending, made by frightened people stranded by Hurricane Harvey, as rising floodwaters ravaged the Houston and Beaumont area.

“Elderly taking in water rapidly. Waist deep. Please assist.” – 77-year-old man.

“Please help me and my 4-month-old, are in the attic.” – 24-year-old man.

“Dialysis patient. Last dialyzed last Wednesday.” – 85-year-old woman.

But help was on the way, thanks to the efforts of three young men, two of them lifelong members of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston.

Oliver Carter, a member of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, is interviewed by KHOU, a CBS affiliate station in Houston, about HoustonHarveyRescue.com. The web app, developed by Carter and fellow Chapelwood member Matthew Marchetti, helps connect locate people who needed rescuing with volunteers. Photo courtesy of Oliver Carter.

Oliver Carter, a member of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, is interviewed by KHOU, a CBS affiliate station in Houston, about HoustonHarveyRescue.com. Photo courtesy of Oliver Carter.

When flooding began on Saturday night, Aug. 26, Matthew Marchetti witnessed the chaos and confusion as he helped with rescue efforts. Houston’s 911 system was completely overwhelmed; volunteer rescuers were arriving but had no way to quickly locate victims.

So Marchetti enlisted fellow Chapelwood member Oliver Carter. The two men share office space; Marchetti owns a tech business and Carter, a real estate business. Despite intermittent power and water leaks in the office, they quickly came up with a design for a web app, HoustonHarveyRescue.com. Nate Larson, a friend in Dallas, tackled the coding.

HoustonHarveyRescue.com works like Uber for disaster victims — locating people who needed rescue on a map, and connecting them with volunteer rescuers.

Flood victims entered their information — location, phone, the number of people in the home and their ages, pets and medical needs. Those reported as being in imminent danger appeared as red pins on the map. Once rescued, they were marked as “safe.”

At the bottom of the site’s home page, there’s a passage from Psalms: “Rescue me from the floods, do not let me sink; deliver me from those who harm me, from the deep waters. Do not let the floodwaters engulf me or the depths swallow me up … answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.”

By 6 a.m. the next day, HoustonHarveyRescue.com was up and running. A few hours later, the Cajun Navy, an informal network of boat owners volunteering with rescue efforts, posted the site on its Facebook page.   

The Rev. John Stephens, senior pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, (left) and the Rev. Josef Klam, directing pastor of Adult Discipleship at Chapelwood, (right), assist with a rescue during Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of Chapelwood United Methodist Church.

The Rev. John Stephens, senior pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, (left) and the Rev. Josef Klam, directing pastor of Adult Discipleship at Chapelwood, (right), assist with a rescue during Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of Chapelwood United Methodist Church.

“That’s when the site blew up,” Carter said.

“I just lost it,” said Marchetti. “I just cried for five minutes … I realized we’re actually going to save some people with this.”

Carter and Marchetti worked round the clock to keep the site up and running and to help dispatch rescuers.  Friends and other church members pitched in by bringing food to keep them going and calling residents listed on the site to update their statuses. By Wednesday night, Aug. 30, the site had more than 1 million hits. 

In addition to Cajun Navy, Marchetti and Carter also dispatched another fleet — affectionately dubbed the “Chapelwood Navy.”

Although Chapelwood United Methodist sustained little damage, the building is located in one of Houston’s hardest-hit neighborhoods. On Monday morning, Aug. 28, floodwaters stranded one of the church’s families in their home.  First responders were too overwhelmed to respond, so the Rev. John Stephens, Chapelwood’s senior pastor, and a few other church members took a boat out to retrieve the family.

“People started coming out of the woodwork,” he said.  “We took about 25 people out that first morning. We’d go into a neighborhood to rescue one person, and end up running across multiple families needing help, so we’d go back to get them, too.”  

More members and more boats joined the boat ministry — by Wednesday, Aug. 30, some 30-40 men and five boats were deployed. The rescue operation proved tricky and unpredictable. Many of those rescued were elderly, unable to walk, or reluctant to leave, even though in clear danger. In some places, the water was too shallow and boats would bottom out; in others, it was up to Stephens’ shoulders. He’s 6-foot-3.

HOW TO HELP

United Methodists wishing to help can make donations directly through UMCOR’s Domestic Disaster Response Advance #901670.

“We knew it was going to be bad,” Stephens said. “Well, it’s worse.” 

By Thursday night, Aug. 31, the waters began to recede. Chapelwood United Methodist is making plans for the recovery phase: collecting donated supplies, assembling flood buckets and forming work crews. Marchetti and Oliver — who’d slept only about seven hours since Saturday — could finally break for showers and a meal. All told, the site had handled 7,802 rescue requests.

“I have this constant, overwhelming feeling of gratitude for how much people have been coming together,” Marchetti said.

The two men expect the information collected on the site can serve as a database of people affected by the flooding that will help with recovery and remediation. And they’re already thinking about how the site might help other cities affected by disasters.

“We are going to try to come up with an open source solution, so that the next city that gets hit can deploy something like this,” said Carter. “We have a lot of plans for this in the future.”

Jacobs is a freelance writer living in Plano, Texas.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To get more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.