When called upon, McNeese Cowboy Nation rallies to assist those affected by Hurricane Harvey
LAKE CHARLES – Two weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas/Louisiana coast and coastal communities to become one of the most destructive natural disasters on record as its flood waters ravaged neighborhoods while forcing thousands of residents from their homes, many of who would return to complete devastation.
Many McNeese student-athletes and their families would become victims of the storm, including Cowboy football offensive line coach Ben Norton, whose entire house in Vidor, Texas was destroyed by the floods.
More on that in a little bit.
Watching the events taking place in Houston and Southeast Texas on live television with thousands of residents crying out for help to be rescued, Louisiana’s Cajun Navy packed up their boats and gear and headed west into the Lone Star state.
Joining forces was McNeese baseball head coach Justin Hill and three of his buddies – Tim Robles, Pastor at Sale Street Baptist Church in Lake Charles, along with brothers David and Mark Minton, an engineer and an electrician.
“I got a text from Tim on Sunday and I asked him if he was planning on going to help,” said Hill. “David and Mark joined us and we loaded up the boat and headed out.
“My wife (Melissa) told me it sounded like the beginning of a joke: a Pastor, engineer, electrician and baseball coach are in a boat…,” Hill chuckled.
By the time the group gathered all their needs and loaded the boat and truck, darkness had fallen on that August 27 day, so the foursome decided to wait and head out early the next morning.
“We didn’t know where we were going or what we were going to do,” said Hill. “We just knew we were going to try to help out as many people as we possibly could.”
Hill said the Cajun Navy is as organized as a well-oiled machine. Using the Zellow application on their mobile devices, Hill and gang were able to communicate with the Cajun Navy to get information on where people were located that needed rescuing.
As the group approached the Texas/Louisiana border, Texas State Troopers, who closed the border down to all traffic, waved through rescuers with boats as the need for help was dramatically growing while the flood waters kept rising.
“We were listening to channels on Zellow with the Cajun Navy and found that a lot of them were stopping and organizing at Buc-ee’s in Baytown,” said Hill. “When we arrived, we met up with a group and formed our own private channel on Zellow so we would just be hearing communications among our group.
“This group knew everything… from what roads were good to take, what roads not to take. They knew where the people were located that needed to be rescued. It was run like a well-oiled machine.”
The group Hill’s gang was a part of included eight boats and patroled the CE King area which is located on the east side of Houston. Traveling through water as high as 18 inches, the group finally found a resting place to stop and launch their boats.
“All the roads were washed out,” said Hill. “There were some areas that were a foot deep and some as deep as 90-feet, those being borrow pits.”
The rescue teams used fish finders to gauge the depth of the water to ensure none of the rescuers would be surprised by falling into a deep hole.
The rescuing was a finely tuned and organized mission.
“There were several boats stationed at different points of the rescue path,” said Hill. “It would take up to three boats for one rescue.”
Called a ‘Daisy Train,’ the boats would be positioned strategically for the rescuing so that it would be continuous without any delay.
“The group that would take the people from the house would then take them to a boat waiting down the road. They would drop them off then head back into the neighborhood while that second boat would transfer them to third boat waiting, which would then take them safely to land.”
Hill said the rescuing began around 10:30 a.m. and continued non-stop until it was too dark to continue.
“We were able to rescue over 200 people and 10 dogs on that day.”
When they returned to Buc-ee’s, the weather forecast for Harvey moved it closer to Lake Charles. Worry began to settle in as Hill and his friends feared they may not be able to get back because of the rising waters at the border.
Luckily, an oil rig worker who was making his way to Baton Rouge, happened to be stopped at Buc-ee’s and offered to ride ahead of Hill and crew and give continuous updates on road conditions.
The group made it back to Lake Charles later that night and Hill began to prepare his house for the effects of the storm. However, the storm stalled over the Beaumont/Orange area and dumped over two-feet of rain in 24 hours.
While Hill was preparing his home for a flood, McNeese’s track team along with the softball squad, volunteered long hours at Burton Coliseum by filling sand bags for residents who were in need.
On Wednesday, August 30, Hill said Pastor Robles and David Minton returned to Texas, this time in Orange, and rescued another 400 residents.
Since the McNeese campus was scheduled to open back up that Thursday, Hill stayed back in Lake Charles and assisted with the Cajun Navy dispatch by helping organize rescue routes.
“I was helping dispatch for a group called the Cajun Navy Orange Rescue,” said Hill. “There was a lady from Sulphur who had been running the dispatch from 3 a.m. Wednesday until 10 p.m. that night. There’s no doubt she helped rescue thousands of people.”
Hill used his contacts to set up transportation for those being rescued.
“Once they were put onto dry land, somebody needed to be there to take them to shelters,” he said. “I know a lot of people in that area so I called them up to arrange the transportation to the nearest shelters.”
The reality of what was happening during the rescue attempts set in when Hill witnessed one specific rescue.
“It really didn’t hit me until I saw a baby being wrapped up and handed off from one person to another in a rescue,” said Hill. “That was real.”
That brings us to Coach Ben Norton and his home in Vidor.
As Harvey was flooding Southeast Texas, Norton was with the Cowboys preparing for their season-opening game at Nicholls State. Not only did he have his house on his mind, his wife, Kelli, was trapped in their house with the waters rising to nearly two feet.
“The Cajun Navy saved her,” said Norton.
Kelli was taken to a shelter in Houston, and on Friday (Sept. 1) with the flood waters at the border that submerged the interstate, Norton used his phone apps to find out what roads were opened and closed so he could get to his wife, whom he married just three months ago.
“We returned to the house and everything was destroyed,” he said. “In 40 years of my family living in that house, this is the first time it’s ever flooded.”
Norton and his wife were basically homeless. All of their clothes, food and belongings were destroyed. The only resemblance of a bed for the couple would be an inflated air mattress that rested up against one of Norton’s office walls in the Jack Doland Field House.
Longtime loyal McNeese supporters Mike Fuljenz and his wife Karen, along with Dr. David Wallace and wife Darlene, stepped in to make sure the Norton’s didn’t go without, providing meals, gift cards for clothing and other essentials, and shelter.
“Cowboy Nation really did come together,” said Fuljenz. “When I got the call from Matthew (McNeese Sports Information Director Matthew Bonnette) asking if there was anything I could do to help out, I called David and we brainstormed it.”
Fuljenz paid for the Norton’s to stay at a local hotel. On the same day the Norton’s were to check into the hotel, Fuljenz and Wallace arranged for the couple to stay at a local businessman’s home, who wants to remain anonymous. This businessman works in Lake Charles and another city, has homes in both, and has opened his Lake Charles home up to the Norton’s while he conducts business at his other place of residence.
“It’s just amazing the generosity we’ve been receiving from many people especially Mr. Fuljenz and Dr. Wallace,” said Norton. “So many people have come through to help us out, and I can’t thank them enough. I also can’t thank Coach Guidry enough for being so understandable about the situation and giving me the time I need to attend to the clean up. Cowboy Nation is strong.”
Norton knew he had a long road ahead of him with the devastation to his house, and on Sunday (Sept. 3), the cleanup began, and Cowboy Nation stepped up again.
“I received a text from (McNeese Chaplain and Southwest Louisiana FCA Director) Steve Sanford about Coach Norton’s house,” said Hill. “I told him we’ll be there.”
Hill sent out a group text to his players asking them if they could help, and if so, to text back a ‘heart’ emoji. Within minutes, his phone was inundated with hearts.
The team loaded up that Sunday morning and headed to Vidor to assist with the cleanup.
“I asked some of the players who went through this last year with the Baton Rouge floods, what kind of tools would we need,” said Hill. “They said the main thing would be crowbars. So I’m at Wal-Mart buying crowbars and I just break down. I’m looking at this crowbar knowing I’m about to use this tool to tear down a man’s house. A house he grew up in.”
The work lasted all day as the entire house, for the exception of the brick exterior, was gutted. Former McNeese baseball player Charlie Phillips surprised the group by driving from Lake Charles to feed them lunch.
“It’s amazing what people can do when there’s a crisis,” said Hill.
“They saved us,” said Norton. “I can’t express enough how grateful we are for their help. There’s no way we would’ve been able to do what was done without them.”
What has essentially turned a horror story into a success is not that calls for help were made, it’s the fact that once the calls were made, they were followed up on until a plan was in place.
That’s the determination of the great people of Cowboy Nation.
“Everyone has their own ‘Nation’,” said Fuljenz. “I’m so proud of our Cowboy Nation for coming together to help out the great people of Texas and Louisiana during this devastating time.”
As for Coach Hill, he continued to lend a hand, along with his Church family.
“I’m so proud of our Church,” he said. “It served as a kind of command center for the Cajun Navy. They would come in and sleep and eat there. The church members made sure they were rested and had the supplies they needed as they headed back out to rescue more people.”
Many people donated their time and money to feed the rescuers, including Philip Tarver, another member of Cowboy Nation.
Harvey made three landfalls in its 16-days of existence before dissipating on September 2, but the damage was done. The stormed caused at least 71 deaths and an estimated $70 to $200 billion worth of damages.
It’ll take months, if not years, for those who lost homes to rebuild and recover.
But thanks to the good folks of the Cajun Navy and Cowboy Nation, people like the Fuljenz’s, Wallace’s, Hill’s, Cowboy Baseball, McNeese Track and Softball, the anonymous home owner, and thousands of others who provided assistance in some form or fashion, faith in humanity will never fail if or when another natural disaster like this happens again.
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