Lorelei and Austin Jackson of Vidor, Texas, started preparing to help their neighbors in Corpus Christi days in advance when Hurricane Harvey was headed toward their state. They organized with other Jeepers to collect supplies. They even offered up their home and business as safe shelters and supply drops. But as the storm took a turn and headed their way, they found themselves having to evacuate quickly with their own safety at risk.
The story that follows is one of true heroism and the phenomenon known as “disaster convergence.” From several states away, the Jacksons had collaborated with fellow Jeepers who offered to bring in truckloads of supplies to their coastal communities in need.
The supply drop point was set up at their primarily Jeep customizing shop, Austin’s Chop Shop in Vidor. Jeepin’ groups from Central Florida and Arkansas were on their way, set to arrive a week after Harvey was to hit land. The North Texas Jeepers had already linked up with the Jacksons’ group, Bottoms Up Jeepers, and other neighbors to store supplies at the chop shop. The plan was to collect and distribute as best they could over the coming days and weeks.
As a true insight into some of Central Florida’s most active Jeepin’ community members, Coty Byers and Billi Gibson volunteered to load up their semi-truck with supplies and drive it to the Houston area. As you may have read (“Houston or Bust,” September/October 2017, Page 12), Byers had reached out to Austin and the North Texas Jeep Club offering to load up his semi-truck full of donated water, food and first aid supplies.
Central Florida community members generously contributed too many supplies to the Blackwater Jeepers drop points. As Byers and the crew were loading up, they quickly realized they would need two more U-Hauls for the trip — and people to drive them. During the week the storm was lurking overhead and the groups were organizing, Lorelei and Austin’s home and business were still dry. But as the newly formed Central Florida Relief Team was leaving Florida, the original drop point, Austin’s Chop Shop, was soon to be under 10 feet of water.
As a Category 4 hurricane, Harvey first made landfall about a 90-minute drive northeast from Corpus Christi on Friday, Aug. 25, at 10 p.m. Central. As it passed over San Jose Island, Harvey hit land again at 1 a.m. Saturday morning on the northeast shore of Copano Bay, Texas.
Only a four-hour drive away from Vidor, Harvey was downgraded to a Category 3 sustaining 125 mile-per-hour winds. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday the storm crept east up the coast of Texas, dropping a reported 30 to 50-plus inches of rain on Houston. By Wednesday, the record-breaking rain storm headed further east toward the Jacksons.
Jeeps and Boats
With much more rain than expected bringing flash flood emergencies, stranded people needed rescue. On Saturday, the Jacksons were collecting supplies and bringing their family and friends to their house. Come Sunday, they started receiving more and more distress calls.
They turned to their community of Jeepers via social media to get the word out that people needed help. They took it upon themselves to dispatch vehicles to the addresses they were receiving. They originally formed three groups and went out to rescue their neighbors in Jeeps and boats. As Sunday’s daylight turned to night, they worked around the clock, sending out vehicles from their home.
“Several rivers and the bridges were shut down because of flooding,” Lorelei says. “Highway I-10 looked like the ocean. We had to develop more civilian teams.”
The Jacksons used their own Jeeps to transport neighbors back to their house, which sat up on slightly higher ground. Even though the rain kept falling, both the chop shop and their house were dry on Tuesday. They thought the chop shop drop zone would still be good for organizing supplies coming in from the Central Florida Relief Team. … That is, until midday Wednesday.
‘We Have to Go. Now.’
“At 1 p.m. Wednesday, we had 8 inches of water on our road, a normal amount of flooding. I was out getting people in my Jeep. I got back to my house at 3 p.m. and the water was coming into our home. I called Austin and told him, ‘We have to go. Now,’” Lorelei says. “The water was coming up faster than Austin could get back. I had life jackets on the kids inside our home. By the time he arrived, I had called for the tallest Jeep in the area. I grabbed my kids school backpacks and left with the clothes on our backs, nothing else. The only reason we got out was because of the Jeeps. I had to separate from my kids when I loaded them into the Jeep. That was the scariest thing, when we were separated.”
“The car wash and store at the end of the road was the only place for the neighborhood to go. After that we moved everyone and the supplies to the Turning Point Church. They opened the doors for the whole neighborhood when it was going under. Once we unloaded the Jeeps there, we went back into the neighborhood with the Jeeps to rescue people throughout the night,” Austin says.
“It was like a movie. Helicopters dropping baskets to pick up our neighbors. We support first responders through charity and there just wasn’t enough trained people. Without Jeepers and the Cajun Navy with their boats, there would have been a lot more loss,” Lorelei adds.
As a tropical storm, Harvey made its third landfall a little over an hour southeast of Vidor on Wednesday, adding to the reported total of 35 inches of rainfall on the area. Flash flood emergencies rendered the interstate nearly useless to the Jeepers looking to bring supplies. The Jacksons knew how much help they had coming in from Jeepers, including the Central Florida Relief Team. They had to think fast and savvily to determine where to safely drop the supplies.
Nuts and Bolts
Lorelei and Austin Jackson live and work in Vidor, Texas. They own Austin’s Chop Shop, a Jeep customizing fabrication shop, that was used for a supply drop for Hurricane Harvey support. They also ran a Jeep rescue dispatch out of their house during the weeklong storm.
“I contacted another church that was accessible. Nobody could get in to us because the highways were flooded. It also took a lot of work to get around the curfews.” Lorelei says. “We knew we had supplies coming in on Friday, and knew that our local people needed them. The Love and Truth Church was one of the few high and dry points. The pastor and his group helped organize. The city manager is a Jeeper. He was the one who cleared the out-of-state Jeepers to enter with the supplies. It all fell into place with all the right people.”
The Central Florida Relief Team only had a small window of opportunity to drop the supplies before the water took over the roads. It took most of the day to unload Byers and Gibson’s 53-foot trailer by hand. They had to leave the U-Hauls a few towns away and return to unload them later in the day.
The Jacksons couldn’t get into their shop without a boat for another week after the storm passed. Shortly after the water receded, their friends and neighbors threw a fundraiser to raise enough cash to reopen their doors. Austin’s Chop Shop is predominantly a Jeep shop, specializing in custom fabrication, suspensions and some mechanical labor. Many of his customers lost their vehicles and are working with their insurance providers to replace them.
“I didn’t know they were planning a fundraiser. A bunch of our customers all chipped in to get our doors open again. ‘There’s nothing you can do about it,’ they told me,” Lorelei says. “To be honest, it was the perfect amount to get back on track. We’ve been so busy since we opened the doors, mostly trying to help customers recover and get their vehicles back.”
The area where the Jacksons live and work is not considered a flood zone. They never thought they would see such immeasurable damage.
“Right now, while I’m talking to you, we are sitting in the shell of our business’ building. We have literally lost everything. We live in an RV with our children on our property. There are still debris piles everywhere. People ask us how we are living after losing everything. I say it’s easy, because we were once scared for our lives. We have each other. That’s all that matters.”
The Jacksons hope to have the business and store fully repaired and running by January. Their home will take much longer, but they may be able to use and live in some of the rooms again by February. Lorelei reports that most of their neighbors are rebuilding and morale is still high.
“We’ve affected so many along the way and have so many people call or keep checking in. For several weeks after, we’ve had lots of help. We have felt very supported through this.”