Houston or Bust: Jeepers Rally for Hurricane Relief

It was Monday, Aug 28, two days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas, when I first heard Coty Byers was going to Houston. Many of you know Coty as the president of Blackwater Jeepers. You may not know he is an independent trucker. He and his girlfriend and copilot, Billi Gibson, were on the road when the hurricane struck. They put the word out that they were coming back to Central Florida to pick up donated supplies and haul them to Texas, where flooding and evacuations would kill at least 80 people and leave thousands homeless and destitute.

Plenty of Room

Coty and Billi were due to arrive Thursday, Aug. 31, and leave Friday morning. The plan was for all the Central Florida Jeep groups to deliver the supplies they collected to a Tampa Jeep Krewe event in Brandon, Fla., on Thursday. Coty and Billi would be there to load their truck before heading to Texas the next morning.

Theo Papapanos volunteered his New Port Richey restaurant, Christo’s, as the drop-off point for my group, the ODT Jeepers. The entire Jeepin’ community spent the week spreading the word and gathering supplies. At one point, my brother Eric and I hit the Walmart. We packed six overfilled shopping carts’ worth of supplies into my wife Martina’s full-size SUV.

When we arrived at Christo’s to drop off our donations, the restaurant was already packed with supplies. They were running out of room quickly, and this was just the drop-off point for the ODT Jeepers. After speaking with several of the other Jeep group leaders, I learned that everyone was collecting more supplies than Coty’s 53-foot semi could hold.

Blackwater’s vice president, Al Feliz, had a plan. He knew that Kathleen McDougall, a Jeeper and the manager of a U-Haul franchise, was using one of her trucks as a drop-off point for the Jeepers in her area. The 27-foot truck was about half-full, and Al connected me with Kathleen. I still can’t believe what a great deal Kathleen gave me on a one-way rental. She even delivered the truck to the TJK drop-off point on Thursday. Al quickly arranged for two drivers for the U-Haul. We had Coty’s 53-foot trailer and half of a 27-foot U-Haul truck for the overflow items. We thought the emergency was over. If only we knew.

“Our convoy now consisted of Coty’s tractor-trailer, two 27-foot U-Hauls, two Jeeps
(one towing a trailerful of pet food) and, bringing up the rear, my family in an SUV filled with bottled water.”

When Coty arrived at the TJK event in Brandon, we started loading his truck. Pallet after pallet of food, water, clothes, toiletries, baby supplies and pet food was loaded into the semi and the U-Haul in the blazing Florida heat by dozens of volunteers — men, women and children. When it was clear we needed another truck, Kathleen came to our rescue again. She arranged a second 27-foot U-Haul for the convoy to Texas. Almost immediately, two more Jeepers volunteered to make the drive.

Rolling Out

Our convoy now consisted of Coty’s tractor-trailer, two 27-foot U-Hauls, two Jeeps (one towing a trailerful of pet food) and, bringing up the rear, my family in an SUV filled with bottled water. Before we hit the road, I booked rooms for the entire crew at a Holiday Inn Express several miles outside of Houston.

As we made our way west, we heard discouraging news. Leaders of the groups with whom Coty had arranged delivery, Bottoms Up Jeepers and North Texas Jeep Club, said our primary drop-off point was two feet underwater and still sinking. Then we learned the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had announced they were no longer accepting donated supplies and authorities were turning vehicles away at the border.

Just as we were beginning to wonder if our mission was all for naught, Coty got a call from the local police captain in Orange, Texas, which is about 100 miles east of Houston, right on the border of Louisiana. They had heard we were coming, they needed our supplies, and they could get us past the roadblock.

Dawn was breaking as we reached the border and met the Orange police. They escorted us along the eastbound side of the I-10. The other side was completely flooded. Houses, cars and entire neighborhoods were under what looked to be at least three feet of water. As we approached our exit, I noticed the handlebars of an abandoned Harley sticking up out of the muddy water, a small but poignant symbol of the countless losses suffered by Harvey’s victims.

High water and low branches made the last few miles impassable for Coty, but the U-Hauls were able to follow the police to Orange City Hall. We dropped off the trucks and the police were kind enough to escort us to our hotel.

Members of the team accompanied by their Orange City police escort.

Are You the Manager?

It was early morning when we pulled into the parking lot at the Holiday Inn Express. Our hopes for a few hours of rest were quickly shattered. It was no longer a hotel. It was a shelter. One brave desk clerk had stayed behind with her two babies to welcome evacuees. Before we even had a chance to introduce ourselves, she told us they were out of food and water but we were welcome to stay and have a cold shower if we could find a room. We thanked her for her kindness and bravery and told her this was her lucky day.

The Texas Jeepers had set up a secondary drop-off point at a church, so after we restocked the hotel and bid the “manager” good day, we rolled out. We turned that little church into one big commissary. With the help of a few parishioners, we unloaded Coty’s 53-foot trailer by hand, which took the better part of the day. The plan was to wait for the convoy of Jeepers from North Texas, but we soon learned that the waters were still rising and we needed to head out soon before the roads were completely flooded. The Jeeps headed back to Orange to pick up the U-Hauls.

Nuts and Bolts

The publisher joined a group of Jeepin’ volunteers for a 980-mile convoy to deliver water, food and other supplies to victims of Hurricane Harvey. The Central Florida Relief Team included:

• Therese Black
• Coty Byers
• Robert Dumaine
• Billi Gibson
• Craig Kendall
• Dawn Klar
• Brenda Oliver
• Bob Otterson
• Jason Sparkman
• Tom Walters

While we waited for the convoy to reassemble, I called ahead to the Golden Nugget in Lake Charles, La., to book some rooms. It was about 6 p.m. on Saturday when we arrived. None of us had slept or showered in at least two days, and of course we had to be back on the road early the next day. But we all had dinner together to celebrate a job well done — or so I thought.

The team with the minister of a Vidor, Texas church where the donations were
dropped off.

That night, Coty informed us he had run into a group that had four planeloads of medical supplies sitting at an airport. They needed to be delivered to Houston. He and Billi had already decided to make the run.

Before we left for Texas, a good friend of mine asked me about the trip. I told him that 10 Central Florida Jeepers were delivering hurricane relief supplies to Texas, and my family and I were joining them as members of the press. We had all our video and camera equipment loaded in the SUV, and the plan was to document the trip. It is difficult to explain why, but we never unpacked the equipment. It just did not seem right. If someone asked me today about the trip to Texas, I would say that I had the honor of riding and working side-by-side with these brave and dedicated Jeepers.

I did want to send a very special thanks to Coty Byers and Billi Gibson for the fantastic job they did leading our group and keeping us all safe and also the hardworking men and women from the Central Florida Relief Team. Without you, none of this would have been possible. Thank you for your service!

Jeepers live by their motto of “No Jeeper left behind,” and they proved it that week. At no point in my career as a publisher or my life off-road have I been so proud to call myself a Jeeper. We are part of a community that gets things done within and outside the towns and cities we call home. To everyone who donated and volunteered, I thank you. And to the good people of Texas, I wish you all the luck in the world as you rebuild your own communities. If you need us, just give us a call. We will be there in 18 hours.

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