They Could Help, So They Did

Students from Western Carolina University’s Bass Fishing Club drove nearly 900 miles, boats in tow, to rescue Texans stranded by Harvey’s floodwaters.

September 1, 2017
Western Carolina students on their rescue mission in Texas

It was Tuesday, approaching midnight, but Jason Ashe wasn’t getting ready to go to bed. Instead, he and members of the club he used to preside over -- Western Carolina University’s Bass Fishing Club -- were getting ready for a more-than-850-mile trek through the night to Houston.

Watching Tropical Storm Harvey ravage southern Texas, where it originally made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, Ashe and about a dozen club members had an idea. Equipped with their bass-fishing boats, they would leave campus -- and their classes -- for the week and head down to Texas, where officials had called on private citizens who own watercraft to assist in rescue efforts.

“They were simply prompted by the images they were seeing on TV, by the unprecedented call from FEMA and Harris County, Tex., for civilian assistance, and by the realization that they are bunch of guys with boats and so were in a position to make a real contribution, if they acted quickly enough to get into position,” Nate Kreuter, an associate professor of English at the university and the group's faculty adviser, said via email.

The way Kreuter tells it, the students didn’t ask him if they could go. “It wasn’t a request so much as, ‘We’re doing this. What can you do to help?’”

Kreuter, who has written columns for Inside Higher Ed, was briefed on the plan Tuesday morning during a meeting with the current club president, Jacob Boyd. That didn’t give him -- or the club -- a lot of time to turn it around. But within 12 hours, the club had raised more than $3,000, the goal they set to help pay for boat and truck gas, as well as miscellaneous expenses. By Wednesday evening, the funds raised had jumped to more than $6,000, with the extra money being earmarked for charity.

“It is our duty as Americans to help our fellow countrymen, especially those in need,” the fund-raising appeal reads, before going on to quote President John F. Kennedy.

“Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.”

Kreuter has been doing his part by keeping in contact with Ashe and the others from North Carolina and securing excused absences. The students are set to return Sept. 4.

The trip has not been simple. Arriving on Wednesday afternoon, the students got straight to work, rescuing 30 to 40 people in the Port Arthur and Lake Charles areas. Their original plan to go to Houston had changed, as they received word that Houston had received numerous volunteers. They slept in their trucks at a rest stop Wednesday night and moved on to Orange, Tex., in an effort to go where they could be the most use.

“It has been chaotic, but through no fault of the Texas authorities. There is sort of a lag between when need occurs in an area and when volunteers can get there. So, sometimes they head to an area, only to find out that the issues there have been dealt with by other volunteers. This has been a real learning experience for them in terms of making their own local contacts, trying to find reliable information in a chaotic communications environment and then responding to changing weather conditions and volunteer availability,” Kreuter said.

Attempts to reach Ashe were met with spotty cellphone reception, but the students have documented their endeavors on social media.

Thirty to forty “people evacuated from their homes, and two medical calls,” a Facebook post read (one of the students is an EMT). “Keep in mind, this was in five hours of working. This is more devastating than any news network could ever portray.”

“We’ve linked up with some local guys who are trying to put us where we can go,” a student says in a video update. “We just ask that everybody keep us in your prayers,” says another.

“These calls are nonstop, every two, three seconds there is a new call,” another post reads.

Kreuter said he’s proud of the students, and that they’re taking their work seriously.

“One thing we talked about before they left is that they could get to an area and find rescue boats are not needed. We all agreed before they left that filling sandbags or handing out water, or volunteering in a shelter, are equally important ways for them to contribute if people living closer to the event have already filled the necessary civilian rescue roles,” he said.

And is he proud of them?

“Of course I'm proud. I'm really fucking proud, and I hope you print it that way,” he said. “This has gone exactly as it should so far. The students were motivated by their own sense of responsibility and duty. They had the idea. They made the plan. They executed the plan. They have followed through. I've just been an enabler, in a positive sense, dealing with bureaucracy and logistics on their behalf so that they can do real work. This is the proudest I've been of the students that I interact with in my eight years at WCU, certainly.”


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