Volunteers survey the Harvey Rescue map.
John Stevens surveys the Houston Harvey Rescue map of distress calls with fellow volunteer Bill Onorato. Jennie Kamin

A biome of digital command centers has amplified the capacity for civilian aid in Houston.

Updated on September 1 at 3:48 p.m.

Matt Marchetti was riding his bike through the 77024 neighborhood in Houston to scope out the early damage when he saw a boatman on the way to a rescue and asked if he could join. They pulled two or three people from the water and went their separate ways.

Marchetti, a computer programmer, returned to his office on Sunday to find himself tagged in Facebook posts of people embroiled in Hurricane Harvey asking for help. Surrounded by water and without a car, he felt helpless. His Facebook feed, like so many others, swelled with reports of emergencies in the community; requests for help escaping the flood with no specified location, rumors of church members who might have been taking on water.

“They weren’t standardized yet,” says Marchetti of the early bulletins. In the days to come, Houstonians would uniformly refine communications, blasting clear notices of coordinates, phone numbers, ages and conditions of those in distress. On Sunday night, however, there was still chaos.

Marchetti’s partner, Oliver Carter, 28, suggested they create an online platform to help streamline the rescue process. Marchetti did not think much of it, but desperate to help, he got to work.

In the 48 hours that followed, Marchetti and his partners, Carter and Nate Larson, 27, devised a plan to aggregate calls for help and connect those calls to boats in the water. Thus emerged Houston Harvey Rescue, a website, map, and dispatcher for at least 7,500 calls for help over the course of the next few days.

Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, a reported 13,000 people in southeast Texas have been rescued. While state and federal-level entities mobilized early on, first-responders overwhelmingly included Houstonians clad in plain clothes and armed with whatever vessels they could find.

Saturday night, as unprecedented levels of rain pummelled the greater Houston area, #HarveySOS (a signal for help when attached to a location) began proliferating on Twitter. Tweets turned into Facebook posts, which populated Google docs, which turned into coordinates being blasted into the ether for someone to find.

Throughout the storm, Zello, a multi-channel, walkie-talkie style app, became a preferred method of contact for coordinated civilian efforts. At the height of the storm, a constant chorus of call-and-response inundated the airwaves. Those who tuned in would hear reports of an elderly woman stranded in waist-high water for hours, a car fire with a driver trapped in a surge, and a home in which three children drowned.

While serving as an Emergency Medical Technician at Baylor University, Marchetti had once used Zello to respond to the West Fertilizer Company explosion in Waco.  

He had heard that Houstonians were using the app and radioed in to direct people to his nascent site. Those in trouble could write down their information and those looking to lend a hand could locate distress calls on the website’s map.

Shortly thereafter, voices from Zello began calling out for “ID #102” and thus, Houston Harvey Rescue was in business. Rescue requests poured in as Marchetti worried that no one would heed the call.

Then, through the Zello channel, he heard his first response. “We’re coming. I got 15 boats. Where do I go? I’m coming to get y’all,” he recalled in his best attempt at a Cajun accent.

“I started crying,” says Marchetti. “We might be able to help some people.”

Soon, the Cajun Navy (a civilian rescue group from out east that gained celebrity through the storm) shared the page. By Monday, the site had logged 200 rescues.

John Stephens, 47, the senior pastor at Chapelwood United Methodist Church (where Marchetti is a member) was one of the volunteers. Though he was activated after receiving text messages from friends, he was quickly alerted to the Harvey Rescue site. “It gets to be word of mouth,” says Stephens, who has pulled countless people, mostly elderly, from the floodwaters.

Stephens and his team joined forces with Texas State Troopers, providing them with passage where their trucks could not get through. “The locals we worked with yesterday were absolute heroes,” says Trooper Jason Henderson, 43. The 20-year law-enforcement veteran was on the ground for nearly every major weather event from Katrina to Ike. “It’s not that we didn’t see it in other storms. It’s that we didn’t see it at this level,” says Henderson of coordinated civilian efforts.

Marchetti’s fast-developing initiative was part of a larger biome of digital command centers providing civilian aid during the storm.

McCall McPherson, 34, a Houstonian living in Austin, launched a two-party search-and-rescue team with her husband, Casey. They have since grown into a coordinated effort with multiple teams of approximately 100 boats. Their command team of a dozen (mostly women, mostly strangers), works around the clock via Facebook messenger, scraping their Facebook page for alerts. “Crowdsourcing only works if there are willing participants,” says McCall. A group in New Zealand and Australia takes the night shift.

As Harvey moves east, Marchetti, McPherson and other teams like theirs continue to man their stations. Marchetti’s team will soon soon start exploring what his app can do during the long road to recovery—and whether he can replicate his model for other disasters.

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