ROCKPORT, Texas (Reuters) - When state emergency authorities pulled into the storm shelter in the small city of Rockport, Texas on Saturday, they asked the obvious first question: Who’s in charge here?
Everyone pointed to Zachary Dearing, who didn’t exactly look the part. The 29-year old was wearing shorts, an olive-green T-shirt and curly blond hair pulled into a man-bun.
Yet he seemed to have keen command of a desperate situation playing out in this beach community of about 10,000 people, which took catastrophic damage from a direct hit by Hurricane Harvey.
Dearing rattled off basic facts and needs: The shelter had 126 people at last headcount. Six were medically fragile. Four needed oxygen. Two needed hospice care. Everyone was calm because they had just been fed, he said.
“What service are you with?” Katie Contrera, of the Texas Emergency Medical Task Force recalled asking him.
She was shocked to learn Dearing was a civilian with no medical expertise. The slim screenwriter had moved to Rockport from Lexington, Kentucky only three months before to live with his father, a cancer survivor, on a house boat.
The truth was that no one - at least, officially - had been running the shelter at Live Oak Elementary school. The city of Rockport, a coastal community about 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, had opened it before the storm hit Friday.
But officials provided no supplies or management for vulnerable citizens unwilling or unable to evacuate, according to Dearing, others at the shelter and three Texas emergency management officials who later took over Saturday’s rescue effort there.
Finding a drifting ship with no captain, Dearing took command.
He recruited 15 volunteers – most between the ages of 16 and 21 – and put them on 30-minute shifts checking on everyone inside, particularly the most frail. He got people in the shelter to pool their food and water so that all could be fed. He got the team to plug leaks from the driving rain as best they could. And he organized periodic trips into the Category 4 wind storm to rescue more stranded people, according to Dearing, the state officials and others in the shelter.
“That guy is a hometown hero – he pulled it off,” said Carlos Alarcon, with the state medical task force. “That’s my definition of a hero – when someone does something out of the ordinary to help other people.”
Rockport city officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday morning made through the city’s police department, which is serving as an emergency hub for all local agencies.
The episode underscores how natural disasters can often overwhelm official efforts to plan and staff for the worst - in this case, a small South Texas city getting smacked with its worst storm in 47 years.
Dearing’s unlikely role at the shelter also highlights how volunteers often band together in the face of danger and to provide one another aid, comfort and life-saving care.
Dearing and his band of volunteers kept people safe and relatively calm in a dangerous situation that might have descended into chaos, said one Texas law enforcement official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
State officials “had assumed there was an actual shelter here – there wasn’t,” he said. Dearing, he said, had become “a one-man army running a triage hospital with nothing.”
Dearing, whose father evacuated to Houston, decided a little too late that he, too, needed to take cover. As he drove to the Rockport shelter on Friday afternoon, a piece of flying debris shattered both of his rear windows.
When he arrived at the school, it was clear no one was in charge, he said.
So Dearing started organizing people to “raid classrooms” for supplies including trash cans, hand sanitizer and rugs for people to sleep on. His ad hoc team collected food and water from people who brought it and handed it out to those who needed it.
“We pooled resources the best we could,” he said. “The city named this as a shelter but did nothing to organize it.”
Most people stayed in the gymnasium, which seemed to be the most stable as Harvey unleashed its force. The wind seemed to produce waves in the ceiling and basketball goals shook as people tried, often in vain, to sleep on the hardwood floor, shelter residents said.
Two emergency medical workers were there when Dearing arrived, but “did not seem motivated” to run the shelter and later left, Dearing said. Two Rockport police officers were also there for a time during the storm, and tried their best to help.
One of the officers told Dearing: “It looks like you have a system here; just tell us where you need us,” he said. “It was a weird feeling – I didn’t realize I had taken control.”
The first state emergency workers did not arrive until Saturday morning, when the worst of the storm had passed, Dearing and state officials at the shelter said.
Contrera, of the Texas Emergency Medical Task Force, arrived later to find little in the way of supplies or medical personnel. What she did find was a surprisingly calm population occupying the gym and the darkened hallways of the school, which had lost power and running water the night before.
“I was very surprised – and so thankful – that someone filled that role,” she said of Dearing.
The shelter’s self-appointed manager had grown frazzled and rambling by Saturday morning, having gotten almost no sleep. Alarcon, with the state medical task force, said he pulled Dearing aside and calmed him down.
“Stop – Zach, what do you need?” Alarcon asked.
Dearing rattled off the list: Bedding, food, water, cots, oxygen, sanitary supplies, a generator.
“And if we can’t get a generator – buses,” Dearing said.
State officials organized some supplies and medical care immediately and ordered transportation.
By the time the buses arrived about six hours later on Saturday, the shelter’s population had climbed to about 150 people, many with pets. Some had gotten stranded even after the storm passed.
Richard Loos, 68, ended up at the shelter Saturday afternoon after flooding his truck trying to get back to his home on Speckled Trout Lane, just off Rattlesnake Point Road. Trying to avoid one of hundreds of downed power poles in the region, he drove his four-wheel drive Ford truck into a drainage ditch and sank into four feet of water.
He had to climb out of the window to escape, and was picked up by an ambulance wandering through winds and rains that whipped up again on Saturday after a lull.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it out,” Loos said, smoking a cigarette and clutching his small long-haired dog, Bentley.
Nearby, in the school’s darkened main hallway, one extremely thin older woman crouched against a wall, mumbling about her terror of the hurricane.
“You’re okay; you’re safe now,” a medical worker told her. “The storm is over. We just have to worry about getting you out of here. What medicine are you on?”
Soon she would be pushed in a wheelchair to a line with others waiting for buses to Austin. A Texas state guardsman counted them, one by one, trying to put 40 people on each bus. “Twenty three, twenty four, twenty five,” he said, touching each one on the shoulder.
Watching the buses load Saturday evening, Dearing was elated that everyone at the shelter was finally getting what they needed.
He had broken into tears when it became clear that a collection of state law enforcement and emergency professionals had the solutions for the many problems he had been juggling.
“No one got hurt; the patients are alive,” he said. “These guys answered my prayers, and I cried.”
Reporting by Brian Thevenot; Editing by Marla Dickerson