Luke Axtell paused as he spoke into his cell phone while standing on dry land just a few feet from the flooded streets of hurricane-ravaged Houston late Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m out of breath, man,” the 6-foot-10 former University of Kansas basketball player said in a five-minute phone conversation with The Star. “I’m at a shopping center watching a whole family come back to shore now.”
He and four co-workers left the safety of the Austin area — where Axtell lives — for Houston on Saturday with boats and supplies in tow, in response to Hurricane Harvey, which has has ravaged the fourth-largest city in the United States.
Axtell and an ever-expanding group of friends have been manning the boats since then and, according to Luke’s estimates, have helped rescue “about 100” people from their homes while averaging about three or four hours a sleep the past few nights.
“It’s a horrible scene, an absolutely horrible scene,” Axtell said. He was referring to the unprecedented flooding in Houston and surrounding areas.
“As horrible as it is … this is the most united city and most united environment I’ve ever been in. Everybody is doing whatever they can to pull their weight. It’s an amazing deal.”
Axtell, 38, was taking a short break while waiting for one of four boats to return to his location on Memorial Drive, Houston proper.
He was anxious to return to canvassing neighborhoods in search of people he said “are either hanging out a window looking for you or by their front door — or if the water is low enough, in the yard.”
Staff members of Axtell’s new nonprofit organization, Gideon’s 300 (a group dedicated to the service of veterans) and many veterans themselves have been re-fueling the boats and purchasing food and water for rescuers and evacuees from donations provided to the non-profit’s GoFundMe page.
“It’s everybody. There’s not one single neighborhood that has not been affected one way or another,” Axtell said of Houston.
“It’s remarkable to see so many people from so many backgrounds in the same situation supporting each other. To be honest, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” added Axtell, who describes his current task as “getting people out of their homes” to safety.
Once transported by boat to dry land, displaced individuals can either meet loved ones or catch a ride to a shelter in vans provided by other charitable organizations.
“You are basically driving boats down the street like you’d be driving a car,” Axtell said of the rescue process. He said there are two rescuers to a boat so as to fit in as many stranded people on one trip as possible.
“The street is like a boat ramp. You just go right in (the water). You pull up to their garage, their driveway.”
He been aware of many tragic situations the last few days.
“It’s been a circus, an absolute circus. I feel so bad for these people,” said Axtell, a native Texan who played for KU during 1999-2001. “I know a guy in a shelter with his family and a man he was talking to just falls over, has a heart attack. They had to resuscitate him. The guy lived, but that kind of stuff is happening all over the place.”
Axtell has never felt in any personal danger while navigating the boat.
“There are very few areas with moving water because of where Houston sits. Most of the water is still,” he said. “You are seeing 4 to 6 feet of water in a neighborhood. If you go across a river or creek it is different. One boat capsized and a couple of people died. It depends what area you are in.”
Axtell said he may return home to his Dripping Springs, Texas, home and his family on Sunday.
He stated his company will have volunteers in Houston in coming weeks and months.
“It goes from rescue to clean-up,” he said. “We are so excited to be here, so excited to have the capability to help. So many people have come out to support us. We raised that money overnight (almost $3,000 so far on GoFundMe page). As long as the money keeps coming in, we’lll keep going. We have a bunch of veterans here extremely excited about getting people to safety.”