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  • Writer's pictureMatt Keyser

'Mr. JJ Watt': A letter from a first responder

Mr. JJ Watt, the letter began.

Sir, you don’t know me. Why, we’ve never even met. I’m just a guy who’s been a First Responder, well, since before the term First Responder was even created, Rex Evans wrote.

As such, especially over the last week, in my role as a First Responder, I’ve lifted babies, kids, elderly, handicap, dogs, cats, even a couple of squirrels (of all the critters) out of raging, fast moving waters here in the greater Cleveland, Plum Grove area.

Never really thought about who they were, either. White, black, rich, poor, whatever…none of those things mattered. All that mattered, was they needed help and we helped them.

Evans entered the Cleveland ISD Police Department to the smell of coffee Tuesday morning. It was just after 5 and the building was quiet: no scanners buzzing, phones ringing, sirens singing. He poured himself a cup of coffee.

An early morning outside the Cleveland ISD Police Department.

“Dang, Chief,” a deputy called out, “it’s a bit early, don’t you think?”

“No, sir,” Evans said. “It’s just the right time to get the day started.”

Evans hadn’t gotten much sleep since Hurricane Harvey hit Southeast Texas. The storm sent 130 mph winds into Rockport and Corpus Christi when it made landfall Aug. 25, destroying buildings and leveling homes. Across the Greater Houston area nearly 200 miles away, Harvey brought in heavy rain bands that sent the city and surrounding areas underwater.

Well sir, our area, not much different than Houston itself, has homes which floated away by raging, high waters. Some, knocked right off their blocks. Others, manufactured homes, were literally ripped in half, or broken apart by trees and debris. Clothing and items are strewn about for miles.

First responders in the Cleveland-Plum Grove area northeast of Houston monitored Harvey as it exploded from a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico to a Category 4 hurricane with a bullseye set on the Texas coast.

It didn’t take long after the storm made landfall near Rockport that it sent heavy rains and strong winds into the area Saturday night. Evans and his fellow first responders met at the Cleveland Fire Department to map everyone’s assignments for when the weather turned for the worst.

The emergency crews, made up of some 30 first responders spread across 103 square miles, pulled together all their resources—boats, large trucks, even school buses—in anticipation of the approaching once-in-a-1,000-year flood.

The first call for help, a high-water rescue, rang in late Saturday afternoon.

Evans is a third-generation first responder and has seen a lot in his 29-year career: families broken apart, homicides and tragic child abuse cases—things he doesn’t even want to speak of. A native Houstonian, he’s lived through hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike. He’s never seen a monstrosity like Harvey—a storm that sent floodwaters rising at a rapid pace, taking over roads and homes, with the speed and strength to sweep away even the biggest rescue vehicles.

At one point, conditions got too bad for first responders to continue rescues and they were forced to suspend operations. It’s a choice that still weighs heavy on Evans.

“You try to go a different way, try to rescue as many as you can, but you have to stop,” Evans said. “And as a chief, making those decisions, making those people have to wait, that’s the hardest thing to live with.”

More than 700 people were rescued over the course of four days—families who escaped to their roofs, families who hoped to ride out the storm, babies and the elderly and handicapped.

When Evans saw the terrified look of a young girl seated in an airboat wearing only a life vest and shorts, his heart broke. Evans pulled her out and grabbed her tight. Through her tears and the pouring rain and strong winds, she grabbed his neck and her face lit up. “Car rider cop,” she said. Evans paused. She remembered him from the days he helped navigate traffic outside her elementary school as students waited for their parents.

Evans walked her to the back of a school bus, where she’d be taken to a shelter—away from the devastating flooding that forced her family from their home.

Many of our students and their parents, our seniors are all living under tents right now. Our hospital remains closed. Many here are not only displaced, but disheartened. It is nearly incapacitating to witness, if not for the pure tenacity to endure and continue to help those who cannot help themselves.

JJ Watt, the Houston Texans star defensive end and Houston hero, wanted to help his city and the surrounding communities affected by Harvey. Watt donated $100,000 and started a Houston Flood Relief Fund on Aug. 27. He hoped to raise $200,000.

In the two weeks since, that number has soared to nearly $30 million. Donations range from $25 from anonymous donors; $100 from Michelle Gretsch, who wrote “everyone needs a little help sometimes, and the people of Houston need the rest of the country now. Every little bit helps.”; $200,000 from rapper Drake; and $5 million from Charles Butt, the CEO of Texas grocery chain H-E-B.

“We set out last Sunday with a goal of $200,000, and every single day since then has been a reminder of how much good that there is out there in the world,” Watt said in a Facebook video after the fundraiser passed $20 million. “And how when times are tough and things look bleak, people step up to help their fellow human.”

Watt, through the help of his J.J. Watt Foundation, promised all the money will go directly to people affected by Harvey—from Houston to Rockport to Beaumont and Port Aransas. Watt said he’s been meeting with people in those areas to determine the best ways to utilize the money.

“I want to do right by the donors and I also want to do right by the city of Houston and the surrounding areas to rebuild as many lives as possible,” Watt said.

Watt’s message and support for first responders stuck with Evans, which compelled him to post a now-viral 700-word letter to the Texans star on Facebook.

On a personal note…I for one am grateful you are here to help us, he wrote.

I ain’t kidding brother, we need it.

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