MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --
With little more than a smartphone app and an overwhelming desire to “do something,” a Maxwell Airman left Montgomery for Texas in late August to see how he could help in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Before heading to the Lone Star State on Aug. 31, Staff Sgt. Mark Doyle had spent the night and early morning of Aug. 29-30 listening to and then coordinating rescue efforts going on in the flooded city of Orange using a walkie-talkie app and Google maps.
Doyle said he was thumbing through social media sites the evening of Aug. 29 when he came upon a site detailing the rescues and that the rescuers were communicating with each other using the walkie-talkie app Zello. He downloaded the app to his smartphone, and he soon found himself in the thick of things.
After getting a sense of what was happening over the airwaves, Doyle said he kept hearing rescuers telling their dispatchers that they couldn’t find the addresses of those needing rescued.
“I started searching these locations on Google maps, and I could see where they were getting lost. And I said to them, ‘Hey, I can help direct you there!’” said the airfield systems technician with the 42nd Operations Support Squadron.
The loops and turns in the city and neighborhoods’ flooded streets were not evident to the rescuers. However, from more than 500 miles away, Doyle was able to pinpoint their exact locations and direct the rescue teams to the right addresses.
He was not giving directions to military or civilian first responders but to the “Southeast Texas Navy” and “Cajun Navy.” These navies are hundreds of Texas and Louisiana outdoor enthusiasts who respond to natural disasters such as this in a flotilla of bass boats, jon boats, air boats and just about anything else that floats.
It wasn’t too long after he made contact with the homegrown navies that his assistance from afar led to a real-life rescue. It was then that he was hit with the realization that he could make a difference from the comfort of his home.
“Rescuers would get there and the people would be there. And I’m like ‘Oh my goodness! I can do something from Montgomery to help these people in Texas.’ So after that, I was hooked,” he said.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 30, his wife told him about a mother and her children who were in need of rescue in nearby Port Arthur, Texas, that she had just learned about through social media. Doyle was able to connect with a Coast Guardsman on the ground there, who in turn contacted a Coast Guard helicopter.
“Within an hour, my wife was showing me a live-feed of them being rescued by the helicopter,” he said. “When I think about what I was able to pull off from here, it almost doesn’t seem real.”
Reality hit, however, at about 3 a.m. when he realized he had to get ready for work.
Doyle said he showed up to his office a few hours later looking and feeling haggard. He explained to his boss why the tired look and what he’d been up to since the night before. His boss gave him permission to continue doing what he had been doing. Internet connectivity issues and technological shortcomings at the office, however, severely limited his ability to continue his coordination efforts.
It was then that he decided he needed to head to Texas.
“I was listening in, and I started feeling called to go there,” he said. “I could not sit here anymore and do nothing more. I literally knew I had to go there.”
So, the next day, with leave paperwork in hand, Doyle loaded up his 4x4 pickup and headed south. On the way, he picked up packages of bottled water and loaves of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly.
Pulling into Orange, which is right over the Louisiana border and about 100 miles east of Houston, Doyle came across a couple of sheriffs at a rescue staging area. He asked the officers where he could be of help, and they told him to drive to the “end of the road.” He soon found out that the “end of the road” literally was the end of the road because going any farther was impossible—there was water as far as the eye could see.
“It didn’t seem real,” said Doyle. “With all the water and seeing everything under water like it was, it didn’t seem like it could still be like this.”
Harvey made landfall in Rockport on the Texas Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25, slowly working its way up the coast and making final landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 30. It’s reported that Harvey dumped nearly 50 inches of rain in and around Orange, a city of about 20,000 people.
After reaching the end of the road, Doyle got to work.
He met up with some of the Texas and Cajun navy volunteers who were already busy bringing people out of flooded neighborhoods. Doyle started handing out food and water from his truck to the evacuees and rescuers. After doing this for a while, he soon found himself going out on rescues.
“It felt good,” he said of his first rescue. “It felt like I was actually fulfilling part of my purpose for being there.”
After a few more rescues and continuing to coordinate rescue efforts, Doyle ended up on a bridge that he had crossed earlier in the day. He noticed that the water was still rising on the other side of the bridge, and he started alerting motorists to the danger.
“It was going on 1 a.m. in the morning, and I’m on this bridge that everyone is trying to cross who had to evacuate Port Arthur and surrounding communities. One of the only ways out was across this bridge, and it was impassable on the other side,” he said.
Doyle spent about 10 hours posted on the bridge turning back motorists.
“Knowing I possibly saved someone’s life by not crossing the bridge and getting stranded in their car, it made it all feel worth it,” he said.
In another instance, Doyle was at a rescue staging area outside a gun store in Mauriceville on the outskirts of Orange. Calls started coming in for ice to help keep medical supplies cool. He noticed a stand-alone ice machine on a corner under a street light that was still working despite power outages everywhere. Doyle ran to the machine, inserted some money and found that the machine was still producing ice, or so he thought. The ice machine owner pulled up and told Doyle that the ice was just leftover ice and that the machine was, in fact, not producing new ice.
Using his technical know-how, he and the owner started working on the machine and soon got it to start making new ice. “I don’t know how many dollars I started pouring into this ice machine,” he said. “But I probably bought 75 bags of ice.”
The owner had left but soon returned with tokens for the machine so the rescuers could get free ice to deliver where needed for medical supplies.
While in Texas, Doyle, and many of the other rescuers, relied on the generosity and hospitality of local citizens for a place to sleep and food. After being in Texas for a few days doing what he could with rescue and relief efforts and with the food and water he had brought with him gone, Doyle said he decided to head back to Alabama.
It didn’t take long after getting on the road, however, that he responded to another call for help.
He heard that a makeshift medical clinic at a department store in Port Arthur was also looking for ice for medical supplies. He called the owner of the ice machine in Mauriceville that he had met to see if he knew of the locations of ice machines in Port Arthur.
“And so he says, ‘I’ll call you back,’” said Doyle. “Not more than five minutes later, I get a phone call from the owner of several ice machines in Port Arthur.” He connected the owner with the people at the clinic and was able to confirm that 30 minutes later the clinic had all the ice they needed.
Getting home the evening of Sept. 3, Doyle said he kept following the rescue operations but decided to limit his involvement.
“The people in Texas were incredible,” he said. “Not only them, but also the people from Louisiana and those who poured in from the rest of the U.S. There are so many heroes out there, and I look up to them.”
Closer to home, though, Doyle’s personal involvement did not go unnoticed.
“Staff Sergeant Doyle has always epitomized service before self, and he truly lived that ethos over the long holiday weekend spent helping those affected by the disaster. He gave without concern for himself or thought of recognition for his actions, and I am proud to serve with him,” said Lt. Col. John Zohn, commander of the 42nd OSS.
The commander of the 42nd Air Base Wing praised Doyle for his selflessness and decision to act.
“I’m extremely proud of Staff Sergeant Doyle for seeing a problem and finding an innovative way to use his talent to aid those in need,” said Col. Eric Shafa, wing commander. “He exemplifies the core values built into our Airmen that makes our Air Force the greatest in the world. His selfless act to help others in the face of tremendous odds is another example of why our military is one of the most respected institutions in our country.”