With so many people in Houston stranded by the high waters caused by Hurricane Harvey, Shane Weinreis knew he needed to join the rescue effort.
“Initially I hadn’t planned on going just because finances aren’t available and it’s so far,” Weinreis, president and diver officer of the Billings-based U.S. Water Rescue Dive Team, said Tuesday.
But then he talked to a couple of friends in Houston, including another USWRDT member who is a volunteer firefighter. And he watched news coverage documenting the unfolding tragedy.
“People calling 911 and they can’t even get an answer on the phone, let alone get somebody to rescue them,” Weinreis said Tuesday morning. “The agencies do their best, but it’s not enough.”
His friend, the volunteer firefighter, told Weinreis that he was going on his fifth 24-hour shift. “He said last night the chief finally made them come in and get a couple hours sleep.”
So Weinreis and a few other team members decided to make the nearly 1,600-mile drive to Houston to lend their expertise. They left Tuesday afternoon, expect to arrive on Wednesday and plan to stay about a week.
To help with expenses, including fuel, food for the team and for the survivors, and equipment maintenance and repair, Weinreis created a Go Fund Me account. As of Tuesday, he had raised $4,585 of the $25,000 goal.
Weinreis, a former Marine, founded the nonprofit U.S. Water Rescue Dive Team in 1997. He had previously been part of both a volunteer search and rescue group in Yellowstone County and a commercial dive team
When both of those organizations ceased their work, Weinreis developed a team of his own. He and the other 15 members probably average 40 requests for their rescue and recovery skills a year.
Most are in Yellowstone County — anywhere from zero to four or five a month. But in 2017, the team traveled to California and Washington for cases that involved recovery of bodies, evidence and equipment.
“We’re hoping not to do any recoveries in Houston,” Weinreis said, adding they were asked to bring a minimal amount of recovery equipment just in case. His contact said more likely it will be rescuing people stuck in apartments and high rises who are safe at the moment but won’t survive very long without some kind of assistance.
“And for many that’s getting them out of where they are and to dry ground,” Weinreis said.
The Montana team will bring a 13-foot motorized rescue boat and a trailer filled with dry suits, protective equipment, personal flotation devices, first-aid supplies, underwater lights for nighttime operations, ropes and harnesses.
“We’ll bring a minimal amount of actual SCUBA gear,” he said. “There have been some overturned vehicles, and just in case a rescuer gets submerged or something, we’ll have the SCUBA equipment on standby if we need it.”