WAXAHACHIE — As stories of courage and compassion continue to surface from September’s devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, one local dentist was among those who answered a call for help.
And the story that unfolded is astounding.
“The devastation of everything was a shock and seeing how misplaced everything was intense,” expressed, Justin Wright, Waxahachie’s Just Wright Dental’s Doctor of Dental Surgery, about seeing the flooding. “But the encouraging thing was that you get to see the best of people in times like that.”
"If you know Dr. Wright, then you know he is one of those people that will give you the shirt off his back," explained Kelly Clark, Just Wright Dental's Surgical Coordinator. "If someone needs something he’s the first one to give."
First hearing of the approaching storm while visiting family in Colorado, Wright’s thoughts immediately raced as friends called out for help once the storm took a deadly turn.
“So several of my buddies down there were texting me saying, ‘Hey, where’s your boat at?’ Because I have a fan boat that can get in shallow and you don’t have to have a prop in the water so its great for going through flooded areas,” Wright explained.
“So my friends were asking for their neighbors because they needed help, and some of my other friends were saying that the water was rising in their house,” he recalled the community of his Alma mater. “And as time progressed and the hurricane dropped more and more rain, I basically told my wife that I needed to go and that this was serious, and she was like, ‘Go for it.’”
That night, Wright hopped on a plane back home gathering supplies and a crew to go with him to Kingwood in south Texas.
“So we pick everything up, got a bunch of food, waterproofed a lot of things, and to see if everybody who couldn’t go but helped us get ready - it was so cool because you could really see that they’re heart’s were in it,” Wright remembered the moment.
“And the funny part is, I took my boat and it basically looks like a redneck yacht because it’s got lights all around it where you can go fishing with it at night, so I looked like a UFO when we got there,” he laughed.
Clark also added that she, the dental office, and Wright's patients were backing their favorite dentist in his brave endeavor.
"While he was down there, of course, we were maintaining the hygiene program, and we explained to patients what was going on, and they were like, ‘No problem, we can push it back whenever.’ They were all very understanding and encouraging," Clark confirmed.
After driving long hours into the night, Wright also mentioned his unfortunate luck of catching a Giardia infection on a previous trip to Argentina.
"Dr. Wright goes down to Argentina twice a year for this bird hunting trip where he gives all the birds to a village that’s hungry, and they literally feed all them," Clark expounded on Wright's humble charity efforts. "And that’s dangerous in itself, but he loves to help, and that’s just the kind person he is."
According to Mayo Clinic, the Giardia infection is caused by a microscopic parasite that is found worldwide, especially in areas with poor sanitation and unsafe water. It causes intestinal symptoms, as well as abdominal cramps, fever, bloating, and nausea.
“The further I got down there, the worse I felt but I wanted to go help people, so I just kept pushing through,” Wright explained.
Developing a fever and fighting through sickness, Wright and his crew exited the last ramp that wasn’t underwater and had to wait until morning before their first rescue.
“So I connected with a friend of mine in the woodlands, and we stayed at his house, and we were asking ‘What’s the best way we could help?’ At first, we thought we could go out in the middle of the night, but then we found out that in between the houses were swift-moving waters, like a huge current,” Wright acknowledged.
“So you’d just be going along and then all the sudden a current would get you, and you couldn’t do anything about it,” he articulated. “So we didn’t go out at night because about 200 yards from us as a police boat that flipped over and they lost an officer. It was really sad.”
As dawn broke, the team took to the water, witnessing the damage of the storm first hand, running over flooded cars and street signs with his boat while picking up a few “cruise members.”
“It was surreal the thing that hits you the quickest,” Wright paused. “Is that everyone who got on the boat lost everything. I mean, I probably just ran over their car with the boat, and they’re just leaving with a plastic sack of their only belongings - and that was the reality of everybody we picked up.”
“Because it was a shocking moment, we tried to keep things light and say stuff like, ‘Welcome to Kingwood cruises, we hope you never return for this Cruise ever again,'” he recollected a few of his first passenger pickup lines.
“We would say stuff like, ‘Would anybody like to stop at Whataburger? Oh, nope, looks like it’s not doing too hot,’” Wright chuckled at the underwater restaurant. “So we made jokes for the passengers, and they picked up on it pretty quick and laughed with us."
Trip after trip, Wright says he lost count of how many people they rescued as they visited many neighborhoods and apartment complexes.
“I don’t remember how many we picked up, the whole two days was like a massive blur,” Wright admitted.
“And what’s great is that I still had this Giardia stuff with a fever, but the rain was so cold because I was soaking wet that I weirdly felt like a million bucks - it was perfect,” he laughed. “Everyone else was freezing, but I was like, ‘This is awesome!’”
As the current grew stronger and the waters rose higher, Wright’s boat took a beating from unavoidable obstacles, reaching their last location- a place Wright would never forget.
“We found an assisted living neighborhood,” described a scene of chaos that quickly unfolded before him. “We were on the second floor, and it was total chaos. There were volunteers and guys trying to help, but everything was just all over the place with people screaming."
“So we settled everybody down, searched the bottom rooms to make sure no one got left behind, got everyone organized, and gave out tasks to different people,” he added.
After making a plan, Wright and a few other boatmen in the area searched the first level of the center with water up to their waists, making sure everyone was accounted for.
“Some of the senior citizens could walk and some of them couldn’t, and because the water was over their bed, some of them really couldn’t move,” Wright explained. “It was weird because things were floating around their room, and you can’t break down a door or bust in there with three feet of water on both sides; it just doesn’t move.”
“So we carried people, did piggyback rides, or cradled them to get them out,” he included.
Among those he loaded into his boat was a frail 95-year-old woman that made quite the impression on Wright.
“While I was on the second floor there was this little old lady, and I asked her, ‘How much do you weigh?’” Wright recalled. “We needed to know so we could figure out how to pick them up, and she was like, ‘I weigh 95 pounds.’”
“I knew I had to be really careful with her, so I picked her up and cradled her, and I asked her, ‘Are you ready to go?’ And she was like, ‘I’m ready but does this mean we’re going to dance?’” he chuckled. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, what’s your style?’ And she said, ‘I jitterbug.’ And I told her that I did too.”
Carrying the woman to the first floor and then to the boat, Wright goes on to describe that she looked around the room as water enveloped and said something that he recollects as profound.
“At about that time she realizes what’s going on after looking outside the doors and at the water, and she says, ‘Do you think I can get a rain check on that dance?’ And I said, ‘I reckon so,’” Wright laughed.
“She lost everything but her humor and whit, and it was amazing to witness that,” he grinned. “So wherever she is, I hope I can one day get that dance with her.”
Taking the stranded to shore in a “rock star fashion,” by passing people in a crowd surfing manner, Wright’s two-day rescue was just another successful example of brotherly love Ellis County produces.
“It’s neat to see whatever differences people have with each other melt away and come together and help each other out. I mean, those people lost everything, but they still had joy. And it was just Texans helping Texans - that’s really what it was all about, and it was just overwhelmingly awesome to see that,” Wright concluded.