PORT ARTHUR, United States: Zub Ferrell’s passion is driving through the mud and muck of mega truck competitions. But this week he has embraced another mission: using his huge rig to save flood victims stranded after monster storm Harvey.
From his unusually high perch above the road, the 40-year-old crane operator drove his truck, named Old Habits, deep into Texas floodwaters Friday — part of an extra-high-clearance four-wheel force that has descended on Port Arthur’s hard-hit neighborhoods to shuttle hundreds of people to safety.
More cumbersome than boats but flexible because of their maneuverability through floodwaters and roadways, the mega trucks have formed an important division in the army of volunteers helping alongside emergency responders.
“You have people hugging you, we’ve had people try to pay us. We’re not taking any money,” Zub says as he fills up his thirsty rig at a gas station before heading back into the flood zone.
The work takes a toll on his custom-modified, 10 foot, nine inch (3.3 meter) tall truck: he estimates $500 in repairs since the floods started, and some 75 gallons (284 liters) of gas.
“But the hugs and the kisses, and watch a grown man cry when you come save him — it’s all worth it.”
Several mega trucks have joined the effort, including the Big Red Mud Truck from Fort Worth, Texas, which on Friday was rolling the same streets as Old Habits, and others from as far away as Illinois.
As Zub’s truck growls on, boat-based rescue personnel and residents glide by and give a thumbs up, then exchange vital information with him about where the most critical cases are.
“You OK?” Candace Sammons, one of Zub’s two search partners who stand on the truck’s running boards, shouts out to a man in his front yard.
The resident asks for supplies, and Candace pulls a case of bottled water off the roof to toss down to him.
Zub, whose arms are covered in elaborate tattoos, estimates he has rescued more than 45 people, six dogs, “and one very angry cat” in recent days.
Parts of Port Arthur on Friday remained under four or five feet of water, but Old Habits can go eight feet deep and emerge unscathed.
From the cab of his vehicle, Zub towers over the devastation, driving past debris and pick-up trucks almost completely submerged in water.
With the 69-inch-tall tires churning, Zub guides his ride through the murky water, seeking out residents who, despite refusing to leave their homes for days, have finally broken down and agreed to be evacuated.
One by one they climb out of the wet, scramble up the huge tires and step into the cab — which began its life as a standard 1998 Chevrolet Suburban before the dramatic uplift.
No ‘joy ride’
“I was low on food, no water,” said a man who identified himself as Charles as he was helped aboard.
Fifteen minutes later he was reunited with his mother, who bent over with happiness at the site of the black Old Habits emerging from the water with Charles grinning in the front seat.
“Thank God!” the man’s mother screams.
“No money,” Candace says, waving away the $20 bill Charles tries to give Zub. “Everybody’s in a bind just like you.”
Among the storm victims is William Isadore, 49, whom Zub picks up near the man’s apartment building.
“Everything’s ruined,” he whispers, after plopping down, exhausted, in the back seat.
It takes him a moment to comprehend the vehicle that just rescued him.
“These are good people trying to help,” he says, looking at Zub. “He’s blessing all of us.”
Zub knows the pain from such loss. His own home was badly damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008, and he was met with generous donations and aid from neighbors and authorities.
So when Harvey hammered his home city, he didn’t hesitate to return the favor.
He loads his truck up with water and boxes of ready-to-eat food. Restocking is routine.
During a 90-minute circuit, Zub draws plenty of smiles from adults and children alike.
But Zub stresses the importance of the rescue work in a sprawling natural disaster blamed for at least 42 deaths.
“We’re not out here on a joy ride, we’re trying to save people,” he says. “We’re doing what we can in a terrible situation.”