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Twitter enables 'helpless' Tampa couple to send rescuers to Harvey flood victims (w/video)

Photo courtesy of Kim McIntosh. Residents of La Vita Bella nursing home at their temporary quarters at Laurel Court nursing home in Alvin, Texas.
Photo courtesy of Kim McIntosh. Residents of La Vita Bella nursing home at their temporary quarters at Laurel Court nursing home in Alvin, Texas.
Published Aug. 29, 2017

As Hurricane Harvey pounded Texas, Kim McIntosh picked up her cell phone in Tampa on Sunday morning and shot a text to her mother.

The previous night, when McIntosh had called to check on her mom, Trudy Lampson reported that La Vita Bella, an assisted living center she owns in Dickinson, Texas, still had power and everything was fine. McIntosh, who lives in South Tampa, figured the power had probably gone out overnight but that not much else had changed.

Instead, Lampson replied with a photo that would quickly go viral and has since come to represent the devastating flooding suffered by people in the Houston area.

In the photo, at least seven older residents, some of them in wheelchairs and wearing nightgowns, are submerged to their waists in murky, greyish-brown water. One woman is hunched over so far her face hovers inches from the surface. Just beyond her is a black and white cat sat perched on the back of a chair.

"Total disaster," Lampson said in a text to her daughter. "Water's rising."

"Horrible," McIntosh replied, then peppered her mother with questions in a series of texts.

Lampson didn't respond.

Feeling helpless more than a thousand miles away, McIntosh and her husband Tim sprang into action and then, desperate, eventually took to Twitter.

"I was very, very frightened at that point," Kim McIntosh told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. "I thought they were going to drown."

•••

La Vita Bella, which means "beautiful life" in Italian, is a labor of love for Lampson that started with her family's own needs.

The former Houston housewife opened the assisted living center in Dickinson, a small city between Houston and Galveston, 16 years ago when her own mother, Lea Colpitts, needed to move to a place with round-the-clock care.

"She figured out everything on her own and loved it," said McIntosh, a software engineer. The McIntoshes moved to Tampa from Boerne, Texas, about a year ago to be closer to her sister.

Ms. Colpitts died earlier this year at 93, but Lampson, who declined an interview request, kept the business going, catering to older clients who require round-the-clock nursing care. Some have dementia. Some breath with the help of oxygen tanks. Several use wheelchairs.

The single-story brick home on Oak Drive sits about quarter mile north of Dickinson Bayou, a creek-sized body of water that widens as it winds its way toward Galveston Bay, roughly five miles to the east. Though two small tributaries extend north on either side of La Vita Bella, the building hadn't previously flooded, even during Hurricane Ike in 2008, Kim McIntosh said.

Lampson's evacuation plan called for moving her residents to another center farther inland, but officials told Lampson to shelter in place, according to her daughter. So as Harvey approached the coast, Lampson and her three staff members hunkered down with 15 residents.

The storm made landfall Friday and by Sunday had dropped some 30 inches of rain on some parts of Houston. McIntosh would find out from her mother later that the staff knew something was wrong when the toilets began to bubble about 3 a.m. Sunday. Then water began to seep under the center's front door and envelop their feet and the lower rungs of wheelchairs.

Within 15 minutes, the water climbed to waist height, her daughter said. Wheelchairs began to float.

Lampson called state authorities first, then 911. Finally, she was told the National Guard would come for them. By 9 a.m., when she texted her daughter, no one had arrived. Lampson started reaching out to friends with boats.

The McIntoshes called a variety of local agencies in Texas, eventually reaching someone with Galveston County's emergency management department who told them to call 911. The couple explained why that wouldn't work. The official said they would add La Vita Bella to its rescue list.

"We felt like we hadn't done enough," Kim McIntosh said. "We thought everybody might be dying, so we decided to tweet a photo."

Tim McIntosh, a portfolio manager for an investment firm and author of four books on financial planning, tweeted the photo with a caption: "La vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson Texas is almost underwater with nursing home patients."

The tweet quickly went viral. A reporter with The Daily News in Galveston County saw it, contacted Tim and posted a story online. The McIntoshes called Galveston County emergency management officials back and learned the La Vita Bella was on the high-priority "purple" list.

•••

A National Guard crew arrived in a high-water vehicle about 1 p.m. The water didn't rise higher than the level in the photo, but by then, the residents had been sitting in it for nine hours.

"RESCUED!!" Tim McIntosh tweeted later, thanking the Guard and Galveston officials.

The residents wound up at another assisted living center in Alvin, about 17 miles inland. None were injured during the ordeal, McIntosh said.

Meanwhile, authorities on Monday continued plucking people from the floodwaters — at least 2,000 by midday, according to Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. At least 185 critical rescue requests were still pending on Monday morning. The goal was to rescue those people by the end of the day, Acevedo said.

City and staff officials have defended the decision not to evacuate, saying that more lives would have been lost if residents took to streets and highways that quickly flooded. They also urged residents to use 911, not social media, as their first lifeline.

But when emergency officials fell short, Twitter made the McIntoshes feel empowered.

"You feel so helpless," Kim McIntosh said. "You can't drive over or boat over. Twitter made us feel so much better, like we had a little control to get the story out."

This story contains information from the Associated Press. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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