Like hundreds of other Houstonians, Robert Aghamalian has spent the last few weeks diligently working to combat the destruction that the Hurricane Harvey flooding wreaked on his home. The retired Microsoft executive relocated to Houston with his wife Ange 20 years ago after growing up and raising his family in Arlington.
The entire first floor of his home in an upscale neighborhood in northwest Houston and all of the contents were almost totally destroyed by the floods on Aug. 28, but Aghamalian points out that his situation is like that of so many others.
While it is true that the colossal undertaking of restoring his house is what many others are going through, the remarkable circumstances that he and Ange faced as the floodwaters invaded their home added another layer of tragedy that is difficult to imagine.
It was two weeks before the flood when I said my goodbyes to my friend Ange as she faced the final days of her battle with stage 4 breast cancer. I wished I could stay at her side until the end because I wanted to squeeze every moment of our numbered seconds together to hang on to our priceless 50-year friendship. With only intermittent moments of wakefulness while I sat beside her for a long spell, she opened her eyes and smiled and said softly “I love you, Faye.” Because Robert requested no crying in front of Ange, I managed what I hoped was a pleasant countenance as I held her gaze for a while and stroked her hand before she drifted back into a merciful sleep made possible with strong pain medication.
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For the next two weeks, Robert tenderly cared for his wife of 50 years in their beautiful home in Houston somehow summoning whatever it took to be positive and strong so that his wife would not see his sadness or sense his dread of losing her. Never could he have envisioned the turn of events they would experience in her final hours as Hurricane Harvey was gathering steam and headed straight for Houston.
As veterans of the flood in 2016 when 26 inches of rain brought floodwaters halfway up their 6-foot-tall mailbox and within 30 feet of their front door, their worst problem then was power and water outage for several days. But in that flood, their home remained dry. Like other neighbors, he expected to ride out this storm and had prepared for power and water loss.
He had all the medications, supplies and intermittent hospice nurses in a regimen that he carried out meticulously each day. This enabled him to be laser focused only on her care as he gave 100 percent of his time daily to ensuring his wife did not suffer or experience discomfort.
As the waters quickly filled the streets on that fateful Sunday, the residents in this lovely community watched in horror as they realized this flood was different and would far exceed what happened only a little more than a year earlier.
As the water covered the incline of the yard and rushed toward the even higher front porch, it began flowing under the front door. He watched their downstairs master bedroom fill with inches of water and threaten to disrupt the elaborate medical setup he’d created for Ange in the room and realized he now had to implement his recently conceived backup plan to move her upstairs.
He called neighbors who were on standby to help move her upstairs. With the help of Ange’s brother and three neighbors whose own homes were filling with water, they gently moved her up the steep staircase using sheets as a gurney and sloshing through almost a foot of water. Another neighbor brought up the special pressurized air mattress and quickly positioned it beneath Ange as the men gently lowered the semiconscious patient into place in the guest room. “They did such a good job that Ange never realized what was happening,” he said.
Over the next several hours, the level of filthy water downstairs rose steadily as it began to destroy much of the structure of their home and most of the possessions the couple had accumulated for the past half century. His calls for emergency service and to the Cy-Fair Fire Department went unanswered as thousands of callers disabled the system.
Like his neighbors, Aghamalian hoped the rain would stop and the waters would recede soon. But he also feared the worst — and worried that Ange might pass away under these horrible conditions where the normal next steps would be impossible.
Meanwhile, their children — a daughter in nearby Tomball and a son in Seattle — were frantically trying to formulate a rescue plan for their parents. Knowing a boat was needed, the son contacted the Houston parents of his daughter’s boyfriend to explore how to use their boat for a rescue.
Shannon and Renee Kendall sprang into action within minutes of learning about the dire circumstances and quickly headed toward the Aghamalians’ home to determine where the water’s edge was located to allow a boat launch.
Once they arrived, they could see that the rising waters would not allow time to go back and get their own boat. There were about eight or 10 boats in the area and Kendall began approaching people asking for their help. Several people told him they were there on a specific rescue mission and had to move on. On about his fourth attempt, he found someone who could help. As they took off, the boat began having trouble. “I’ve been in rapid waters before,” Kendall said, “but it was unbelievable how forceful this water was.”
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About that time, one of the boats he had approached earlier for help was returning with their rescued flood victims safely on board. Seeing he was having trouble, they got their people to safety and said they would follow him where he needed to go. As they proceeded, he flagged down another boat and hastily explained the crisis at hand. Now Kendall had a total of nine volunteers and three boats making their way to the Aghamalians’ on a perilous journey where they had no idea what sort of dangers were submerged beneath the rising, turbulent waters. “I relied on and trusted the Lord that he had led me to the right people — honest, good people — to help with this,” Kendall said.
Using the GPS on his phone, they made their way to the house and though the two men had never met, he saw whom he believed to be Aghamalian at an upstairs window. He shouted his identity and Aghamalian went downstairs to let them in the house. The boat was able to get within 3 feet of the front door.
“I knew the water was deep because we couldn’t even see the mailboxes, but when I stepped out of the boat, the waters were so aggressive I lost my footing and was really glad I was wearing my life jacket,” he said.
The water level outside the house was higher than that inside, and opening the glass storm door was going to create a rush of putrid waters into the home. “It was a chaotic scene at that point, but we made the decision to get inside so we could assess the situation and get out before the water level inside rose even higher.”
The men helped Robert wrap Ange firmly in sheets and then put a sheet over her to protect her from the driving rain. Then they rolled the edges of a bottom set of sheets to form handles to carry her by. The stairs were very slippery even with Robert’s efforts to dry them ahead of the descending helpers. “Six of us positioned ourselves around her and locked eyes so that we could be instantly ready to react if one of us slipped,” Kendall explained. The slow descent was nerve wracking even to these complete strangers because they all realized the gravity of the situation.
Outside the house, two people were in the water outside the boat stabilizing it and one person was at the driving position to keep the slim, flat-bottomed craft close to the house. “Once we were alongside the boat, I let go of her and climbed into the boat so that they could hand her up to me so they could lay her on me and I could check to make sure her position was such that her airways were clear and didn’t interfere with her breathing. They put sheets over the both of us, and Ange stayed dry even during the pouring rain.”
Once everyone was loaded, one boat went off to rescue others and just two boats made the trip back to the water’s edge. “It was a really bumpy ride back,” Kendall said. His wife, Renee, had been monitoring the scene at water’s edge in case additional help was needed. She had to move the car while the rescue took place because of the rapidly rising waters there. Kendall texted his wife as they got close, and she backed the car up where they could quickly load Ange into their waiting SUV.
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“Ange never knew what was going on and was barely even damp because of the kindness of these people,” Aghamalian said emotionally.
With some difficulty in finding streets that were not flooded, they drove to the Tomball home of Aimee Brewer, the Aghamalians’ daughter, where Ange was taken inside to safety and comfort.
“Mr. Aghamalian’s commitment to getting his wife to safety and the love between this couple was an example I’ll never forget,” Kendall said.
Ange spent the next several hours resting peacefully with classical music softly playing before she died surrounded by her family.
When Robert called the funeral home where prior arrangements had been made, he knew something was amiss when the phone went unanswered and messages were not returned. When he contacted another funeral home for help, they confirmed his assumption that the other facility was severely flooded. The second funeral home kindly agreed to care for his wife’s body until the originally chosen facility was operating again.
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In the time span of less than 12 hours, the man had lost his beloved wife and watched much of his home destroyed. To add to the sadness, the couple’s church was also extensively damaged by the flood as were the homes of many church members. But church friends showed up in spite of all this a few days later to help sort through the contents of the home, place ruined furniture on the patio, create a debris pile and respectfully pack what was salvageable.
As he picks up the pieces of his life, Robert’s days are filled with the business of dealing with ruined cars and furniture and clothing and a badly damaged house. Standing in the middle of his living room on a concrete floor and walls bare to the studs with all downstairs rooms visible without the sheetrocked walls, there is the unmistakable smell of wetness and moisture. He says he’s thankful his wife did not have to live her last moments in such ruinous destruction.
“I don’t really know how to go on without her, but I’m so grateful for all the help and outpouring of support and thankful that Ange did not know all this happened,” he said and added, “I’m going to rebuild because that’s what she would want me to do. And I am eternally thankful for those brave souls, who I had never met, who put themselves in harm’s way to come to our rescue. I surely saw the best side of man’s nature in these good people.”
Coach John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats hosted a three-hour telethon at WKYT to fundraise for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Caitlyn Strohcstroh@herald-leader.com