Officials Disagree on Volunteer Rescue Efforts in Houston, and Workers’ Comp Coverage


By Liz Carey

Houston, TX ( – As thousands of Houston residents tried to escape the rising flood waters of Hurricane Harvey, federal and state officials had differing views on whether or not volunteer help was needed to rescue them.

And even more important for the volunteer rescuers: Whether or not they would be covered by workers’ compensation should they be injured or killed during their rescue attempts. 

Two men are dead, one is hospitalized and two others are missing after a volunteer rescue boat capsized in the flood waters. The two killed were electrocuted by downed power lines in the water. Yahir Vizueth, 25 and Jose Perez, 31; had travelled to the area by boat with Benjamin Vizueth, 31; Jose Vizueth, 30 and Gustavo Rodriguez-Hernandez, 40. The men were joined in the boat by British newspaper Daily Mail photographer Ruaridh Connellan, and reporter Alan Butterfield.

According to several reports, the seven men travelled into the waters of their neighborhood in Green Bayou east of Houston to retrieve those trapped by waters. On the first two trips, the men returned with seven people in two families. But on the third trip, the boat capsized and sent the men scrambling for something to hold on to.

Jose Vizueth and the two reporters clung to a tree in the rushing water for 18 hours waiting for rescue, reports said. Benjamin Vizueth and Gustavo Rodriguez-Hernandez were reported missing and have not been found as of Friday morning.

Their escapade is why emergency services personnel ask volunteers to not attempt swift water rescues without proper training.

One Bryan County, OK Swift Water Rescue Team member told KXII volunteers need to leave the rescuing to the professionals. The Bryan County Swift Water Rescue Team was one of 14 emergency services teams from Oklahoma that joined the rescue efforts earlier this week. With 30 boats and more than 83 people, the teams headed into Texas to help with search and rescue efforts.

“I was listening to the radio traffic in Houston last night, and somebody capsized a boat and they actually had to rescue the rescuers. So if you are not trained in this, if you are not equipped in the right way, please do not try this,” James Dalton with the Bryan County Swift Water Rescue said. “This is a life threatening situation and we need people who have the right training, the right equipment, and they’re working in teams.”

Dalton also noted that first responders are covered by workers’ compensation and insurance should anything go wrong during a rescue mission.

Dalton’s comments run counter to requests from FEMA officials however.

Brock Long, FEMA administrator, asked for all Americans to help with the disaster, including rescuing those stranded by flood waters, according to a story in the New York Times.

“This is a landmark event for Texas,” Long said. ““I’m asking for all citizens to get involved here,” he said. “Donate your money, figure out how you can get involved as we help Texas find a new normal going forward after this devastating disaster.”

Texas law is unclear on whether or not volunteer rescue operators will be covered by workers’ compensation. While volunteers are not normally covered by state workers’ compensation policies, according to the Texas Office of Risk Management, volunteers can be covered if the governor declares an emergency. Governor Greg Abbott declared 30 counties in the state disaster areas on Wednesday, August 23, and added another 12 counties to the declaration on August 27.

Paul Harris, government liaison for the Texas Office of Risk Management, did not immediately return calls and emails for comment by press time.  

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