Kokua in Texas
Former Big Isle couple living near Houston rescue dozens of storm victims
The way Ikaika Kailiawa-Smith sees it, when someone needs help, you step in and assist. That motto led the Big Island native-turned-Texan to voluntarily rescue at least 40 people stranded in their homes by flooding caused by Hurricane/ Tropical Storm Harvey.
“Coming from Hawaii, everyone tries to help everybody,” Kailiawa-Smith, 25, said by phone Tuesday. “And that’s the way my parents raised me, too. It’s just something you do. You help other people.”
The storm slammed into southeastern Texas on Friday as a Category 4 hurricane. It forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and is being called the greatest rainstorm in the country’s history. By Tuesday afternoon, rainfall in Houston had largely ceased and Harvey was moving east, but about 30 percent of the Houston area was reportedly underwater.
Kailiawa-Smith now lives in the Houston area with his wife, Alyssia, and four children. He and his wife are 2009 Konawaena High School graduates.
He said he began his rescue efforts Friday night when a trapped friend called needing assistance. Heavy rain had just begun, Kailiawa-Smith recalls.
“At that time, my truck was just above the tires (in water),” he said.
The next day, Kailiawa-Smith said he got another call — a church leader and his family were stranded on their roof. Water had risen higher than 6 feet in some areas. Kailiawa-Smith and his wife pulled out their 14-foot fishing boat, towed it behind their truck and launched it into the church leader’s flooded street to make the rescue.
Kailiawa-Smith said he soon noticed dozens more people were similarly stranded. So he and his wife spent the weekend and most of Monday rescuing people, transporting many to nearby safety. He said they used their lifted pickup to reach stranded residents until water got too high, at which point they launched their boat.
Kailiawa-Smith said he’s also an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq. He said his own home was spared from the flooding, so he wanted to help others. He said, “being ex-military, it’s hard not to help” those in need.
Late Tuesday afternoon, he estimated he’d rescued at least 40 people — and counting — since Friday.
“I can’t even explain it,” he said recalling the sight of dozens of Texans trapped on their rooftops. “I’ve been to war and back. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. But when it’s down the road from your house, it’s crazy. Just the helplessness on people’s faces. A lot of people didn’t want to leave, and that was the hardest part — leaving people behind. Their houses can be replaced, but their lives can’t.”
Kailiawa-Smith’s efforts were brought to the attention of the Tribune-Herald on Monday by Chad Nakanishi, a Hilo native who now works as a radio producer in Houston. Nakanishi said he first became friends with Kailiawa-Smith about 10 months ago.
Nakanishi said he decided to check on his friend to see how he was faring during the storm and was pleased to hear he “decided to kokua.”
“He texted me some photos and it didn’t surprise me at all he would do something like that,” Nakanishi said. “He has got the aloha spirit, and that’s the way people in Hawaii are.”
Kailiawa-Smith said all the driving through flooded roadways ultimately cost him the drive shaft on his truck, but he’s hardly worried.
“People I picked up were just saying, ‘Thank you, thank you so much, we lost everything, but thank you,’” he said. “They just kept saying that. And I’m like, ‘Don’t thank me, I’m just another person … that could help.’”
Ikaika Kailiawa-Smith and his wife, Alyssia, both 25, pictured in July. Kailiawa-Smith says he’s helped rescue about 40 Texans trapped on their roofs since Friday using his lifted pickup and his 14-foot boat. He and his wife are from Kona. They have lived in Texas since graduating in 2009 from Konawaena High School.
Ikaika Kailiawa-Smith, pictured here from behind, said he has used his lifted pickup to rescue about 40 people in the Houston area trapped by flooding since Friday. This photo was taken in a neighborhood where Kailiawa-Smith said dozens of people were trapped on their roofs.