CU Denver alumnus James Rice
CU Denver alumnus James Rice flew relief missions to people stranded without water post-Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

After Hurricane Harvey hit south Texas, people were stuck in towns without clean water – or passable roads through which they could get clean water. As quickly as they could reach their planes, wave after wave of private pilots took flight to deliver aid to stranded residents.

Over a four-day period, James Rice, who graduated from CU Denver with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, flew 21 missions delivering over 4,000 pounds of relief supplies to people in three Texas towns. Rice is currently a NASA engineer working on a prototype lunar lander project.

During the recent tragedy in Houston and across south Texas, Rice contributed not only his time and skill, but also the cost of gas and aircraft upkeep.

A region in peril

After Harvey hit, Rice was unable to leave his own neighborhood for over five days. It was another day before he could access his airplane in Pearland, Texas, and yet another day before he got the first call to fly relief supplies to the most affected areas of the region. The missions, run by organizations including AERObridge, Sky Hope, Patient AirLift Services and Pilots N Paws, relied on individual pilots to carry donated supplies to families in need.

In the wake of the storm, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange – communities located northeast of Houston – were inaccessible via land. Worse, the City of Beaumont water pump had failed, leaving residents without access to fresh water and forcing the evacuation of one of its hospitals.

“You can only live for a few days without fresh water,” said Rice, who received a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from CU Boulder. “So it was a big deal for them, so that’s where it all started.”

On Rice’s 21 missions, nine flights carried personnel and cargo, in batches of up to 530 pounds each. He carried a total of 4,170 pounds of donated supplies to the communities, including water, baby formula and hygiene products.

Clearing skies?

The three towns are now accessible by road, even as some parts of Houston continue to see flooding due to stress on area reservoirs. Areas of Florida, hit by Hurricane Irma, are now in need the services these pilots provide.

Rice said the next step to ensuring the success of these programs is loosening a Federal Aviation Administration regulation that prohibits pilots from taking donations for their services. He hopes to convince his congressmen to make an exception for pilots flying hurricane-relief missions so that they can afford to continue delivering supplies where needed. Dogs, people and supplies all need to be transported via air where water has made the roads impassable.

“There are just ungodly amounts of animals now that are in desperate need of temporary homes, if not permanent homes, because of all the flooding in Houston,” he said.

CU in the City logo