Front and Center: MS teacher answers the call

Of all the photos posted on social media from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the one that struck a chord for the St. John’s community showed Gordon Center, a Southside Place first responder, carrying a frightened brown dog named Molly through waist-high floodwaters.

Center, who is also a Middle School history teacher and varsity field hockey coach, was working his way down Buffalo Speedway on foot with three other firefighters. Wearing life vests and carrying pike poles, they were rescuing people from their flooded homes when they were approached by a man who said that his two dogs were trapped.

Realizing it was unsafe for the man to move the dogs himself, Center offered to help. The dogs were larger than Center imagined, yet they were able to carry both dogs back to the firefighter command post at the Panera Bread in the 3100 block of Holcombe.

Center has been an EMT and paramedic since 1992 and a volunteer firefighter with the Southside Fire Department for the past 15 years.

“Gordon is happy and funny, and he is great to work and joke with,” said Southside firefighter Derek Cane, who has worked with Center for seven years. “He is always positive with the people we rescue. Working in the hurricane was no different.”

Center has seen his fair share of tragedy as a first responder, but Harvey stands out as “truly a disaster.”

When school was called off for Friday, Aug. 25, Center was unsure the cancellation would be necessary, but the SFD began preparing for the worst by sending volunteers to stock up on food and check on supplies anyways.

The rain began on Saturday, and by the time it stopped days later, parts of Houston had received over 50 inches of rain.

“We were sitting there with the doors open on the bay with chairs out, just chillaxing, telling bad stories,” Center said. “And then the rain started to fall, and it just kept on falling and falling.”

The flooding began around 9 p.m. on Saturday. Center was unable to make it home until the rain briefly stopped and the floodwater subsided, around 1 a.m.

The next day, Center waited until the sun rose and decided to walk the two miles to the station, a journey that would have taken two hours had he not been picked up by other first responders in a high-water vehicle.

Once at the station, the sheer number of people who needed help began to overwhelm the SFD. According to Center, the first responders had to differentiate between people who were “inconvenienced” and those who were “in danger.” SFD concentrated on those who were trapped on the second floor over those who had water up to their doorstep. From there, they prioritized their decisions based on age and health of those who needed their help.

“It’s rare I feel out of control in a situation, but on Sunday it felt out of control and then some,” Center said. “How could the water be over the roof of every house? That couldn’t be right.”

With the help of dump trucks, boats, a Coast Guard helicopter and civilian volunteers, the first responders worked non-stop to rescue people and pets from their flooded homes.

“It was moldy, it smelled like damp rot and we were covered in sheens of different fuels and additives,” Center said. “I don’t remember going to the bathroom. We didn’t eat anything. It was just go, go, go, go, go.”

After the rain lessened on Sunday night, most of the emergency calls either concerned fires or were false alarms. As people turned their power back on, the electricity would sometimes short, causing small fires. Some callers claimed to smell gas, which was actually from the fumes of a Coast Guard helicopter flying above.

Center’s interest in firefighting began in the mid-1970s when he was living in Bahrain, an island country in the Arabian Gulf. Oil was the major industry in his town, and Center’s father worked for the local oil company. One night, there was an explosion at the refinery, and Center’s father came home late, hands and face burned because he had stayed and helped fight the fire. Even though his father’s injuries were not permanent, Center’s memory of the incident was.

A few years later, Center also developed an interest in becoming an emergency medical technician on a gray, rainy day in fifth grade, when he saw a classmate get hit by a car and was unable to help. He still remembers the sound of his classmate landing on the ground.

Center began to fulfill his desire to help when he moved to Houston and became an EMT and paramedic with Harris County in 1992, when he was 23 years old. He stopped working full-time in 1997 and became a teacher with HISD in 1999. When Center and his family moved to their current home in 2002, he began to volunteer with Southside Place as a firefighter and EMT.

Though he only gets paid $20 a call as a volunteer, he not only loves helping people himself, but also watching others come together and support one another.

During Harvey, Center was “amazed” by the number of people who wanted to help. He was impressed with the more than 100 SJS students, faculty and parents who gathered to help tear out sheetrock and move damaged furniture at trainer Mike Kleinstub’s home.

“I was struck again and again by the bravery of people I volunteer with and professionals who put themselves at risk to help others,” Center said. “There were a lot of really thoughtful, incredible people who just went above and beyond.”