Every destructive hurricane is remembered in a unique way. Katrina is largely remembered for levees breaking and the paralyzing chaos that followed. The Galveston hurricane of 1900, whose anniversary is September 8, is remembered for a horrific number – 6,000. That’s the number of people who perished. It was the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
I believe that Hurricane Harvey will be remembered for the greatest amount of rain ever to fall in one place in the U.S. within 24 hours. But I believe it will also be remembered for the bass boat heroes.
Someone on social media suggested that we should build a monument to “two regular guys in a bass boat.” And that idea has been seconded by tens of thousands.
Even from where I live in deep south Texas, I saw dozens of trucks pulling boats, headed north on Highway 77 – bass boats, swamp boats, pontoons, skiffs and navy seal-type zodiacs. The call went out for help across the state and Texans answered. They came from San Antonio and San Angelo and Austin, Waco, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Tyler. Even, I understand, from the Panhandle and El Paso. From every nook and cranny of the state, they rolled toward the floods, spontaneous convoys racing to the coast. It was magnificent to see them; Texas flags bent by speed and proudly waving from their trucks and trailers, a genuine cavalry to the rescue. These men and women didn’t ask for money or mileage or payback of any kind. They didn’t ask for whom the bell tolled. They just concluded, it tolls for me. And away they went.
I talked to a man at a station near my house who was filling up his slightly-lifted GMC. He was pulling a 15-foot bass boat with a trolling motor. I asked him if he was going to Houston. He said, “My brother and me thought we might head up that way. I mean I got a truck and a boat. Might be of help to somebody. I know they’d do it for us if things were turned around.”
And they didn’t just come from Texas. The Cajun Navy, as they are so beautifully named, came from Louisiana in large numbers, as did others from Arkansas and Oklahoma, and no doubt other states too.
A National Guard officer said on the Weather Channel: “These people are showing up with air boats, swamp boats, and jet skis. They go out and rescue people and bring them to us. I don’t know where these people are coming from, but it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”
An old friend of mine, Matt Carr, from central Texas, answered the call.
“Driving into Houston in the storm was surreal. I-10, 290, and 610 had no cars on them. It was apocalyptic. Fields full of water, cows huddling on tiny islands above rising water. We felt all alone. We got there in a window of time before the world arrived again,” he said.
He said the police were busy with calls and told the rescuers they were free to go where they pleased and help in any way they could. So they did. He said once the National Guard arrived, the process became more efficient.
“It felt like a Texas version of Dunkirk,” he said. “Less dangerous, but the same spirit.”
Matt rescued a 90-year-old woman named Hazel. She didn’t have anyone in her life. She was alone. She didn’t want to leave her house, but she was cold. Matt convinced her to go.
“I took her to a bus so they could take her to a shelter. She was scared. So I knelt down next to her in the aisle on the bus and we said a prayer together. And then I got back to work,” he said.
Matt’s was one of thousands of similar stories from that night. Here’s another from my buddy Manny Fernandez who is the Houston bureau chief for the New York Times. He was out riding along with many of these rescuers, impressed with their instinct for navigating what was now an urban bay. And it was dark except for helmet headlamps. Dangerous work. Manny asked many of these rescuers why they had come so far to take these risks. He said that almost to a person, they answered, with three words: “This is Texas.”