Dunkirk on the Bayou

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They took to helms and crossed flooded streets to rescue friends from rooftops, from windows, from roaming reptiles at river bends. They rowed and motored and sailed down interstate highways.

The catch of the day: A grandmother, some children, their friends. Pets. Strangers.

A fisherman says, “I have to do this.” His daughter nods, says, “I know” as he fires up the Evinrude. The river moves closer to his own backyard and across the street a neighbor waves him by. He passes a cop consoling a man on a white van. He passes a reporter saving an old couple from drowning. “I know,” the reporter says, “that the line between covering a flood and being covered is fluid, often difficult to navigate. It is important to remain professional,” he adds as he lifts the old man into the boat, microphone and notepad tossed to the side.

Some retired trucker sits on his roof; he can’t find his wife. “She was just here,” he tells a boater who stops to help.

Sometimes people can’t help themselves, so they help others.

The Cajun Navy deployed a fleet of flat bottom carriers captained by construction workers, Wal-Mart employees, hardware store clerks, and off-duty police. Judge Ed Emmett put out the word for anyone who had a boat to help out. He only had to ask once. These men and women moved in fast, dropped off first responders, left with bags of belongings grasped by Texans in shock. This went on for days. In some parts of Houston it continues.

How much can you fit in a 16 foot flat bottom boat? Wait: there are already other people in it, some pets, the responders, and gas cans. The waters are rising fast, and everything you’ve ever owned is now or is about to be under water. How much can you hold in your arms as the boat speeds away from the last look at the flooded eaves.

What matters most now?

My brother lives between Houston and Galveston. He let us know the waters had not reached his house and he still had power. This is most likely a combination of excellent planning when searching for a home, and luck. Either way, his house was fine so far and I walked outside relieved.

I went for a walk along the Rappahannock River toward the bay and considered my 17-foot canoe. How much could I fit? What would I grab when the Chesapeake climbed the shore and rolled through the windows? Can I box up the memories? Can I stow away the years here raising my son, dinners with my parents, mementos of my travels? My house is quite high above and away from the water so I’ve little to worry about with flooding, but I’d most certainly be cut off from getting out, and Hurricane Isabel didn’t flood so much as she ripped thirty oaks out of the ground on my property. There are still plenty of trees left standing to fall.

It’s a terrifying sound—an eighty-foot oak cracking in half in the dead of night. The sound of waves, too, which normally bring some organic sense of peace, can terrorize the tenant in a first floor flat.

Of course I don’t want anything to change. I don’t want to lose what I spent decades building. But honestly, at some point little matters more than the chance to get to higher ground. For many, choice isn’t part of the equation. And when that’s the case, I’m certain the heroes in the double-hulled boats will remember the people they saved longer than the items they lost. And those who held tight to the bow as they left behind their pictures, their journals, their children’s toys, their clothes and sense of security, their sense of place, probably understand more than any of us that no matter how hard you try and keep control over what’s going on around you, no matter how much you cling to the notion of choice, we may not be the one’s at the helm.

Sometimes the only way to be saved is by letting go.

Hurricane Irma is on the prowl, eyeing down the Leeward Islands, contemplating Puerto Rico. It isn’t clear just yet if she will settle under the keys and into the gulf, rip like Andrew did across southern Florida, or, as some projections anticipate, curve up the coast, across the Outer Banks and into the Chesapeake Bay. Luckily in Deltaville where I live boats out number people seven to one.

Life has changed for the tens of thousands of Texans now forced to start over, many with absolutely nothing at all. But when we make an accounting of what is absolutely necessary to salvage, to protect, the list is quite short. All the footage I’ve seen of people being saved and brought back to dry land in and around Houston show residents with absolutely nothing at all, grasping each other and declaring almost like a chorus, “Thank God we’re okay; oh thank God we are okay. Thank you for saving us.”

At the very least, they understand better than many what matters most.

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