Around 8:00 last night (“Harvey Monday”) my wife came to me, worried on behalf of our friends Ken and Grace, and their three daughters ages about thirteen, about five, and not quite three. They live in one of the “voluntary evacuation” areas and wanted to know how much water to expect. They were pretty concerned because – not unusually for a family from the People’s Republic – none of them can swim.
It is remarkably difficult to figure out how high the experts actually expect the water in Sugar Land to rise. By dint of half an hour’s switching back and forth between one website that could show in detail the boundaries between the voluntary evacuation zones and the areas not considered under threat, and a second app that could show elevation levels for extremely precise coordinates, we figured out that somewhere between 70 and 72 feet above sea level seemed to be the magic number. Unfortunately the Suo family’s house sits at 66 feet above sea level, and flooding to 72 feet would put six feet of water in their first storey – not a problem, except that none of them are six feet tall and none of them can swim; so if anybody fell down the stairs…well, Grace at least found the whole idea pretty frightening and you could hardly blame her.
They were welcome to stay with us, of course. We had calculated that we were going to get at most one foot of water in our house, and probably less. The problem? Our streets were under two feet of water; so while two blocks away the roads were clear, we couldn’t get our cars out. They had a similar problem: two blocks from their house the roads were clear, but the water in their street was already up to my waist. Further complicating matters was the 10:00 p.m. curfew in place in Sugar Land.
It’s not that far a walk from their house to ours, for a grown-up: just over two miles. But at night, with three kids and two dogs, and a suitcase…didn’t sound good. But then neither did waiting until the water was over their heads outside the house.
I offered to meet them halfway and, given the shortness of time, went ahead and set out just to keep our options open – I could be walking while they made up their minds, and if they decided against coming I could just come back. As soon as I stepped out of our front door I realized it was worse than I had thought: the water had risen two to three inches since I had last checked an hour previously, and four to five more would bring the water above our kitchen floor level. Wading out of the neighborhood meant wading through water up to my thighs even taking the optimal route. But out I went, and I had just reached the relatively “dry” ground when Helen called: Ken and Grace were (reasonably) concerned about trying to walk that two miles in the dark, and they had decided to wait for the following morning.
But now I was concerned about another point: with water this high, we must be in danger of water overtopping the main roads into our subdivision and turning them into rivers with currents; and if water was running rapidly across the only street leading into our neighborhood, we wouldn’t want to be walking through that current with small children. So I checked the two points at which water leaves our neighborhood. On the path we would be taking, the water was about six inches from overtopping the waterway. On the other outlet, it was about three to four inches away. So it should start overflowing at the second outlet before the first – and just at about the time the water reached our front door.
About that time Helen called me. Grace was really very worried about waiting until the next morning and they were trying to decide whether to come tonight after all. It was now just after 9:00; we had an hour and it is a forty-five minute walk under ordinary circumstances. I headed for their house, figuring at 9:30 I would decide whether to keep going and spend the night at the Suo’s house (so that at least one swimmer would be there) or come back home to beat the curfew.
And then, as I was walking under the freeway just past the entrance to our subdivision, a guy pulled up beside me in a Bronco.
“Are you okay, man?”
I explained the situation, and the next thing you know I am in the Bronco and we are off to see how close he can get to the house. En route, Helen calls: “They’ve decided it’s too far to walk.” I tell her, “Tell them I have a car and I’m coming to get them.”
There are two entrances to their subdivision. We stop halfway in between the two, and the guy in the Bronco agrees to wait while I go in and bring them out. There are people loading a flat-bottomed fishing boat back on a trailer; they have been rescuing people but the curfew is closing in and shutting them down. I head for the gate of the subdivision, wading down the middle of the street so that I will have firm concrete for footing. When the water reaches my chest, I turn back and return to the Bronco.
“They can’t come out that way without a boat, but there’s another entrance to the subdivision. Let’s try that one.”
Eddie (for that is the Bronco driver’s name) backs up slowly through the construction equipment and barrels, and we find the other entrance. There is no standing water at first, and we get into the neighborhood, but just before the intersection between the street we’re on and the street the Suos live on, the ground plunges into water, and the stalled car in the middle of the intersection shows us that it is at least waist deep to me.
So I get out again, and I head for their house using the maps app on my phone to figure out which house it is, and as I am standing knee-deep in water on the sidewalk trying to decide which of two houses’ doorbells to ring, Grace calls me, and I tell her to open her door, and she does.
And after that it’s pretty straightforward. I carry the suitcase; Ken carries the five-year-old; Grace carries the two-year-old. We find our way back to Eddie, who has whiled away the time by helping tow the stalled car out of the intersection. We load the car with suitcases and girls and me, because Ken is going to stay with the dogs and try to waterproof the house as best he can. Eddie drives us back to our neighborhood; Grace thanks him over and over and you can tell she is trying not to cry with relief. Helen calls to check on us; I give her the status and tell her to send Sally to help carry the suitcase. We get as far into the neighborhood as we can, a bit more than two blocks from the house. Eddie stops; we unload; Sally comes splashing up to us; we thank Eddie; and then he, our personal angel without whom we couldn’t have solved the problem, drives happily off and heads for home.
The five-year-old goes on my shoulders; the two-year-old goes into her mother’s arms; the two teenagers each take one end of the suitcase; and we wade the last two blocks. The best picture of the night, apparently, I couldn’t see. Grace gave the five-year-old an umbrella to keep her and me dry. But I am told that the five-year-old, not being entirely clear on the concept, held the umbrella as far aloft as she could the whole way. Grace and the teenagers seem to have found lots of amusement in the image of me striding through the water with the five-year-old sitting straight and tall on my shoulders holding the umbrella to the skies as if it were the battalion flag.
My wife called me a hero and Eddie an angel, and that’s fine, because exaggerating a husband’s virtues is what wives do. (The good ones, at least.) But really all it came down to was this: you do what you can do, because that’s all you can do. You put yourself in a position where it is as easy as possible for God to use you, and then you stand ready to help and trust that He will show you a way if you are doing His work. I wasn’t putting myself in any danger; so my wife exaggerates when she calls me a hero. And Eddie wasn’t either. He was trying to get to his sister’s house, further back in our neighborhood and deeper into the flood; and he had given up and was going home. I was just trying to do what I could do; and Eddie saw a guy out walking purposefully through the rain after 9:00 at night and stopped to see if there was anything he could do. And the end result is that Grace and the girls are safe, because God put two ordinary people who were willing to help in the same place at the right time.
And on a bigger scale – because this is Texas, and more generally this is America, and our fundamental American moral expectations were established by Christian ethics in general and the parable of the Good Samaritan in particular – in the whole Hurricane Harvey rampage I think fewer than
ten twenty people have died. And it’s because most of us, in “red state” America at least (I wouldn’t stake anything on New Jerseyans, you understand), still take it for granted that if a stranger needs help, and you can help him, why then you stop and you roll down your window and you say, “Are you okay, man?” Thousands of people across the Houston area have been rescued. The overwhelming majority of them were rescued not by first responders or National Guardsmen or by the American military, but by people just like Eddie: ordinary people who help other people and are embarrassed even to be thanked, because in these parts that is just what any decent person would do. “And who was a neighbor to the man who needed help?” asked Jesus when he got to the end of his parable.
Last night, the Suo family were Eddie’s neighbors.