Houston's 'Dunkirk moment' a reminder of what unites Americans

Harvey
Rescue boats fill Tidwell Road in Houston as they help flood victims evacuate from rising floodwaters on Aug. 28.

Dunkirk, as memorialized in arguably the best movie of the summer, foreshadowed the catastrophic events wrought by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. The Christopher Nolan masterpiece recounted the heroic events in May of 1940, when at the outset of World War II, the English citizenry rallied to the rescue of more than 330,000 British and French troops who were trapped on a beach in northern France. While some of those soldiers could almost see home across the English Channel, the shallow waters prevented their rescue by warships. Instead, it was a flotilla of nearly 700 civilian craft — the Little Ships of Dunkirk — that made their way from Ramsgate in England to assist with the rescue.

And so it was in Texas. In Houston, civilian volunteers created patchwork flotillas composed of dinghies, jet skis, rafts, and fishing boats in an effort to ferry hundreds of residents to safety. A health-care worker named Jeremy Sparkman told Reuters: “I usually just use this boat for drinking beer, but we come together when we need to — that’s what Texans do.” Indeed. And when the Harris County Department of Homeland Security asked for volunteers one day after the storm’s landing, hundreds of boat owners responded to the call, and supply soon exceeded demand.

The Texas flotilla was an American Dunkirk, minus the aerial bombardment. So just for a moment, can we celebrate the human spirit that we all watched play out in the Lone Star State?

Those like Adam Brackman. The 41-year-old bar owner in Houston commandeered a civilian boat — a 16-foot flat-bottom fishing boat — and set about rescuing neighbors.

“I made a post on Facebook and next thing I know I’m getting 100 texts an hour,” he told me. “When my boat captain wanted to call it quits at the end of the day I jumped on a bigger boat and helped them navigate.”

By day two, with the arrival of police and the Coast Guard, things were more orderly. But the distress calls didn’t stop.

“I kept getting messages, and this one stuck: ‘Woman and mother trapped in attic. Bring ax.’ I drive as close as I could and waded through chest-high water to get to her house. The water was down enough so we could walk in the house and extract them. They had been there for two days. An 80-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s and breast cancer and her daughter with four dogs and three cats. After waiting a bit, the fire department showed up and helped us get them all down. The mother was floated off to hospital in the next-door neighbor’s kayak, but the daughter wanted to stay at home with the pets. We advised her against it, told her it would rise again, but she was adamant that she wanted to stay. We went about our day and helped others. At 11 p.m. I had wrapped up and showered and was working at home and got a call from her that the waters are rising and she was ready for the evacuation. We went and got them all out as the waters were rising.”

Brackman was fortunate in that his own home was not damaged, he never lost power, and had use of the internet, which he said was integral to relief efforts.

“Social media was a game-changer,” he said. “Without the internet, we would have seen multiples of the final death count. The walkie-talkie Zello app in particular allowed us to match boats with those who needed rescue. One of the most moving things was how friends saw what I was doing on social media and jumped in to help with their own trucks, boats, kayaks, or computers.”

There are many like him to venerate: The first responders. Those who risked their lives for strangers. Neighbors who opened their homes to those who required shelter from the storm. Heroics to save the lives of pets! The many who undertook fund-raising tasks and the many more who responded to those calls. And those dozen or so whom CNN televised after they formed a human chain to wade into waist-deep water to save an elderly man whose SUV was submerged on the Houston interstate.

There was something missing from that dramatic rescue: No one asked the man how he was registered to vote nor requested to see his immigration papers. And for several days, there was similarly an absence of partisan rancor. Not even a trumped-up debate between the Democratic Houston mayor and the Republican governor of Texas over evacuation took hold. Instead, after the storm, politics immediately was secondary to saving lives and protecting property.

The wind and waters of Hurricane Harvey didn’t discriminate. They lashed Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Young and old. The rich and poor, the black, white, Asian, and Hispanic.

Here’s hoping its legacy is a reminder of all that unites us.

Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124. He hosts “Smerconish” at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN. @smerconish

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