The camera quickly found him.
He was a bigger man, with a full beard and wearing camouflage. We saw him on our TV screens standing in thigh-deep water in the rain. We saw him drive his fishing boat down a freeway, carry people in his arms, and sometimes he just stared at his beleaguered city.
Bubba was the first responder in Houston and thank God he was there. Bubba shows up. He has been showing up to weddings, work, funerals, birthdays, and football games most of his life.
When tragedies the size of Hurricane Harvey happen, the government, no matter how much bigger we make it year after year, is too small to help. When the water overwhelmed the nation’s fourth largest city, leaders cried for help and Bubba came.
Bubba didn’t plan for this day. He was supposed to be at the plant, working first shift. Yet his boat was ready and he launched into waters that carried snakes, fire ants, millions of bacteria and submerged cars. No one told him to go. No one offered Bubba money. He just did what he could.
We saw Bubba haul hundreds of people out of Houston’s high waters. This wasn’t a Coast Guard operation. It was just Bubba and his cousins and his mortgaged boat churning above Houston concrete on what has to be the weirdest day in Bubba’s life.
When the boat was under throttle and flying down Houston streets, the Bubbas grinned a little. As kids they dreamed of doing this.
Bubba did a few interviews when the cameras came up to him. But he didn’t say much, and never really does. He isn’t sure he trusts the media and any time spent talking to a reporter means less time on the water.
Bubba wondered about his own family. Were his kids dry? Was his wife scared? She told him not to do this but Bubba needed to get out of the house.
Bubba wonders when he will get to eat Houston’s fantastic Mexican food on a Friday night and drink a cold beer. When he starts to think about what all has happened this week, he gets a little overwhelmed and looks for another family to pick up. What he does after the flood is too much to think about today. In a county of 4.6 million people, he just keeps picking up people he doesn’t know and putting them in his boat. The people clustered in the boat are drenched, cold and clinging to trash bags of belongings.
The last 10 years have been tough for Bubba. The people he doesn’t understand want to take away his job. He is being outsourced to China, India or replaced by Silicon Valley robots. Bubba doesn’t know how to stop the sea of change coming at him that is much stronger than Harvey.
He is the guy the manager asks to come in early when a machine is broken at the factory. He is the guy we ordered to pull the trigger in Iraq.
When he goes in to buy a new four-wheeler, Bubba is reminded that his credit score isn’t what it used to be. Even if he could get the four-wheeler he wants, there aren’t places to ride it anymore and little time. His life is more about working at the plant and hoping his wife can string together a series of payments every month. In fact, he might be behind a month on the boat payment.
When the waters of Harvey recede, Bubba’s same old problems will be there plus new ones he can’t think about right now.
Bubba can drive a boat as good as anyone. He can read water, service an outboard motor, and catch a limit of catfish. But the world doesn’t place much value on those things any more.
Bubba is disappearing. He notices his son is more interested in staring at his phone than repairing the riding lawnmower. Bubba wonders how much longer he can keep paying for his F-150, the four-wheeler, and the boat.
But for a few days in Houston, we needed Bubba and his boat and his skills.
Don’t praise FEMA, the governor, the president, or the mayor.
Just be glad we had Bubba.
About the Author
Robb Reeves is a Houston native who was born at Houston Heights Hospital. He has had a long career in newspapers, including time with the Chronicle and as publisher of the Conroe Courier. Reeves now publishes three newspapers in and around Hesston, Kan.