Reporter Journal / Chris Davis

Harvey response a reminder of volunteer spirit

Updated: 2017-09-07 23:26

As Mark Twain famously said: History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 boaters sprung into action voluntarily in response to the flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey — private boaters, some of them with nothing more than Zodiac inflatable dinghies.

One of those answering the call was Captain Liao Yueqing, whose valor was covered ably by our own reporter May Zhou. Liao saw what needed to be done and didn't wait around to be asked. He just went for it. His zeal was contagious and soon he had a small fleet of 20 or so boats, piloted by Chinese speakers, responding first to Chinese and eventually to anyone who needed rescue.

The overall response echoed at least two recent reminders of the past: one a spectacular movie, the other a certain Chinese festival.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk tells of the 1940 battle that has British and French troops cornered with their backs to the sea and the German army closing in on all sides. Not a typical shoot-'em-up, face-to-face battle, the main point of Dunkirk was trying to get these hopelessly outnumbered soldiers across the English Channel safely back to England. It was more of an evacuation than a confrontation.

"The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it?" Nolan told a reporter.

Nolan spent time interviewing survivors of the battle. He heard stories of despairing soldiers walking into the sea in desperation, and put those images in the movie. The Royal Navy scrambles to dock at damaged piers and seawalls and load on as many troops as they can manage, all while exposed to strafing from Luftwaffe fighters and bombers.

But the stand-up-and-cheer moment of the film comes when the real heroes of the battle arrive on scene. A flotilla of more than 800 vessels from across the channel, private day yachts and fishing boats, a hodgepodge of anything that would float had answered the call and waded into the mayhem to bring their boys home.

British Army Colonel Winnant asks: "What's that?" And Royal Navy Commander Bolton, played by the inimitable Kenneth Branagh, says something like: "It's our country." More than 300,000 soldiers escaped thanks to the volunteer flotilla. I don't know how many of the responders in Houston had seen (or may have been inspired by) the movie, but I'll bet at least one did — Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick himself, because in describing the water-borne response in Houston, he proudly said on television, "This was our Dunkirk."

The other historical event evoked by the water rescue in Florida goes back a little further in history — to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) to be exact. As the story goes, beloved poet and minister Qu Yuan, who has a sizeable statue in the city of Jingzhou today, lost all hope at a reversal of political fortunes and threw himself off a bridge into the Miluo River.

As the legend goes, his admirers raced out in their boats to save him, or at least retrieve his body before the fish devoured it (this part of the legend always gives me pause — did they have piranhas or something?). To distract the fish they banged drums and threw rice into the water.

As a result, the sport of dragon boat racing came into being (just about the same time the ancient Greeks were formulating the Olympic Games, interestingly enough).

Over the past 20 centuries, dragon boat racing has evolved into an international sport, one practiced even here in New York City, but its roots go back to that spirit of people spontaneously responding to a crisis.

I once spoke with survivors of a tornado in Tennessee who watched as the big black cloud ripped through their neighbors' properties leaving them unscathed. They said that no sooner had the twister passed than they heard chain saws and four-wheelers cranking up. People didn't wait to be told what had to be done. They knew and got to it.

As the US braces itself for the one-two punch of yet another monster hurricane, I guess we can all take at least some comfort knowing that the knee-jerk reflex to jump in and help is alive and well.

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