Port Aransas, Texas was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey. Here is aerial footage of the damage done to the area.
USA TODAY NETWORK
John Lopez pulled into a middle-aged couple’s front yard on a 16-foot fishing boat Tuesday afternoon. Although they had never met, the Houston-area couple was thrilled to see him. He tossed them two life vests and helped them onto the boat. He never said his name, nor did they say theirs. There was no need for introductions. The couple was safe, and Lopez was again on his way to find more survivors in the wake of the overwhelming devastation left by Hurricane Harvey.
Moments later, though, when Lopez let out what those of us who know him recognize as his hearty and distinctive laugh, the couple quickly glanced at each other, then did a double take, giving Lopez a good long look. Although they never said it, Lopez knew. He knew that they now realized that the man who had borrowed a boat to come to their rescue was not simply an unknown Good Samaritan, but the popular sports radio personality they listen to daily on Houston’s KILT SportsRadio 610.
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Not that that mattered to Lopez, then or ever. “These were regular people,” he told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview Wednesday morning. “They never thought the water would get that high, so you get them out and they just hug your neck and you never see them again, but you feel good you did it.”
John and I go back to the late 1980s, when he wrote for the Houston Chronicle and we sometimes shared a row in the press tribune at various venues across seven Olympic Games. In 1991, we even shared a wild cab ride through the dark streets of Havana during the Pan American Games, with John translating for the two of us. We haven’t seen each other in several years, but when I took a look at his Twitter feed Tuesday, I knew I had to get in touch.
“(My boat) in dry dock 100 (miles) away. But I have truck, life vests, etc. (Message) me if you have a boat. I’ll pick up.”
Over the next half hour, Lopez, an avid fisherman whose home was not flooded, sent out a few similar tweets. He received a dozen responses and ended up with two small fishing boats, using one for the first part of the afternoon, then switching to the second for the rest of the day.
“Have acquired a Jon boat, about to start rescue efforts in Walden on Lake Houston. DM me address if you need out.”
Forty minutes later, Lopez sent out another tweet, this one accompanied by a video of his view of the flooded streets he was traversing. His message was simple: “@ me if you need help”
Over the next 10 hours, Lopez rescued 18 to 20 people.
“Some of them got on the boat with only a trash bag full of clothes,” he said. “They’ve just lost everything, yet they’re saying, ‘God is good.’ Their appreciation was amazing. By the time I was done, I realized I might have helped them, but they helped me more. They made me feel better.”
There were some “spooky” moments, he said. He turned into one neighborhood and spotted a white truck, totally submerged, with its engine running, its lights on and its windshield wipers going.
“Oh crap,” Lopez said. “I had to work my way over to look and see what was in there. But I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t want to do this. What if there’s a body in there?’ ”
Thankfully, the truck was empty. “I guess the water was rising so fast, that person got out that fast. I hope they are okay.”
Lopez talked to one man in an upscale neighborhood who wanted to stay put on the second floor of his flooded home but who was concerned about the neighbor across the street. So Lopez drove the boat to the front of that house, tied up to a brick banister, jumped into nearly chest-deep water, slowly pushed open the front door and called out, “Anybody there?”
No answer. He waded into the foyer, then the living room. A garbage bag and picture frame floated by. Soon, he noticed something else: an empty wheelchair, floating sideways in the game room.
It was time for another “Oh crap.” He trudged up to the landing of a staircase and yelled upstairs. “I didn’t hear a thing. That house was vacant, thankfully.”
Lopez often found himself motoring through water that he figured was about six feet deep. The roads were familiar, of course. This is where he lives. On one boulevard he drives often, the tops of the mailboxes were his only navigation system.
As experienced as he is at boating, it wasn’t always easy. “I actually bumped into what I thought was a log and realized it was the top of a car.”
The devastation was all around him. At some distance, he spotted a sign listing the clearance for a road: 16 feet 8 inches. “Water was touching the bottom of the sign.”
Lopez didn’t just save people. He rescued a couple of dogs and even came upon a barn, helping lead a woman’s two horses to safety by poking a stick into the floodwater to find the shallowest points for the horses to navigate.
Throughout the day, Lopez was never alone in his efforts. “The best part about it was all the people who were out there on boats, probably 30-40 different boats, firefighters, the coast guard, just people out there trying to help.”
I asked him if he had seen the recently released movie Dunkirk, the World War II story of the rescue of thousands of British soldiers by hundreds of British citizens in pleasure boats.
“Oh my gosh, it really was like that,” Lopez said. “I was by the Costco and I turned around and I saw like six boats coming at me. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but it was like a military landing.”
And he, of course, was an integral part of it.
“I was just really trying to help. I just wanted to do what needed to be done. The fisherman’s code says when you see a boat in distress, you stop everything and help that boat. Now Houston is in distress, so you stop everything and help.
“I knew I had the expertise. I just needed a boat.”