How Three Fishing Guides Risked It All During Hurricane Harvey
Most days, fishing guides Bubba Bedre, Mark Malfa, and Brennen Nguyen ply the waters of south Texas in search of...
Most days, fishing guides Bubba Bedre, Mark Malfa, and Brennen Nguyen ply the waters of south Texas in search of alligator gar, buffalo fish, or bull reds. But following the destruction of Hurricane Harvey last week, they joined the ranks of outdoorsmen who took to the floodwaters to aid the search-and-rescue efforts. Here are their stories, in their own words.
If you wish to help those affected by the storm, the mayor of Houston has established the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.
“ALL WE SAW WAS TWO ARMS.”
Brennen Nguyen, of Trailin’ Tails Guide Service, is an inshore fishing guide based in Rockport, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey first made landfall last Thursday.
Everyone knew we were going to have a hurricane, but no one knew it would be like this. We were told it would hit as a Category 1, then it went 2, and then jumped to 3, and the whole town got hectic. Everyone tried to get out at the same time, and the roads were jammed up and it was a mess. Some of the guides talked about staying behind to help, but a lot of them have kids, so they got out of town. I’m young, though—21—and my friends and I had a secure house to stay. So on Thursday morning at, like, 3 a.m., we got a call from a friend, saying, “Get out of that house,” so we moved inland, maybe eight blocks, and were fortunate enough not to get blown away. At one point, the winds hit 132 mph on the highway, and a lot of the houses in that first neighborhood we were in didn’t make it.
We were safe in our second location, so that morning we posted a message on a Rockport Facebook page that said if anyone needed help, we were around. I thought maybe one or two people would call. Then the phone started ringing. It was crazy. My friend started writing down everyone’s names and numbers and locations. As the weather got worse, we got more and more calls. I pulled eight people out to the shelter in Rockport and brought water to a whole bunch of people who wanted to ride the storm out.
All the bad flooding was up in Houston. We are three hours south and had all the rain, but the streets didn’t flood. It was the wind and driving rain that was the problem. Right before the eye of the storm reached us, the wind really picked up. It was almost midnight when we got a call about two people who were in a tin building, and their friends hadn’t heard from them. I got in my truck with my brother, and we put on helmets and extra clothes for padding. We must have looked nuts, but it’s hard to describe what 130-mph wind feels like. As we pulled out to go get these two people, the rear passenger window of my F-250 immediately got smashed. I think a flying Stop sign hit it. Then something flew into the side of my door, and the whole truck moved, as though a dirt bike had crashed into it. I have 35-inch tires, wide rims, and the truck has a good stance, and it’s not lifted, so I didn’t think it would blow over, but suddenly I didn’t know. With the rain and the wind, I couldn’t see anything. I put the truck in four-wheel drive and just rock-crawled down the street. The roads weren’t flooded, but there was debris everywhere, and the rain was so hard you could only see about three feet ahead. If it wasn’t for reflectors on the road, I don’t think we would have made it.
The drive is normally eight minutes, but it took us 25, and when we got there all we saw was two arms sticking out of this shack. We were like, “Oh, man. This is bad.” We blew the siren on my truck and the arms waved. The people screamed that they weren’t going out in the wind, so I got my truck real close to the building, and as we waited for the folks to get in, the wind blew my whole rig 4 or 5 feet—it moved the whole truck.
We got the people to a shelter and stayed the night there, too. When the eye finally came, everything was perfectly calm, as though it were a perfect day to go fishing. The back of my truck looks like someone shot it with 12-gauge slugs from driving in that wind. Rocks must have punched right through it. The left side is covered in 10,000 dings and scratches. So, when it was calm in the eye, we went to the harbor to check our boats. We tied our shrimp boat down before the storm, and with the wind, it kicked out two 40-foot pilings. We retired it, and then helped some other guys with their boats.
The storm is past us now, and we’re going house to house to help people dig out. I’ve never been through a hurricane before and couldn’t believe the number of trees down. We figured it was time to go broke buying chainsaws, so we bought as many as possible. There are a lot of people that rode out the storm, and they’re fine, their family is fine, but their house and cars are tangled in down trees, so they’re stranded. You’ll see people standing by the side of the road flagging help down. We have four guys now, and four chainsaws, and our customers—people who’ve gone out fishing with us down here—they’re running lines out of Austin and San Antonio bringing us gas, water, diesel. They’ve kept our trucks and our saws fueled. Most of us lost cell service for a while, but our customers drove down after the storm to check on us anyway, and to bring us supplies. They started pulling together through Facebook to support our little town of Rockport, and it’s really something to see. Now we have a lot of the downed trees cut, we’re going to help people clean. A lot of the apartments didn’t make it, so we’re doing everything we can to help the ones that lost the most. —As told to Michael R. Shea
“THE BILGE PUMP WAS BARELY ABLE TO KEEP UP.”
Mark Malfa, of Big Fish Bowfishing, is a bowfishing guide based in Houston, Texas, which has suffered as much as 10 feet of flooding. As of Wednesday, August 30, he and a couple friends were still assisting the ongoing search-and-rescue efforts.
I think I went 36 hours straight the first couple days. It was raining so hard the first night as I started looking for people that I had to leave my bilge pump on the entire time, because my airboat would have flooded and sunk. The bilge pump was barely able to keep up with the amount of rain that was coming in. It was pretty gnarly.
It’s flooded everywhere, so now I’m just going down the highways in my airboat, grabbing whoever I can. I’m taking people from this bridge to that bridge, and just running down the road to homes and apartment complexes to pull people out. I’ve had to help people who’ve had trouble walking and moving, people who have definitely needed assistance and couldn’t get out themselves. But the storm hit everyone. I’ve taken all kinds of people out of homes—rich, poor, medium. Whatever financial background you have, this hurricane didn’t care.
I’m driving over cars sometimes, cars completely submerged, with just their hoods sticking above the water. Sometimes you don’t see nothing until you’re over them, because they’re totally underwater. But sometimes they’re floating, with the engine down in the water and trunk sticking up. When you’re seeing that, you know you’re in really deep water.
We’ve seen a lot of fishermen out helping, and a whole lot of bowfishermen, since we have the airboats. And these airboats can go anywhere. We also have big lights all around our boats, so we can go all night long. If we turn those lights on, we can see for days, and we’re used to being out there at night. This is nothing new. This is what we do. That said, a few times it has been a little nerve-wracking going out after dark. One neighborhood had a bunch of power lines down, so I had to worry about hitting them with the airboat. For a couple nights it rained real hard, and there was a strong current as we were driving under highway overpasses. So I was worried about the airboat getting sketchy and then wiping out into a pylon with a bunch of people onboard with me.
At nighttime, we’re flashing spotlights into windows, looking for people waving back at us. During the day, people will point us to this house or that house, and then we’ll go grab people. Sometimes the people are on a second-story balcony, sometimes they’re even on the roof. We’ve walked through stomach-high water in people’s living rooms. Their TVs have been underwater, their furniture underwater. There are thousands upon thousands of homes, and hundreds of thousands of cars completely ruined. There’s so much stuff that’s wrecked.
The hardest part now is just making sure we get to everyone. In one little area, they’ll be hundreds of boats, which is great. But there’s not a lot of solid coordination making sure everyone gets picked up. And there are even some morons who refuse rescue, because they feel safe, since they’re out of the water on, like, the second floor of their house. But these people don’t realize that, if they run out of supplies, we’re not coming back once we leave, and who knows when someone else will show up.
There’s a ton of people down here helping. People from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and other parts of Texas, which is fantastic. The biggest need now is shelter for everyone. Food and water is still a need, but we are short on places to put folks. Any donations would go a long way in helping out. —As told to JR Sullivan
“JUST HIS HEAD WAS ABOVE WATER.”
Bubba Bedre, of Garzilla Alligator Gar Guide Service, is a catch-and-release alligator gar guide based in Elkhart, Texas. When not guiding, he works as an engineer for Union Pacific Railroad.
I woke in the middle of the night Sunday and decided to go. I told my wife that I had the tools to help, so I would. Less than 20 minutes after our conversation, I was on the road with my 21-foot Triton loaded up. On the way there, I let work know that I’d be using three vacation days to help in the efforts. But when my buddies and I arrived, the rescue teams waved us off. The police department wouldn’t provide any directions, and the fire department told us to wait until morning. We decided to take things into our own hands. My wife, who was still at home, got into a Facebook group where hurricane victims were posting their addresses. She then sent the directions to our group text, and we’d take off. For 30 straight hours, we picked up pets and people. I saved roughly 350 people in my boat during that time.
Come Tuesday, my group decided to get a hotel room. The closest one with openings wanted $200 for us just to take a nap, so we drove the 2½ hours home for some rest. Just 10 hours after my head hit the pillow, I was back on the road to Houston. I called work again to let them know I’d be using my last two vacation days of the year.
We’ve had everything from infants to senior citizens in the boat, and we’ve ferried a fair number of dogs and cats. Other animals haven’t been so lucky; we’ve seen cows, coyotes, donkeys, horses, and rabbits all swimming for higher ground. The refugees are cold and wet, and some of them have stood in waist-deep water for over 12 hours. Once we do make a pick-up, the victims are taken to drop-off points, where there are armored vehicles, dump trucks, and flatbed trailers that haul the people to shelters. The rides haven’t been easy; our boats have all suffered damage from hitting cars, street signs, and buildings. One man in our fleet even busted the propeller off his brand new boat.
The most rewarding rescues have been those where people were the most hopeless. One boat in my group picked up a paralyzed man who was lying in bed with just his head above water. My boat saved a man with one leg who was in a wheelchair. Another group found a family who wouldn’t have been seen if not for the white towel on their front door. It’s been tiring, and emotional, but we’ll be here as long as they need us. —As told to Spencer Neuharth