HOUSTON — For five days, they’d been pulling people from rooftops and vehicles, patrolling the eastern part of this flooded city on the night shift, when the next call came in on the scanner.
“We’ve got a male floating in the water,” the Harris County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher said.
“Oh, no,” said Bob Goerlitz, the deputy behind the wheel.
“A DOA,” said Andrew King, his partner in the passenger seat. Dead on arrival.
Goerlitz flicked on the wipers and hit the gas of their Hummer.
What they knew was an address. What they didn’t know was a name, or whether the location was reachable, or whether the person had been dead for hours or days. And what they feared was that this type of dispatch, their first since Hurricane Harvey hit the coast, was about to become more and more frequent. The floodwaters were only now beginning to recede, and perhaps for weeks and months ahead, the nighttime scanner calls like this would slowly unearth the true extent of the hurricane’s toll.
The body, the dispatcher said, was somewhere on the farthest end of their district, where the concrete of Houston gave way to mobile homes, some farmland, a few fast-food joints and discount stores. The area was ringed by overloaded rivers and lakes, so flooded that it was off limits to all but the heaviest-duty vehicles. On previous nights, this had meant Goerlitz and other officers could churn through feet of water in their Hummers and other trucks, rescuing people from half-submerged apartment complexes or neighborhoods otherwise cut off. But now, it meant a different mission: The death count from Harvey had been steadily rising, and now the officers drove east to look for the next body.
They headed out just after sunset, past a grocery store where scattered red shopping carts poked up from the water, past a flooded on-ramp, past a carwash where Goerlitz said, “I can’t tell you how many shootings I’ve worked at that place.” They turned down a small commercial street, where there was still a gas station with the lights on, and then made one more turn down a straightaway that took them into a landscape of darkness and silhouettes.
Whoever had lived here was gone. The road was elevated just enough to be dry, while a few street signs and mailboxes rose from the water alongside. But there were no other cars. Goerlitz drove for a mile.
Then King spotted a flashing light ahead.
“Slow down,” he said.
They arrived to find two Harris County Sheriff’s Office sedans, which were stopped just before the water became too deep to drive.
“What we’ve got here — this is the search area,” Sgt. Keith Lyons told Goerlitz and King, who’d stepped out of their vehicle. “I would go this way, then head south.”
The address they’d been given seemed like a vague target, nothing more.
“Okay,” Goerlitz said.
“It was called in by somebody in a boat,” Lyons said. “So look for the boat.”
“But do we know where the boat is?” Goerlitz asked.
Goerlitz nodded, and he and King got back into the vehicle, where three other officers crowded in the back seats. There was no music or radio, just the occasional beep of the scanner and the throb of the engine, as the Hummer plowed its way into deepening water.
“I’m gonna turn on the high beams,” Goerlitz said.
The water level kept rising — up to the tires, and then up to the front grille. It was hard to tell where the road turned into the median. It was hard to tell where the median turned into a yard. It was hard to tell where a yard might give way to a house or a car or a boat. Georlitz, part of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for 27 years, hadn’t gotten more than three hours of sleep a night since the hurricane first hit. Since then, he’d been starting his shifts at 6 p.m., often working well into the next morning. He hadn’t been home since Saturday. In his career he’d dealt with hundreds of bodies — homicides and suicides and industrial accidents — and maybe the next one was somewhere just ahead, an arm or a head above the water, if he could focus enough to spot it.
“A body or a boat,” Goerlitz said, quietly, and then King, looking out the passenger’s window, said, “Look, there’s a car.”
They pulled up and shined a flashlight at a hatchback, nose just above the water, windshield fogged. “Shine the flashlight,” Goerlitz said, because three days earlier, they’d come upon a similar car, and when they looked inside, a hand of a person begging for rescue suddenly appeared. But this time, King aimed and saw nothing. “Ain’t nobody in there,” he said.
They kept driving. The high beams angled off the water, which was all around them — not like a placid lake but, instead, a powerful river, ripping across the road, headed somewhere.
Goerlitz looked ahead.
“Is that a boat?” he asked.
“I think it’s a reflection of the light,” King said.
The vehicle steered through the water for 10 minutes, then 20. The officers searched through the water for barely visible street markers to follow, turning north. They saw reeds and high grass and darkened, flooded homes. No boat.
“The water is getting deeper,” Goerlitz said. “It’s a little hairy.”
Some water lapped into the rear of the Hummer.
“Can you see the yellow stripes?” King asked.
Now, Goerlitz couldn’t.
“I don’t know how much deeper we can go,” he said. “Look at that water. It’s gonna suck me out. I’m sorry.”
There were a few more roads to search, but they couldn’t go farther. Not without wrecking the car. Maybe, just around the bend, in the water that was too deep, there was a boat and body. But maybe the current had already dragged it miles away. Maybe the information they were chasing was old. Maybe they were acting on a bad tip. They didn’t know, and Goerlitz pulled a U-turn and began to backtrack, heading out of the water, past the mobile homes and the gas station, past the carwash, then back toward the district station.
“I’m thinking, just wait until daylight,” Goerlitz said.
At the station, the air conditioner was blasting. Paper plates and aluminum trays were set out with tacos and beef. Small televisions played the nightly news, and a computer monitor showed all the calls coming in.
Then Goerlitz’s phone buzzed. A text message. An hour had passed since they’d left the water.
“Body was found,” Lyons, the sergeant, had written.
Goerlitz showed his phone to King.
For now, there were no other details. All that would have to wait. By morning, maybe, they’d know the age, or the identity, or they’d be able to guess what had happened, and they’d be able to hear more about where, exactly, the body had been discovered. Maybe they’d just missed it.
“Well, it won’t be the last,” King said. “When the water starts going down, we’ll find more bodies.”
“For now, we’re just finding the floaters,” Goerlitz said.
“We’re still in the starting phase,” King said.
“Yup,” Goerlitz said. “Guaranteed, for the next few months, bodies will be popping up all over.”