I first met Rusty in 1993 at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in August. It was hot. In Fort Polk the air does not move. And there are nasty bugs, and poison ivy, and snakes. And roving bands of longhorn cattle that could be trapped in our open excavation units. It was the perfect place to learn how to be a migrant field archaeologist, or “shovel bum” as we are known in the industry. Rusty and I learned how to dig holes in the woods together. I hadn’t seen him 23 years.
He looked pretty much the same as he did in the ‘90s, youthful and fit. But that full gray beard was a surprise. He reminded me of Rick Grimes from the Walking Dead. His vast spread near Mossy Head looks like a scene from the same show: 75 acres of fields, forests and gurgling brooks. He pointed into the distance. “You see that bright green over there? It looks like a mound, but it’s actually just growth. That’s a sun hemp field. I planted this. It’s not related to the THC hemp. It puts nitrogen in the soil. It feeds the deer. It’s like a salad for deer.”
A huge pole barn holds his collection of John Deere tractors, one of which, a 1983 model, had belonged to his grandfather, James Lee, founder of James Lee Motors in Crestview. Rusty is a true local, fourth-generation Okaloosa and Walton counties on both sides of his family. “The guy at the tractor place, the Wise dealership, he says ‘Wait a minute, you’re an Anchors AND a Lee?’ He felt sorry for me. He felt like that was a little much. My grandaddy’s brother’s kids are running the car dealership businesses now. They’re still active. My side of the family is out of it. We were the Freshwater Lees. The Saltwater Lees were down here. As salty as I might look, I’m actually a freshwater guy.”
We continued our tour of the ranch. Another outbuilding was surrounded by bleating goats. Rusty says they are “rescue goats.” His wife Robin works at the Alaqua Animal Refuge. She’s one of their adoption coordinators. They came from there. Rusty needed them for weed-eating purposes.
“The goats are a new addition. So new that this morning I pulled two of their heads out of this fence. They probably would have been dead if I hadn’t heard them crying.”
Seventy-five acres is a lot to weed. Rusty plans to one day turn loose some “cracker cows” on his ranch to help the goats.
What’s a cracker cow?
“The first Florida cattle that the Spanish brought over. Five hundred years ago. They’re super draught tolerant. You don’t have to give them antibiotics. No vaccines. They’re just bad-ass cows. They’re small. About two-third the size of a regular cow. They’re like an heir-loom tomato. But they’re cows. And they’ll eat like a goat. Which we need on this land.”
Just then Rusty’s cell phone rang. His face dropped. He answered it.
“Mr. Drennan!” he says enthusiastically. I stepped away to give him privacy. When I returned several minutes later, I caught the tail end of his conversation: “Whatever works, I’m all for it. Whatever you need me to do. Yeah. I get it. Yeah, as you know, I don’t want to go. But I will totally go. Alright. Bye bye.”
“Ok, pencil this in on my write-up,” he says after hanging up. “I’m going to Puerto Rico. In three days. I don’t want to go to Puerto Rico! I don’t want to go anywhere. I feel so good being here. Do I tell my wife I’m going to Puerto Rico?”
“Well…yeah,” I say. “That’s probably a good idea. But first why don’t you explain what you do for a living. You know, for the readers.”
“Ok, my company is Anchors Environmental LLC. I am an independent subcontractor to Fluor Enterprises, a giant engineering firm with headquarters in South Carolina. Fluor is one of the largest companies doing work for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And they do everything – pipeline work, rebuilding cities in Africa. Government contracts all over the world. Fluor is bigger than FEMA. The company I work for is bigger than the agency I work for.”
“So why Puerto Rico? Does this have to do with Hurricane Maria last year?”
“Yes. You know if you stick with an agency long enough, especially a small one, you know everybody in it. The public assistance program is the largest part of FEMA. It’s the part that gets all the bad press. The guy that’s in charge of the public assistance program I know pretty well. And he’s down there in Puerto Rico neck deep in a s – – – show. So he calls his contractors for assistance. The top guy in that company just called me and said we need you in Puerto Rico. I don’t say no to that guy. This is the Fluor guy.
“When FEMA pays to put a school, a new sewer system, a new city hall, a road system, into a city that was damaged by natural disasters, I make sure they comply with all the environmental and historic preservation requirements. I go out there, I problem solve, get project grants through the system. Environmental compliance is the thing I’m doing. It depends on the project. If it’s on a wetland, we do the wetlands. If it’s on a brownfield site, we do that. Mainly it’s public process. It’s giving the public an opportunity to see what the federal government is doing in their community and comment on it and perhaps change it. And in FEMA it actually works. They give grants to the states, to cities and even school districts. It’s way different than if you work for the Department of Defense and they just do their projects. The DoD has to do their compliance but they’re in total control of it. In the case of FEMA it’s much more community oriented. When I showed up in New Orleans after Katrina they were about to demolish 16 blocks of a historic district to put in a new hospital. They were having public meetings and it looked like the United Nations. I’m in a room and there’s like 30 different interested parties. There’s microphones in front of them with placards over their names. And they are not happy.”
“Why are you reluctant to tell your wife about the phone call you just had with the Fluor guy?”
“In 2006 I got married. We go down to my mom’s beach house at Cape San Blas for our honeymoon. And I told Robin, I am staying home. We wake up the next morning, and there’s an earthquake in Hawaii. The Kiholo Bay earthquake. Three days later I was on a plane to Hawaii. I was gone for six months.”
After more than two decades of constant travel, usually for months at a time, Rusty is ready to stay home on his ranch while others do the fieldwork for him. He’s currently hiring environmental specialists with the right combination of experience and independence to be on call for the next natural disaster.
“I suspect this Puerto Rico thing will be the last one,” he says. “Starting pay for this work is around $65 an hour, plus per diem. It’s an awesome gig if you can travel.”