My Weekend with Harvey
Parenthood has a weird way of transforming your life. The shock of change in your lifestyle, when you no longer have time for yourself, is perhaps the most noticeable one. You eventually get accustomed to it, of course. You forget that the most important person in your life is you; you learn to navigate your own house full of toys (and that tidiness has left your life forever); you start to appreciate incoherent poop jokes; you tolerate otherwise unbearable behavior like shrieking over wanting to have Cheerios on that blue bowl (an exact identical one in pink won’t do, of course), or like melodramatic scenes over being unable to find a fluffy teddy bear (because sleep will be impossible with any of the other fourteen plush animals that lay on the bed).
Nothing, however, has so far sunk in me the feeling of monumental responsibility that parenthood brings like learning in a real-life situation that the lives of your kids depend on a decision you make.
I can thank Harvey for that.
Like many of you here, I started thinking that Harvey was not going to be a big deal. You know: “Meteorologist always get it wrong”, “they always over-hype events”, etc, etc.
As I told myself that, we entered the storm on August the 25th. “Great, I’ll be able to binge-read Sapiens and get my third book of the year down.” I thought. The kids? All excited to have a “sleepover” in our room:
Saturday came in, and Harvey continued to pummel us. Steady. Without fanfare. I still got to read a good chunk of Sapiens though. All my amenities intact, and most importantly, no need to get out — a nice way to stay in and remind ourselves that fun can be had at home as well. That was my rationalization. You know, pushing any bad thoughts away.
Sunday came. Sapiens would have to wait. I couldn’t keep pretending that this was a leisurely weekend. TV “ON” — for the first time in literally years. The YouTube/Netflix/video-over-smartphone home of ours would have to harken back to the days in which Live TV fed information to the household. No Facebook post will update me on the state of Eldridge Parkway, after all.
Does the TV still work? Do I have cable? Yes! I now remember — those bastards at Comcast wouldn’t let me have just internet. Thank you cable-internet bundle! (Phew! It works…) Hello Fox 26! — Me
And then the Hurricane alerts. Go into the closet. All giggles and laughs. Pretend it’s all a game. Conversations with my wife — Patricia — in low voice: “Are we close to the wall? Should we get under the door frame? Get away from that piece of furniture, it might fall on you.” Don’t let the kids hear you.
Tornado alert is just 15 minutes long… (watching my watch) we’re almost… there… oh, fuck. Another alert. This one’s 20 minutes. “Hey, Mariana, Matías… another round of UNO.”
More Tornado alerts. We’re getting better at it. Bike helmets on. Flashlight. Fifteen minutes… end… NOW. Take helmets off. Go feed off of the TV:
Stay home. The roads are too dangerous — Mayor Sylvester Turner
Do not get out. Stay home — Chief Peña (in Spanish).
“These guys are handling it really well, I mean, look at their poise. They don’t stutter. They are appraising us every other hour.” I thought.
More sensationalized coverage on TV. Crazy footage of flooded streets. “That’s the exit I take to work on 610! Blocked!” Look at those good Samaritans and their big tow trucks, towing cars from one end of the flood zone to the other. At no charge. People need to get places. How good does it feel (people helping people, no questions asked). They don’t even speak English and yet they help people. I wish Trump could see this.
More scary stories about families — friends of ours! — being trapped in their homes’ second floor. But now on Facebook. Like 4 feet of water at Memorial and Beltway 8. “Wow.” I think. “This is getting close. Better get my shit together. You’re head of household. Your family depends on you. Look for information. Assess risks.” This is the moment I shed any semblance of cool and start getting information from wherever I can get.
Turkey Creek passes 50 feet away from home. It feeds Addicks. That thing overflows, it’s over. Not “boohoo my house and cars are flooded and ruined” over. More like “wiped the fuck out of the face of the earth” over. I start walking back and forth from my home to the Creek (remember, only 50 feet away) to measure its water levels. I cross the street, and count the brick layers on the bridge near my house from top to bottom until I hit water. Every 1–2 hours. And keep a log.
Addicks is what everyone is talking about, though. Well, Barker too, but who cares about that one… it’s too far. I need to focus on the imminent risk. Addicks is just 5 minutes from home!
I find Addicks’ water level online. A real-time updated graph. Phew! That gives me comfort. I’ll just keep refreshing this graph on my phone to know if there’s a risk of flood. I still keep a reassuring sense (yet unjustifiable, given all the hysteria on local media) that Houston’s Flood Control District will somehow keep the controlled water release going, dumping water into the Bayou down south — and away from my home. “Of course it will never get to flood levels.” I hear the magic number is 108. Beyond that, it’s uncontrolled water, therefore right into our street. Where is it now? Oh, it’s just at 102. It’s all good.
Rain keeps on pouring Monday. Nonstop. At 3:30pm, a knock on my door. It’s Mike, my neighbor from across the street. “Just wanted to check on you, all OK?”
“All good here. We’re staying,” I say confident. Still thinking that that damn graph will never hit 108. They can’t allow it to reach 108!
“Alright. We’ll be here. Anything you need, we’re here.” He says, and shakes my hand firmly, like the guy’s saying, “We’re in this together, pal”. He turns around, and says “God bless you.”
We feel all warm and fuzzy. We’re going down together. Until the end. Or at least that’s what I thought for a moment.
I mapped this route, just in case, and memorized it.
Looking compulsively at the neighborhood online forums, I found a tiny comment hidden in the middle of all the barrage of hysteria posted by my neighbors (some of them actually sharing crucial info):
More hysteria on TV. “Don’t get out! The streets are too dangerous.” Every single anchor says, no matter what local channel we tune in. Patricia starts planning for crazy scenarios. We hear Police Chief Azevedo recommending going into the attic with an ax so we don’t suffocate and break free into the roof. We device a plan. “We don’t have to go into the attic.” I say, “This window faces an accessible roof, so we break it if needed, and lay the white blankets so the army comes and gets us.” I can’t believe I even considered a plan so stupid. Get into a 45 degrees tilted, slippery roof with a seven and a three year old. Right. I guess I was just playing along with Patricia so she thought we’d have a plan.
The anchors shift posts in their narrative. From “don’t get out!” to hedging themselves. “In the end the decision to leave is yours. We can’t tell you to stay and then be flooded. We can’t make that decision for you.”
I walk to my next door neighbor’s house — Paul. “Hey, I’m gonna shut off the gas and need a special wrench, got any?” He lends me one. “You can keep it. Give it to me later.” He says. We exchange worried assessments for what we’re going to do, and I get back home. “I’m staying” I’m still convinced. I have the power of Addicks’ real-time graph, after all. I go knock on Mike’s door, tell him he should shut off his gas, too (he declines) and go back home to shut the gas off my house. One less worry. At least my house will not blow up if it gets flooded and gas piles up inside. “I’ll figure out how to turn the water heater later,” I thought.
The rain continued. It was then time to take the risk of flood seriously. We took everything that we could upstairs, and lifted the furniture on chairs. The finality of the night ahead was palpable. The possibility of Turkey Creek breaking was just too unfathomable to consider, but it was always a possibility.
I went to bed Monday (on the second floor, of course, like everyone else) with a sinking feeling that something bad could happen. The Creek reads were still not dangerous, but creeping up relentlessly.
The real-time Addicks graph was still at 104. And the rain did not stop.
Patricia didn’t sleep at all, glued to the neighbors’ online forum (using my login). At 1am of Tuesday (the 29th), she woke me up. “They’re saying there’s already water on the streets.”
It was happening. I got up and walked to Turkey Creek. Pitch dark. Flashlight in hand and umbrella on my shoulder. One more read. Maybe the street with flooding was far from us. It didn’t matter. Water in the Creek had gone up to just 18 brick layers from top to water level. That gave us just 24 inches before overflowing.
I got back to Google Calico Falls on the map. I remember having seen a street named like that close to home. Turns out, Calico Falls is 3 streets down south.
“Vámonos.” Patricia says, as if making the decision herself. I still have not decided. I’m in a state of numbness — just 3 hours of sleep — but completely aware to know that every single piece of data so far tells you to get the fuck out. Every single piece except the most important one. The real-time Addicks graph. I pull out my phone:
Jeff Lindner — the guy from the Harris Flood Control District who appeared on TV every other hour- had said the magic 108 would be reached until Wednesday noon. It was Monday at midnight and we were already at 107. Two days earlier.
That was it.
I put on some pants, a pair of sneakers, leave my McLovin t-shirt on and start to load our 4Runner. Kids all groggy, they just snuggle cutely into position in their car seats only to keep snoring. They have no idea the world around them is imploding. At least that’s what it feels to me.
Mike. I can’t leave Mike behind. He probably doesn’t have all the data I have. We were going to ride this thing together. I can’t just bolt. That’d be like betrayal. He’s got little Reese— a beautiful 2 year old. I cross the street, knock on the door.
The guy’s in his underwear. Hair all messy. “Mike. Just want to let you know that I’m leaving. Addicks is at 107, Turkey Creek is 24 inches from overflowing, and there are reports of street flooding on Calico Falls. I know of a confirmed route to Austin via 290. We can go on convoy.” I say in a single breath. The adrenaline makes everything so clear and simple to me. This is info I’ve been chewing on all weekend long. I doubt he registered anything. He keeps squinting at me, like trying to decipher what I just said. Takes his hand to his hair, looks at the floor and says:
“No. We’re staying.”
I feel sudden relief. I don’t know what would’ve happened had I dragged them with us and then something went wrong. “Alright.” I say. “I just wanted to let you know before I did anything.”
“Alright… good luck.” And Mike closes the door.
No God Bless You, like a couple of hours earlier. A reminder that I and my family were on our own. The burden of the decision I was making felt heavy. The moment in which you realize that you have just put your two beautiful kids at risk of death. Despite all of what the media is saying (“Stay at home!!”), despite what Mayor Turner, and Chief Peña, and Chief Azevedo, and Jeff Lindner all said. (“Stay home!!”, “The roads are too treacherous!!”, “People driving at counter flow!!”). Despite the stories of entire families being killed by swelling rivers in this hurricane, I’m trusting the lives of my most precious ones to a real-time graph, a scribble of notes and an online forum of neighbor gossip.
I cross the street to go back home. Make sure we take the important documents with us. Take the extra keys for the cars and form a massive, single key-chain. Turn the house’s master electric switch off. I get on the the 4Runner, and turn it on. Full gas tank. I start moving, and I stop. Gotta make double sure the back door is locked. It is. Go back to the car. It has not stopped raining.
I remember the mental image of the route out. The one that had been validated by that forum commenter. West Little York… then Eldridge… then 529… then Jones… and then, 290. Not a single puddle. The route is good. We’re at the red light before taking the feeder road to 290. The last step until Austin. The last chance to back out of the decision. Once on 290, there’s no way back. No way of “returning” on a major highway.
I still doubt myself. The traffic light does green.
“HERE WE ARE PATRICIA.” I say before hitting the gas to get on 290. “ONCE IN THERE, THERE IS NO WAY BACK.” Patricia just stayed silent. It was a shared decision.
The next hour and a half was the most grueling period I’ve experienced in my life. At 40 mph, trying to make out the next 500 meters in front of us. Is that a flood? No. Keep on going. Is that a flood. No. Keep on going. 290 has concrete walls on both sides of 3, maybe 4 feet high. At this dark hour, I could still see some of the waves splash onto the outer side of both concrete barriers of the highway. If Patricia saw something uglier, she didn’t say. Probably not to scare me. I kept saying “Don’t speak. Just don’t speak.” But she kept pointing at things. “Look at this! Careful with that! What is that in front of us!?”
“Just don’t speak.” I knew the type of risk I was navigating.
“Where are we going?” Mariana startled us with her crisp voice. Like she had been seeing and hearing it all along.
“Oh, ok.” She said, nonchalantly. Still oblivious to the severity of the situation. Good.
I leave a WhatsApp voice message to Bernardo — friend from college — who had been checking in constantly. From China. (thank you bro). And to my family. “I’ve decided to flee. Conditions became unbearable. We’re fine.” Upon my request, Patricia texted my neighbor Paul with my phone to let him know we had left, and also to share the directions of the road. I had not extended him the same courtesy of knocking on his door like I did with Mike. Apparently, he was fine with my decision to leave as well.
“Ok thanks be safe!” Paul’s text response reads.
The drops of water finally became lighter, and lighter. Until finally, they stopped. I started seeing dry pavement in front of me. Probably after Brenham, TX. We stopped at several hotels on the road. All fully booked. Austin was the final destination. We saw the sunrise (finally, the sun!!) on the Tollway coming into I-35 in Austin TX.
Patricia had been in contact with Erika — friend from Austin — and she’d offered us her and Alejandro’s — her husband — house to crash. Jose C. — friend from grad school — did too. But at 5:30am, we weren’t going to burst in sort of unannounced. Upon arrival at Austin’s AT&T Conference Center they gave me the “Harvey rate.” Everyone crashed in a plush room at 6am. Except me. I could not go back to sleep. It was Tuesday morning. I had things to do at work, I guess. I connected remotely from the Hotel’s business center and pretended to work for 6, maybe 7 hours.
One of the first things I did upon arriving “at work” in Austin was to log in to the neighborhood’s forum to post a message detailing the route I used. You never know. Maybe somebody else could benefit from this knowledge.
Turns out, not everyone was as lucky as we were to get out in time.
And this, my friends, is how my weekend with Harvey ends.
As I stated at the beginning, Harvey has taught me the immense responsibility of being a parent. The raw reality that you are in fact the caretaker of fragile, entirely dependent lives. Lives that, on top of that, mean the world to you. You have no idea of the amount of whatifs that had gone through my head after all these events. What if we got stuck on 290? What if the flooding covered the 4runner as we waited still? What if we were hit by someone driving at counterflow? What if one of the many bridges that cross the multiple rivers on the route collapsed before us? What if any of said bridges actually collapsed as we drove over them? But then again, what if we stayed and the Creek overflowed? What if Addicks broke (as they feared)?
I took the decision that I took with the information that I had at hand.
In the end, all was good, and I can thankfully write this story about it.
Ps. Thankfully, the house did not flood. Water crept up my driveway, but ended up just 1 feet short from my doorstep. The street was flooded for a full week, which we spent in Austin. Thank you Erika, Alejandro, and José and Patty for hosting us the following weekend.
Ps2. Thank you to all the friends who checked in. You know who you are. Some of you even offering your house. Thank you very much.