Everyone from Houston has a flood story. Here’s mine.*
* I grew up in Houston in a house ruined by Hurricane Harvey. Although I live in Dallas, I returned home to help my parents salvage what had been and get started on what will be. My folks were more fortunate than many others. Most importantly, they emerged unharmed. Still, they have a lot of cleaning up to do, in every sense. What follows is a look at the stressful, wistful, sometimes humorous tale of two octogenarians getting flushed from the place they’ve called home for 47 years.
My mom loves shoes. Loves them. When the Memorial Day flood of 2015 barged into her house and drenched pretty much everything they owned, shopping for new styles and colors provided a nice distraction.
Yet when Hurricane Harvey bellowed toward Houston, and my parents decided to ride out the storm in a hotel, there was no time for salvaging footwear. They put a few of their most treasured items as high as possible, threw some essentials into a suitcase and got the heck out of there.
My dad is 86 and moves slowly. My mom is 80 and usually gets around great; however, she broke a bone in her left foot a few weeks ago. She now hobbles around in a walking boot. These days, both use a cane.
The day after Harvey hit, their next-door neighbor called with the expected news. His house had several feet of water. Theirs surely did, too. Everything was lost. Again.
The only shoe my mom now owned was the sneaker on her right foot.
Around this time in 1970, my mom was pregnant with me and had two other kids at home. My parents decided to move to a bigger house and fell in love with a two-story property in southwest Houston.
It had a huge back yard, big enough to make up for its location: facing a busy street … and Brays Bayou.
My folks saw the bayou overflow plenty of times. But through some quirky nexus of gravity, elevation and sewer placement, flood waters never entered their home. The closest calls licked the top step of the porch.
So when my dad woke up in the early hours on May 25, 2015, stepped out of bed and landed in ankle-deep water, he knew this storm was like none other. In their scramble upstairs, my mother fell and dislocated her shoulder. They were rescued by a dump truck; you may have even seen it play out on CNN. (I never did, but friends of theirs across the country caught it.)
My mom was ready to move out. My dad, not so much.
Ever since the mid-’80s — when my friends and I stopped playing ball in the back yard and the grass finally grew back — the garden became my dad’s oasis. It always had been, but now he really got into it.
He grew all sort of plants and flowers, usually in colorful pots, sometimes also atop unusual pedestals. He put in a bird house, bird bath and several bird feeders. He collected all sorts of cool yard art: a fountain, a statue, a silver orb and, right in the middle, topiaries of a bear and a peacock that are best described as life-sized Chia pets. How do you leave all that for an apartment?
Besides, the place was long since paid for. And there was still the fact that the 2015 storm was considered a once-every-100-year flood. Remember, never before in 45 years had a single drop come in.
The odds, it seemed, were in their favor.
The rebuild went great. Aron Home 2.0 was better than ever, with a reconfigured floor plan that better fit their current life.
An unexpected consequence was their new reality. Every dark cloud raised their blood pressure. Any forecast of a storm prompted talk of escape plans.
Sure enough, Brays Bayou overflowed again last year. The same quirky nexus that had long protected them sprung back into action; water only licked the front step. Good news, right? Not really. Rather than a return to the days when their home seemed impenetrable, my folks considered it a temporary reprieve.
To use one of my father’s phrases, “That’s no way to live.”
With Hurricane Harvey on the way, my parents fled before the first raindrop fell. They checked into the same extended-stay hotel where they spent 4 1/2 months in 2005. They were even given the same room.
When it was safe to return, my dad tried entering through a door in the back yard. It was too warped to open. He went in another way. There to greet him was the refrigerator-freezer sprawled face-down.
At least it was in the kitchen. Next to the front door, he found a dresser.
It had shimmied out of the master bedroom, turned left down the main hall, then made a hard right to its new resting place in the foyer.
Those precious things they’d moved to the landing of the stairs and on top of the dining table? Wet.
I got down there in time to meet the insurance adjuster. He took a quick a look around, pulled out his phone and tapped out an advance payment on the claim.
He asked my father to sign his name on the screen. My flip-phone-using dad was awed by such high-tech wizardry.
Another revelation followed.
The sum on that insurance check? It practically matched what he’d originally paid for the house.
Then it was my turn for an a-ha moment.
My father, born and bred in Goose Creek, Texas, and my mother, who spent her first 30 years in Mexico City, had lived here for 47 years. That means they called this place home far longer than anywhere.
Emphasis on “had.”
A few days earlier, they signed a two-year lease on an apartment. I still chuckle at the fact it took them all of four hours to pick their new place.
It’s on the 22nd floor.
Over the three nights I spent with my parents, they went through three sets of room keys.
The first re-keying was caused by my dad dropping the plastic card down an elevator shaft. (Think about the improbability.) The next re-keying was because my mom simply lost her plastic card.
“No I didn’t,” she said.
“OK,” I said. “You couldn’t find it.”
“That’s right” she said.
The sound of my father and I laughing could’ve sent her mood in one of two directions. Luckily, it went the good way.
Levity was all around, if you looked hard enough.
Driving to Home Depot to get a wet-vac and some fans, I saw a pile of rubble outside a neighbor’s house crowned by something big and black.
It was a pinata of a bull, its angry eyes and snorting nose faced directly toward passing cars.
In the parking lot of Home Depot, I walked past a pickup truck and felt something brush against my shin. I looked back and saw this:
News coverage of Harvey focused on horror stories or Good Samaritans. My Facebook feed also seemed heavy on the ends of the spectrum.
I drove down I-45 wondering what I would find. After all, my family’s experience was more in the middle — no dramatic rescue this time and losing only “things.”
I drove back up I-45 wowed by the overwhelming spirit of cooperation.
About half the traffic lights were still flashing red. Having learned to drive in Houston, I know how impatient local drivers are. Yet never did I see anyone violate the one-at-a-time rule. If anything, traffic slowed because people were too polite — your turn; no, your turn.
My mom’s car battery died one afternoon so we went to AutoZone for a replacement. Despite a long line of hot, frustrated customers, two employees stopped what they were doing to find two chairs and comfortable spots in the air conditioning. None of the other customers complained about the delay.
A few blocks away, I saw a mailman laughing and chatting on the phone as he delivered packages. On a Sunday. Of a holiday weekend.
While at Home Depot, I wanted to buy masks to protect us from mold and mildew in the air. A worker said they’d just sold out. But the cashier I went to had about eight crisp white masks stacked on her register. I asked for four.
“I can give you one,” she said softly.
She explained that a customer who’d bought a box dropped it on his way out. A bunch of masks got dirty so they gave him a fresh box. Once their inventory ran out, someone remembered these. They decided to ration them. Strictly. As with the intersections, everyone understood: We’re all in this together.
My childhood bedroom became my dad’s office when I went to college. For nearly 30 years, he’s spent countless hours there making phone calls, running various businesses and balancing his checkbook.
When the furniture, papers, pictures and everything else were hauled out, all that remained were splashes of dirty water. My father peeked inside. In a flat voice he said, “That’s it for that.”
The longer the clean-up took, the less there was for my mom to do.
Earlier, I’d gone to her closet and retrieved her newest pair of shoes (blue with a cloth buckle — and dripping wet), some jewelry and a few purses. I also grabbed a picture of a bear one my kids had drawn for her.
By mid-afternoon she decided to run some errands and rest at the hotel.
An hour later, she called with some news: the shoe store was replacing her newest pair.
By then, my dad and I were in the back yard discussing his relics.
The house is likely to be demolished and sold as an empty lot. The next owners can build it higher and different.
My dad can’t recreate his garden on the 22nd floor. A green metal table and chairs will fit on the balcony, and several of his potted plants are heavy enough to outlast the wind.
Some of the rest will continue to flourish. In my back yard.
I’ve already brought a turtle and this weekend I’ll haul back more, including the 4-foot-tall Chia-like bear.
I’m thinking of naming him Harvey.
Note: As mentioned at the start, my family was quite fortunate. Others weren’t. Please consider supporting any of the charities helping those in need. Here’s a list of recommendations from the watchdogs at Charity Navigator, and here are lists of national and local options compiled by the New York Times and USA Today.