Nothing prepares you

We made preparations.

Groceries, water, hand-crank radio, first-aid kit, flashlights, back-up cell chargers, ice and coolers.

You name it. It was on our list and we had it.

City officials told us to shelter in place. Aside from their advice, we had already concluded the weather looked too treacherous to safely get on the road as an exit strategy (and Sunday morning responsibilities were still on for my pastor hubby), so our best bet was to prepare well with supplies and hunker down to ride it out.

Harvey’s landfall was expected sometime Friday night with complications from the storm affecting Houston soon after. The storm over the Gulf increased in intensity from a tropical disturbance to a Cat 1, then Cat 3, then Cat 4 hurricane in quick succession. We were duly worried but remained calm as we gathered provisions and made our plans.

Rain came in starts and stops on Friday; kids proudly tested out their new rain boots.

On Thursday night, we took the children to Meet the Teacher Night at their elementary school and many conversations among parents revolved around storm preparations and plans, but overall there was a sense of normalcy and routine as we anticipated the start of the school year on Monday.

First thing Friday morning, as I finished up some office work from home and made preparations to secure things at the house, Gene took the kids on the last errand still left to run: to buy rain boots. We spent most of the day Friday and Saturday playing games, watching movies, making hot cocoa, and monitoring the storm as it approached.

Playing “store” with Natalie and Henry on Saturday morning

The weather got more volatile and tornado warnings were being issued for our area Saturday night, so we tucked Natalie and Henry into bed in the most interior room of our house (master closet) for their safety. We strung up paper lanterns they had made earlier in the day and called it a campout.

Kids tucked into bed on the floor of our closet

Then Gene and I began our night of keeping watch. Through the front window we saw the water rising in the street outside our house as rain slammed down in waves. Street flooding is common during heavy downpours, so we kept an optimistic outlook. Peering through the dark with a streetlight illuminating the curve in the road south of us, we watched the water creep up over the curbs into yards and driveways, deeper and deeper.

I began rolling up rugs and getting them off the floors, moving items on lower shelves to higher shelves, stacking furniture and getting clothes off lower racks in the closet.

Room by room, we calmly prioritized and prepared, still hoping the encroaching waters would recede in time. Hour by hour through the night, my stomach clenched tight with anxiety, we monitored the water level until it was lapping at our front and back doors.

Water had entered the garage where we had made room enough to park the van on the highest ground possible. Items were floating around in the garage, but still no water had come in the house.

Slowly, as we watched from the window, all the houses on our block slipped deeper under water and our hearts sank to watch it, bringing back devastating memories of our neighborhood being inundated by the Memorial Day flood just two years ago.

We tried to take breaks to rest after checking to look outside. Maybe the rain would abate and give the water a chance to drain out. But the situation grew more and more bleak.

Silently, quickly, water seeped in from the sliding glass door as we sat on the couch. It took us a minute or two to even notice it. Rain boots immediately went on and we sprang into action. We woke the kids to move them from the floor in our closet to our bed; they thankfully fell back asleep.

Water rising from 2 inches to 4 inches

By 4:15 am, we measured nearly 2 inches of water throughout the house — the same amount we experienced during the Memorial Day flood. But the water didn’t stop there. It kept rising. The sound of our boots through the water changed from light splashing to sloshing. We tried to elevate as many of our belongings as we could — working then resting, attempting to conserve some energy for the long hours stretching ahead of us.

The kids woke up about 5:30 am and we encouraged them to stay put on the couch with some breakfast snacks and their activity basket. We had long since put our cat in her carrier and placed her up high on the window seat in the music room.

Awakened by the storm, the kids end up marooned on the couch

As the water got deeper, it was splashing too close to the electrical outlets so Gene shut off the power and turned on our battery-powered lantern. At daybreak, we assessed the scene around our home. We were surrounded by water several feet deep. I called 9–1–1 around 6:30 am to get in the queue for a rescue. By that point, sewage was backing up in the bathrooms and the rain continue to come down, worrying us that water would rise even more. Reports from around the city were catastrophic and we knew we might have to wait a while for emergency services to take us to shelter.

Front yard/driveway at dawn
Back yard (my poor veggie garden)

All perception of the normal passage of time ceased for us. Minutes sometimes felt like hours. Hours sometimes felt like minutes. Before we knew it, it was noon and help had still not arrived. We checked in with friends and family, trying to keep everyone updated. Social media (Facebook and NextDoor) were blowing up and so many messages, texts, and updates were coming in, too quickly to keep up with.

We felt overwhelmed and heartbroken, but the only thing you can do is be in the moment and not get too far ahead of yourself with worry. We heard updates from several friends who also flooded. We were relieved to hear news that others were dry and safe.

Water keeps rising as an exhausted Henry dozes off while sitting in the window.

Still, both Gene and I began to be more concerned about how long we would have to wait to get out of our home. We didn’t feel safe to stay past nightfall and wondered how long we could manage with the kids in the filthy water and sewage situation with no power and items in the fridge quickly going bad, not to mention we were powering through with zero sleep and couldn’t imagine another night of watch keeping.

Overnight bags packed, we readied ourselves for rescue. Gene suggested making a sign to put in the front window indicating that we needed help. I wrote “NEED RESCUE: Family of 4” and taped it to the window.

Water at its deepest (approx. 1 foot). Sliding glass doors hold back 3 inches more water outside than inside.

Around 2 pm, we began to hear helicopters flying overhead, and we had read advice to get on the roof to notify the rescue squads that you needed assistance. Gene got the ladder and climbed up first to try to get their attention. It had stopped raining and the sun peeked out a bit. After a while, Gene got down to check on some things and encouraged Henry and me to climb up to wave our sign as the helicopters passed.

From the roof of our house, Sunday at 3 pm

As we sat on the roof, a brief moment of peace came to me as the breeze blew through the trees on our block and created ripples in the river that used to be a road. Immense sadness churned itself up alongside gratitude and assurance that we could get through this.

Natalie and Gene sit on our car while my waterlogged rain boots get a chance to dry out. Looking over our submerged backyard

Regrettably, none of the helicopters stopped for us. We concluded that they might be scouting out the area to make a plan to deploy rescue workers, but we were entirely clueless as to the expected timeline.

After Gene posted some rooftop pictures on Facebook, our congregation at Christ Church Sugar Land rallied to send a team with a kayak to get us to safety. We knew my brother-in-law and stepdad were en route to Houston to help with rescue efforts and could get us if need-be in their boat, but we were wary of nightfall and more inclement weather to come.

Thankfully, we noticed the water receding some because there had been a break from the rain. Water in the home was actively exiting the front door and we could detect a downstream current in the water outside, moving around the bend in the road.

It was around 4 pm when we were relieved to get the call that the team from Christ Church had navigated their way to us and would be coming soon. We gathered our things and trudged through the water to get back outside.

I was the last to leave the house to lock the door as Gene and the kids met up with the kayak. As I stepped out of the music room, the last sound I heard was a loud snap from my mother’s piano as a string inside broke.

My heart broke again.

Waterline already visible on the piano.

Kayak floating in the front yard, our church’s youth director and his friend helped me and the kids get in and put on life jackets. Natalie held our cat in her carrier up front, I rode in the middle, and Henry rode behind me. The guys waded in waist-high water on the sidewalk, pulling the boat. Gene slung a bag over his shoulder and walked behind us.

We rode in the kayak for about ¼ mile to where a Good Samaritan with a large truck had pulled into the water to dock the boat and get us out the water. Pastors Chap and Andrew were there to haul us into the bed of the truck as he carried us in his truck out of our neighborhood.

People came out of their homes and stood in their yards to watch. We shouted out to check on them and ask if they were okay. Everyone was fine, so we continued around the bend nearly two miles where the rest of the team from Christ Church waited in their vehicles.

Rescue by kayak and truck

With a broad smile across her face, Pastor Chap’s wife, Julie, welcomed us and opened her car’s trunk, which she had filled with blankets, towels, bottled water, and snacks to offer us. With our feet on dry ground for the first time in 16 hours, tears of gratitude stung my eyes.

We loaded up and passed through high water again to get to Chap and Julie’s house. They offered us amazing hospitality with hot showers, a hearty dinner, and comfortable beds where we collapsed for the night. We felt such relief to be out of harm’s way, we slept soundly.

In the morning, we awoke to news that where we were staying in Fort Bend County was under voluntary evacuation — then it changed to mandatory. Do. Not. Panic. A series of quick decisions ensued (Let’s find a way out of Houston…to the north — no. To the west — no. All roads flooded out.) We ended up finding shelter in a two-story house, offered by gracious church members Daniel and Anita, all while still under threat of flooding from the Brazos breaching its banks.

And this is only the beginning of the story. Fragments of the details. Remind me: what day is it, anyway? We flooded three days ago. We’re sleeping in our third place in four nights.

I can’t even keep up with it all. I won’t be able to remember it all.

Nothing really prepares you for something like this. Not a hurricane kit. Not an evacuation plan. Not even a previous flood.

And yet, we’re not adrift. Houston is not abandoned. Our souls are anchored with the love of God and the love of neighbor. Grace sustaining, poured out moment by moment. Thank you to all who have been grace-givers to us.