I sat at a bar with a girlfriend sipping martinis on Wednesday night in Houston. “What do you think about this storm,” she asked. “Is it really going to be as bad as they say it is? My husband is supposed to fly in this weekend.”
I smiled, “Well, they are saying you should stock up on water. May want to get a few bottles before he gets home.”
And then we laughed, and had a few more drinks before heading home.
By Thursday morning, my hangover was strong and the local news was dire. A category 5 hurricane named Harvey was barreling towards the gulf coast of Texas, with unprecedented and catastrophic rains forecasted to hit Houston. Tales of the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods last year sat heavy in Houstonians minds. A storm felt too soon for a city that could barely handle five inches of water. Houston’s flat plains easily succumbed to high water, and its bayous weren’t deep enough to channel the downpours that were predicted.
My husband, Josh, sat casually, like he did every night, on our couch; a cocktail in hand and computer in lap as we debated evacuating. “What do you want to do, Kristin? I need to stay here for work, but if you want to take the kids and try to get out, go ahead,” he talked to me in between typing. “I’ll support you either way.”
My back hurt from sitting straight in our wooden kitchen chairs and I could feel my head ache, “where do you want me to go? There is simply nowhere to go. We would have to drive six hours to Dallas and we know no one in Dallas. And what if I get away and can’t get back? I don’t want to evacuate with three kids without you. It just doesn’t make sense.”
He looked at me as if he was waiting for me to divine an answer. I looked back at him the same way. I wanted the answer to be clear-cut, and for him, it seemed to be. He was staying.
“Look, our house has never flooded before,” he continued confidently, “There is no mandatory evacuation for the city. Our neighbors are staying. And if we do start flooding, we can always move upstairs to the second story,” Josh said flatly. “But, if you want, I’ll book you and the kids a hotel room a few hours north of here, just in case. We can always cancel the day before.”
“Ok, I guess we will stay, then.” And then, “We don’t have a lot of good options,” I said, quietly, to myself. I could feel my head aching.
“OK, then,” Josh looked at me, satisfied that I had made the right decision, and then turned back to his computer.
By Friday morning, schools were canceled for the entirety of the following week. I channeled my anxiety into action. I bought cases of water and non-perishable food. I lined the freezer with water bottles in case the power went out. I turned off our outdoor sprinklers and brought in all our outdoor furniture. I charged all of our electronics, moved my car to higher ground and filled the bathtubs with water. Josh went to work, but sensing my rising anxiety, he promised to come home early. I sent a few frantic texts and emails about more batteries, flashlights and a generator. By that night, the gas stations had no fuel left. The grocery stores’ shelves were empty. Houston was preparing for the worst.
The hurricane came ashore just south of Houston, in Corpus Christi on Friday night. Friday night and Saturday, the hurricane played coy with the city, sending only the occasional rainfall and winds our way. That day, a friend who evacuated north jokingly sent a text — well, this was a big letdown. We should have just stayed home.
Saturday night the deep red hurricane bands began to pass over our city. The rain pounded drumbeats on our solid stucco walls. The rainwater poured so constantly and in such great magnitude that the local news station started flooding live on air. The news station sits right next to one of the cities major bayous, which were designed to carry the floodwaters out of the city. The anchors went off air for twenty minutes while the news crews moved into whitewashed conference room with a dry erase board. My gut wrenched as I watched water seeping into KHOU channel 11’s first floor studio. The bayous were full; water was headed down the streets of Houston.
Sunday was the worst day. That was the day the meteorologist said over and over and over was the day of catastrophic life threatening flooding.
The thing was no one really knew what catastrophic life threatening flooding meant. Did it mean couldn’t drive our car through flooded streets? Or did it mean water was going to break through our large wood-paneled doors? The news kept talking about rates of rain over a period of time, but somehow I couldn’t figure out what that exactly meant for me, for our neighborhood. Rates of rain sounded so scientific, so obscure, something someone somewhere else should pay attention to. What I wanted to know was pretty simple: was my house going to flood? No one could answer that for me.
I would visualize water bursting through our door, sweeping up our dog, our kids, and pushing us upwards through the roof. The local news warned people to keep axes in their attics in case they needed to break through their roofs to get to safety. But then what? Would our three young kids, our dog, my husband and I just sit on our 45 degree-angled roof? It was so absurd; it was laughable.
When I woke up that Sunday morning, I went downstairs in my three-day old pajamas and anxiously opened the front door. Our street, our sidewalk, and halfway up our yard was covered in water, and it was still raining. I kept returning to the windows to see how far the water was coming, and how hard the rain was falling. I stood there, wishing for it to stop, and memorized by the scale of the storm.
“We need to start taking stuff upstairs,” I said to the window, watching the rain fall.
“Yes, we do,” Josh, replied. He quietly and methodically carried every one of our six dining room chairs up to our daughter’s room. Anything we couldn’t carry upstairs, we put up on paint cans from the garage.
I took pictures of all our furniture in case it was damaged in a flood. Our photo albums we placed up high on the first floor.
As I made my way down stairs after carrying one box, I stopped at the bottom of the stairs. I looked at Josh, leaned into his chest, and for the first time in days started crying, my body shaking with fear and grief for what we may loose.
“It will be ok,” Josh replied. “It will all be ok.” He held me for a few minutes, longer than normal.
“Uh-huh,” It was all I could manage. I don’t think either of us believed that it would all be ok.
I remember thinking that the noises around our house were all wrong that Sunday. The beeping, the warnings, and the constant sound of local news playing in the background. Our phones would simultaneously ignite with tornado warnings from the Red Cross. When they phone sirens started, I yelled for the children to immediately get underneath the stairs.
“Why are we going under the stairs, mommy?” My 7-year old asked, “What’s going on? Isn’t it flooding?”
“Yes, honey. But there are really big winds outside. So it’s safest under the stairs.”
“In case our roof blows off?” She asked, honestly.
“Well, our roof isn’t going to blow off. But yes, in case something happens. Just to be safe.”
The kids huddled together. Thank God we hadn’t lost electricity. We pulled our laptop and blankets under the stairs and the kids kept right on watching Netflix, the cartoons playing loudly under the dusty staircase, with the rain still pounding percussions against the house.
When the tornado warnings let up, we would walk outside. We would occasionally nod to our neighbors who were doing the same thing. Breathing, and taking it all in. We were all anxiously watching the water rise and fall with the rains. It was coming closer to our house, and then receding. But only slightly. With every strong rain, the water would move closer and closer. One of our neighbors walked quietly out into the middle of the street. The water was almost waist deep.
Our house never flooded during those terrible days. I watched the news, and spent hours on social media, paralyzed to do much else. I realized later that social media, specifically facebook groups, became the best way to connect communities. I spent hours finding out where people had flooded, when, and if they needed help. As soon as people started needing evacuation, posts started appearing on facebook with home addresses.
Individuals with boats or large Humvees posted that they were heading out to assist evacuation efforts. A husband-wife team in our small neighborhood posted a picture of their army Humvee (it is Texas, after all) announcing they were headed out to rescue people and asked for addresses of where they should go. Hundreds of comments followed. People, kids and pets were stranded on their second floors, or on the rooftops, with no electricity or running water.
We are not native Houstonians. We moved here from northern Virginia a year and a half ago for my husband’s job. I remember thinking that day, the under-the-stairs flooding day, that I hated Houston. I hated Houston for what the weather patterns it was prone to and what was happening to my family. I hated Houston for it’s cavalier attitude toward zoning, which has contributed to it’s flooding, and I hated Houston for forcing my three small children under the stairs and scaring my 7 year old into believing her house was going to flood.
I would later regret that sentiment. Later, in Harvey’s wake, I would see the best in this city. Later, people would ask, almost instinctively, “are you dry?” Or, “how can I help?” Later, I would see how many people left their homes, even when it was still raining, in boats, kayaks, really anything, to help people they didn’t even know. I would realize how many people spent days mucking out the homes of people they had never met. I would realize how many people spent hours just to stand in line to volunteer to serve those who ended up in Houston’s shelters. I would realize that it’s not the buildings, but rather the people of the city, that make it strong.
That strength was again on display most recently as the city brought home a World Series win; players were donning the patches “H-Strong”. Harvey dumped 51 inches of rain on the city; so it felt like fate when the Astros won the final game over the LA Dodgers 5–1. It was Houston’s Grande Finale.
And yet, despite showing an extraordinary resilience, people’s belongings and the linings of their homes still lay in sad piles outside of homes in Houston. And those flooded homes are still empty and damp. There is interesting quality about water; it adds weight to anything it touches. Even with fans and dehumidifiers, that water takes a long time to evaporate. Weeks, months and sometimes years. For people touched by this storm, that water didn’t come in and leave in two days. It will remain in this city physically and psychologically for a long time to come.