It’s the day after Labor Day, and the Houston area is attempting to return to normal. The highways are full during morning rush hour. Most streets are dry. Businesses are open. People are trying to go back to work.
But off the highways, down neighborhood streets, on rural roads, in shelters, it’s clear that normal is a long way off.
Piles form in front yards where people spent Labor Day weekend gutting the insides of their homes. Insulation, drywall, couches, tables, toys and dolls decorate the lawns. Those lucky enough to have two floors have moved whatever can be salvaged upstairs — but they worry the damp mold of the other stuff will ruin it anyway.
Some are fortunate enough to have family or friends to stay with, but that’s not easy, either. Houses and apartments are stuffed with relatives trying to get their lives back together, trying to clean up, trying to figure out their insurance claims, trying to figure out childcare because the schools are opening two weeks later.
Many have to figure out all of this without a car. Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath destroyed at least 500,000 cars. Houston is a driving town, sprawled out and crisscrossed with highways that form mazes. Public transportation isn’t a valid option for some.
A lot of people I spoke with said worse than the storm was the feeling of coming back home and realizing they have to rebuild. That’s when people were hit with the fact that they lost almost everything precious to them, on top of how expensive it will be and how much red tape they’ll have to go through to fix it and get back on their feet.
Even as somebody who didn’t live through the storm, some images that never leave me: a dozen drowned cows lying on the side of the road, and the abandoned cars, some with broken windows, where I can only imagine people were trying to escape. I won’t forget the smell of people’s houses and of whole neighborhoods heavy with the stench of wet dog.
But the resilience is real. One family, with the help of their friends, had already taken everything from their home nine days after the storm began and were talking to the insurance adjuster. They’ve been flooded three times. They’d love to move away, but they have a mortgage to pay, and it’s hard to sell. They’re getting through it. As they were cleaning out their ruined furniture, carpet and insulation on Sunday, another family wheeled a wagon with a cooler past and offered a cold Gatorade.
Austin Reese lives with his wife in Beaumont, a city east of Houston that was badly flooded. After working long shifts all week to cover for flooded-out colleagues at his state prison job, he and his wife took the long way to avoid the flooded roads and go check on his 87-year-old grandmother, who lives alone about an hour away. She was stuck at home because of a nearby chemical plant explosion from the storm, which released toxins into the air. Austin stayed with his grandma a few days, and wanted to buy her some groceries before going back home — but once he left, he wasn’t able to return to her because of the evacuation order. The effects of the storm keep throwing up hurdles.
Robert Wright and his wife are staying with his newlywed daughter and son-in-law because their home is ruined. Both of their cars are busted from the storm, so clearing out their soaked-out house in a rural area and figuring out how to rebuild is made more difficult. He says it’s the little things you don’t think about — like not having pillows and blankets, or silverware and plates. But he has family, and everyone is healthy. He is shook, and emotional, but grateful.
Many at the shelters in the convention center are less fortunate and don’t have relatives or friends who can take them in. Some there were struggling, or even homeless, before the storm hit. Some there also lived through Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago. I met one woman who was staying at the convention center with a friend and her young son. She was grateful for having a place to stay for now, and for the items and resources provided there. She told us, “I can’t complain.”
She sure could, but for her and so many facing a steep uphill climb to normal after this catastrophe, she’s not.