The Storm That Couldn’t

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The past week has been an absolute whirlwind.

The state I love and have come to call home has endured what is by some measures some of the worst flooding this country has ever seen. The whole experience was truly surreal. Having been through 5 hurricane seasons in Houston now, I know we can always count on getting a little wet. But usually the city comes together and it’s as though nothing ever happened; life keeps moving and we hardly notice any lasting effects of the tropical rains. Tropical storms and hurricanes were threatened each of those past 5 years I’ve been in Houston but never in those 5 years had we experienced anything like this.

It’s hard to find words that fully capture the experience of actually living through an event like this, but I wanted to do my best to document what we experienced, witnessed, and learned over this past week…

So, we had stayed in town for our friends’ wedding which got pushed to Friday afternoon due to the storm. Local authorities recommended against evacuation anyway. News reports were saying the storm would hit Friday night, and we were already seeing traffic backed up on all the highways leading away from the coast, so we figured that the safest thing to do would be to shelter in place.

We were also hearing that the worst of the storm was actually going to hit Corpus Cristi rather than Houston, and, having been through plenty of false alarms before, we weren’t overly concerned. We had plenty of provisions, our cars were parked on the second-floor parking deck, and we were holed up in a third-story apartment.

We went to sleep on Friday night, but no storm came. Reports came out that Harvey was back on course for Houston rather than Corpus, and the storm was forecasted to hit Saturday night. We went all day Saturday without seeing any rain – we even went out for dinner that evening. I have to admit I was a little dubious of these reports since similar reports hadn’t amounted to much at that time.

But then, at around 10pm on Saturday, Harvey finally hit us. In the middle of the night, the power at the apartment complex was knocked out, and, by noon on Sunday, rivers had risen where streets used to be. Up the water rose – all the way to just below the second-floor apartments. Everything else was underwater. Boats zoomed past our window, all day and into the night. Coast Guard helicopters hovered overhead. We could even see fish hopping out of the water in the fully submerged parking lots.

Pickup trucks much higher than mine were completely overtaken when no room was left on the upper levels of the parking garage. Meanwhile, the currents carried entire dumpsters and basketball hoops down the middle of the street outside our window. As temperatures inside the apartment rose, we were forced to open the windows, where the tropical summer air outside was, for once, cooler than the interior temperature.

Texts from concerned loved ones flooded in, but we were unable to respond to many of them because we were without power for several days and knew we could be without it for several more. The cats fared just fine but the poor dog was too nervous to go to the bathroom anywhere other than grass so she held it in for over 36 hours, which is when we were finally able to get her to some patch of drenched earth.

 Late Sunday, we heard that the Army Corps of Engineers was going to be conducting controlled releases of several reservoirs because the dams were not built to hold such an immense amounts of water. This was forecasted to raise water levels 6 inches per hour in some areas and would continue until the reservoirs could be brought down to manageable levels. But the rain kept on falling.

Tornadoes had already ripped through some Houston suburbs; now some of these same communities were being evacuated as the release of these waters threatened to plow through whatever homes were left. With helicopters continuing to pass by overhead and the apartment complex having emailed the roof access code to residents, I went to sleep Sunday night convinced we would be forcibly evacuated from the roof of the building by the time morning came. We didn’t sleep too well that night – awaking several times to check the water level.

Fortunately, it stayed just below the second-floor apartments, and, by some time on Monday, the waters had actually receded enough for us to attempt to make it to my house in Meyerland. Meyerland is one of the most frequently flooded communities Houston has to offer, but we were hearing from friends in the area that their homes had miraculously gone unflooded during this doozy of a storm and that their lights were still on.

Unfortunately, however, the Mazda CX5 was the only car we were able to get off of the overcrowded parking deck, and, despite making it within a mile of my house, we managed to get stuck in the mud as the rains picked back up. We couldn’t move it by ourselves, and several people, including a police officer we flagged down, declined to help us get it out. We walked the rest of the way to my place – with our bags in one hand, dog in the other – in rain boots that had been thoroughly drenched by the sewage-laced flood water, in order to regroup and come up with a plan for getting the car out.

The only thing was, as it turned out, our house hadn’t been so lucky as those of our friends in the area. The second we opened the door we realized a significant amount of water had filled the house at some point. I had thankfully moved some valuable things off of lower shelves and onto desks and countertops, but many of our personal belongings lay in ruin. A foul odor permeated the house and we couldn’t find anywhere that wasn’t left soggy. Carpets and flooring would have to be torn out, doors would need to be replaced, the backyard fence would require reconstruction, and all of our furniture would be headed for the heap pile.

Nevertheless, we managed to scrounge up a plywood board which we proceeded to hoist over our heads and make the trek a mile back down the road to attempt to get the car out of the mud. Passersby added us to their Snapchat stories as we paraded down the street with a wooden board over our heads like we were about to build an ark in the middle of a hurricane like a couple of nutjobs. Thankfully, though, this time, when we got to the car, a good Samaritan in a pickup truck slammed on the brakes the second he saw us wrestling to free the entrenched vehicle. He goes, “I have a tow-line; wanna see if I can help you out?”

It was like a gift from God – only, we found out that there was really very little for us to hook the tow-line to on the underside of the Mazda that wasn’t cheap plastic. So, instead, this good Samaritan got knee-deep in the mud with me and struggled as we worked to get it out. We were successful in rocking it quite a bit, but there was no traction, and the two of us kept falling down in the mud. Only a few minutes went by before others joined in, however. It turned out all we needed was another hand or two to jam the board under the wheels and maneuver a way out.

To us, this felt like a miracle. We tried to get contact information for our new friends who had stopped to help a couple of college kids who had gotten themselves into a stupid situation and certainly could not have gotten out on their own, so that we could send them something as a thank you for their heroic assistance, but they refused to accept anything other than a handshake. And, as quickly as they had gotten there, they were gone. They weren’t emergency personnel and they weren’t even acquaintances; they were just neighbors who saw some kids in need and chose to sacrifice themselves and help.

Hearing news that twice as much rain could have potentially still fallen, we took the narrow opportunity we had to get the animals in the car and head for higher ground before we were stuck back in the apartment for days on end with dwindling provisions and no electricity. We managed to squeeze my 4WD F-150 off of the parking deck and get on the road in record time. The only problem was every road we turned down was either blocked off by police or had flooding I wasn’t sure my truck could even make it through. After countless redirects and a lot of trial-and-error, we managed to find a roundabout way back to San Antonio.

A trip that usually takes 3-4 hours took 6, and for the first several hours we weren’t really sure we’d make it out. If we had waited an hour longer, we probably wouldn’t have. But, as we made it within an hour-and-a-half of San Antonio, we saw the sun for the first time of days and experienced a sense of security that had eluded us for quite some time. We had lost track of what day it was, and it was one of the strangest experiences to “re-enter” civilization in a sense – to step into a place where life was continuing as though nothing had ever happened. School buses were taking kids home from school; people were coming home from work. It was nothing like the place we had left behind just a few hours east of where we landed.

But it took a lot to get here. And, while I had come to appreciate what a dramatic impact Harvey was having on the greater Houston area, it wasn’t until making this journey that I came to fully understand the extent of the devastation. Cities, towns, ranches and warehouses for nearly a hundred miles around lay underwater. If I hadn’t seen it, I’m not sure I would have believed just how much of this state was significantly struck by this single storm.

While it is nice to be safe and dry finally, we cannot forget this is an immense privilege. We’re privileged to have had family in San Antonio we could flee to while the house in Meyerland remained underwater and the apartment complex (due to its proximity to Bray’s Bayou) was transformed into an island once more as rains picked back up and the flood waters rose. We are so, so blessed that the only thing we have to worry about in all of this is the loss of personal property. Many had it much worse.

It has been difficult to watch from afar as rescue missions continue in our beloved city, but, without a home base that could house us and three animals while offering safety, electricity, and access to food and water, I feel it was the right decision for us to make. The entire time, we weren’t sure which information we could believe, but, facing the possibility of additional rain that could have kept us stranded in that complex for up to a week, we chose to get out while we could, regroup, and begin to figure out how best to come back and serve. If we had stayed, we weren’t entirely sure we wouldn’t end up as one of those needing to be served in one of the shelters instead of being able to help in some way. So, now, that’s what we’re trying to do.

The recovery effort in the nation’s third-largest city will go on for months, if not years, and, as soon as the roads back from San Antonio are reopened, we’ll be on our way back, and we’ll be helping with the cleanup effort however we can. It shouldn’t take storms or disasters to make this happen, but the one positive thing Harvey did accomplish was the coming together of a city, a nation, and a world. Strangers slammed on their brakes to help out those now recognized as neighbors, and they got dirty; they loved even when it hurt.

Volunteers dispersed to the areas most affected by the storm. Websites were built overnight with matching capabilities, to pair those in need with the nearest shelters to them that had room for them and to pair volunteers and resources with the shelters that needed them. Local officials put out the call for any Houstonian with a boat or truck to get out and help where the could, and Houstonians answered the call.

Houses of worship opened up their doors and offered shelter to the displaced. “Mattress Mack” even opened up his showrooms to those who needed a place to sleep.

Rescue crews poured in from all over the country. Groups that had previously focused their philanthropic efforts on war-torn regions like Iraq and Syria diverted resources and bodies to help in the region. Even Mexico has offered troops and supplies to assist in the recovery effort. People worked through the night to take care of their fellow man, sacrificing sleep, comfort, and, in many cases, their own safety.

It shouldn’t take a storm for this sort of thing to happen, but this is the good in which I rejoice amidst the devastation. Harvey sought to destroy large swaths of land, property and livelihood, and, in some cases, it succeeded. But the storm did not succeed in destroying the human spirit found here; instead it bolstered it. People here are coming together in a way they were always meant to, and this doesn’t need to stay unique to Houston.

The people of Texas need your help. If you can’t get here to help directly, there are lots of organizations doing amazing work on the ground (such as the Houston Food Bank) which need your support.

Two of my favorite organizations in Houston have always been Catholic Charities and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Galveston-Houston due to their long-term commitment to serving the most marginalized in the greater Houston area, regardless of creed, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, political party, socioeconomic status, or color. These are both doing vital work for people in some of Houston’s most desperate situations.

Other charities you might consider donating to can be found here. But the lesson of Harvey should not be to just send your money to the victims you see on TV. It should be to love one another preemptively – to recognize as your neighbor those strangers you pass by each and every day, and to serve. It shouldn’t take a hurricane to get us there.

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