“Are you dry?”
It sounds like such a simple question, but for the last five days it has been the euphemistic way of asking “How much water is in your house?”
Six days ago I joked with students and colleagues about the coming storm. We moved here two years ago from Indiana, immediately following the Memorial Day floods that froze the city. The October that we moved here we experienced ten inches of rain in one day when a hurricane hit Mexico and we received the rainy remnants. The following April we woke up early in the morning to water on our kitchen and office floor during what would become known as the “Tax Day Flood.” My husband pumped water out of our backyard and I started the process of putting towels on the floor, spinning them in the washer, and starting all over again. Then Memorial Day weekend my sister and brother-in-law witnessed the power of southeast Texas rainstorms while they helped us pump water towards our street to alleviate the flooding in our next door neighbor’s house.
But nothing prepared us for Harvey.
When I got the notification that school was cancelled on Friday, I questioned the decision. After all, there was no rain and everything appeared to be fine. I drove to school and got papers that I had intended to grab when we had school on Friday because I had already been planning on not having school on Monday. I finally found water and the last couple supplies that I still felt we needed for a couple days cooped up inside. We went out as a family and filled all of our propane tanks and kept adding to the list of necessary supplies, making a final stop at our camper to make sure we had EVERYTHING that we needed. That night we settled in to watch Harvey make landfall down the Texas Gulf Coast, near where we went camping last Thanksgiving. We watched the reporters fight against wind and rain and waited for the rains to fall here.
We woke up to a vacillation between sprinkling and steady rain. The 24-hour local news cycle began with footage of the destruction that Harvey left behind, cities and towns along the coast that were destroyed by a direct hit and the pouring rain from the incredibly slow moving hurricane. Harvey was moving at a snail’s pace, playing with his victims’ emotions, reveling in the destruction left behind. I got in a short mile run in the morning and then got in another mile run in the afternoon while my daughter had piano lessons. I ran around puddles formed from occasional showers and returned from both runs wet, but not soaked. Once again we settled in for another night of weather watching. Emails and texts came in canceling school for Monday and Tuesday and then an announcement canceling church for Sunday morning. But for two days if felt like those of us in the greater Houston area were in this holding pattern, a strange calm before the storm. The reports were bad, but it was hard to believe that it could be THAT bad. We had seen heavy rains before, and while I was afraid we would wake up to water in our kitchen again, I was certain the flood waters would be far away.
I woke up around 4 AM and came downstairs to check our kitchen. Everything appeared to be ok so I went back to bed. Three to four hours later, I came downstairs to discover water on our kitchen floor and water up to our back door. So began the cycle of heavy rains, pumping water from our backyard to the street in front of our house to prevent water from coming into the back office door, and walking around our neighborhood to check any potential flood points, getting drenched in the process despite rain coats and rain boots. When I sat down to watch our senior pastor attempt a livestream devotion from his house (in the end, his family ended up with about six feet of water in their house), the reality of what we would be facing slowly took shape. By mid-day Sunday, school was cancelled for the week. Our eyes were glued to the 24-hour local news cycle. New weather maps, new pictures, new flooding announcements. We watched a lone field reporter carry the local CBS station newsfeed while the rest of her colleagues evacuated their flooding studio. While it was just her and a cameraman, we watched as she got help to a truck driver who had attempted to drive through rising waters.
And the rain kept falling.
Eventually my husband and a friend decided to venture out and see just how high the water was around our neighborhood. It was then that we discovered just how close we were to one of the rising creeks, which was creeping up on the road on the other end of our block. The power went out after I put the kids in bed but while our daughter was still reading in her bedroom. She tried to carefully come downstairs to ask what happened but I grabbed her a flashlight and sent her back upstairs. We set up our propane powered generator and plugged in our deep freeze, our refrigerator, and our television so we could continue to keep track of the news. Yes, I confess that we also sought escape in the season finale of Game of Thrones, but then we were right back to the news, watching the storm SLOWLY move off of the map. Around midnight our son woke up to a dark house and I sent him back to bed with another flashlight. We stayed up until almost 2 AM, waiting for our generator powered pump to push more water from our back patio to the street and for the rain to slow to the first trickle we had seen in 48 hours. The power turned back on around 4:30 and I got up to turn off lights and attempt a couple more hours of sleep.
On Monday we woke up to a steady rain and I insisted that we check out our neighborhood. Less than 1/2 mile east of us, at least one block was completely flooded, 1/2 mile south of us Cypress Creek continued to climb, and 1/2 west of us Cypress Creek had turned one of our main streets into a several mile long river.
And the rain kept falling.
We nervously watched water levels, praying that it would stop, thankful that we were still dry, helpless because there was nothing we could do to stop the rising water, feeling guilty because we were dry and our neighbors weren’t.
On Tuesday I headed to our church to volunteer in any way that I could, sorting clothes for two hours and discovering just how impractical women’s clothing is, especially in a disaster situation. When I headed back out to get the brand new underwear and socks that our organizers were asking for, I took the kids out so they could finally see what we had been sheltering them from for days. I stood in line at Chick-Fil-A and talked to fellow Houstonians while my children stretched their legs in the play area. Everyone had a different story and we were all trying to get a taste of normalcy. But even eating at a fast food restaurant that hadn’t had a supply truck in four days was a reality check. The manager kept apologizing for their limited choices and told me that they had more supplies than they had the day before because they had raided their store about five miles south which, at the time, still had three feet of water in it. No apology was necessary. We were all just happy they were open and we could get out of our homes.
As we walked around our neighborhood yesterday afternoon, before hosting friends who still didn’t have power and who needed to finish off some defrosting food, we saw our first rays of sunshine in days. It was a literal light at the end of the tunnel.
Before Harvey moved on to bother Louisiana, he bullied fifty one counties in Southeast Texas and over 40% of the entire Texas population. He brought Category 3 hurricane winds that destroyed structures just north of Corpus Christi. He brought tornados that dropped in and out all around us and the surrounding counties. And he brought rain. So. Much. Rain. The most single storm rainfall in U.S. history.
Personally, I hate natural disasters. I could never live in Southern California because earthquakes scare me almost as much as the high cost of living. Tornados terrified me long before I watched Twister. If I ever visit a place with a volcano, you better believe I will be checking that volcanic activity non-stop in the months before we land.
And yet I sit here very thankful that my family is alive, together, and we are still safe, all the while knowing that we were lucky that the eye of Harvey landed significantly south of us and knowing that by dumb luck, we bought the house that we did. (The first house we put an offer on before we moved down here has been flooded twice now.) I know that next time we might not be so lucky, and yet I’m not ready to run away.
Why? Because I have seen the best in humanity over the last five days as well. Neighbor helping neighbor, stranger helping stranger, people just doing what needs to be done. Our church kept putting out calls for supplies and within hours, sometimes less than that, changing the list because those needs had been met. I signed up to volunteer and haven’t gotten a spot because they are taken within seconds. I know that as life returns to normal, some of that goodwill with wane, as it does with any disaster. But I also want people to know that the Houston they have seen on the news is the Houston that we have come to know and love. People haven’t come together just because they need each other to survive. They have come together because, generally, that is what people here do.
The Gulf Coast will rebuild and it will recover. I just pray that others will continue to see the good in humanity that this storm has shown us.
Note, if you want places to donate, please use one of the following links:
Our church, Trinity Lutheran. Click on “Give” and then “Hurricane Harvey” – https://www.trinityklein.org
Houston LINC works with area churches to minister to the most disadvantaged in the Houston area – http://linchouston.org/relief
Lutheran World Relief is highly recognized for all of their work worldwide and will make sure that funds are directed towards the counties that need it most when they need it most. Remember, 51 Texas counties were affected by this storm – https://lwr.org