HOUSTON, TX – For most people, the weeks between June 1st and November 30th do not inspire terror. Time for vacations, barbecues, swimming, outdoor family time, a gradual transition to autumn, kids go back to school, leaves change color, so do wardrobes, Halloween, football, Thanksgiving.
Not so for us. This is hurricane season. Six months of waiting and watching. While others are packing for their dream trips, we’re picking up our “Hurricane Survival Guides,” published by every local TV station and supermarket, and checking off batteries, water, non-perishables, medicines, generators, charcoal, tarps, extra cash. Granted we’re not paralyzed by fear, and life does go on, but we are vigilant, watching the Atlantic, and especially the Gulf, hoping for the best and expecting the worst.
So the week of August 21st shouldn’t have been a surprise. But it was. On that Monday (Aug. 21), the first day of classes, we gathered on the lawn of our new science building, ate moon pies, listened to a brief explanation of what was about to happen, donned our nerd glasses, and gazed through telescopes to watch 2/3 of the sun disappear in the middle of the day.
How cool was that! People from the neighborhood joined us. We quickly ran out of the 600 glasses we had ordered, but we shared with everyone. Two little girls dressed as Disney princesses kept their eyes down while I put my glasses on them and guided their excited faces upward. What does one wear for an astronomical extravaganza like this anyway? And then we went to class. We gave out syllabi and explained how fabulous our courses are and what a privilege it is. . .YaddaYaddaYadda.
On Wednesday, the weather guys get serious. That little disturbance in the Gulf we had ignored has pretensions to something greater. I go to the supermarket after class and already there is no water. Thursday morning, my workout consists of moving everything from the patio to the garage.
I remind my freshmen to listen to campus alerts, the syllabus will be revised based on the weather, and we will fight the Trojan War a little later. My graduate students are more sanguine, but not by much. The new university president announces that classes will end at noon on Friday and resume on Monday (Aug. 28). He’s never been through a hurricane before. I go back to the supermarket and buy three pallets of bottled water.
Friday is dreary but nothing special. And then, in the middle of the night, which magnifies the fear exponentially, Harvey hits. The wind is powerful enough that I lose power intermittently throughout the night. Harvey makes landfall in Corpus Christi, devastates Rockport, and is now wreaking havoc in Houston and the surrounding communities.
By Sunday morning, my best friend’s garage has five feet of water. Her house, on the other hand, is okay because, after two floods in 2015 and 2016 destroyed everything, it was elevated to prevent a third disaster. Unfortunately, her son did not follow suit.
My daughter is about 45 minutes away, but the major road between us is already flooded. So I have my hurricane adventure alone. I have power, thank goodness. I watch the news and, when I can’t take much more, I binge-watch everything I don’t have time for during the academic year: Ray Donovan, The Path, The Handmaid’s Tale – real thigh-slappers, I know. I’m reading: The Iliad, The Merchant of Venice, Stephen King. You must think I need to be rescued before I lose it completely. I’m okay. I also have plenty of wine and chocolate.
A friend who lives in an exclusive high-rise has been without water and power for days. Two colleagues have lost everything. One has a teenage son who struggles with depression. He’s having a really hard time. The 82-year old mother of another colleague waits 18 hours, 12 of them in her attic, to be rescued. A family from church has been forced to evacuate. Yesterday, their neighborhood barely had any rain. The unpredictability of this thing adds to the stress.
Helicopters hover overhead. Sirens scream down the streets. Police. Fire. Ambulances. All the hospitals in Sugar Land are closed. The closest one is up the freeway, which is flooded.
The Sunday NY Times arrives on Tuesday.
I’m receiving phone calls and texts from family and friends around the country. From friends around town. Everyone is worried about everyone else, and we are all helpless to do anything. We are cautioned to stay indoors if we have no reason to be otherwise.
First responders have come from all over the country to help our own. I bet you see what I see on TV – citizen-responders wading through high water, deploying fishing boats, kayaks, and inflatable rafts to rescue stranded neighbors and strangers. Unfortunately, you see the scammers and looters who emerge from the swamps of humanity to prey on the desperate among us as well. But the heroism and resilience of everyone else affected by Harvey overshadows them.
On Wednesday (Aug. 31), the sun comes out. My subdivision is surrounded by water on three sides, but the sun is shining, and it feels like a breezy fall day. I take pictures and send them to my grandsons to reassure them that Yiayia is okay. I don’t tell them that the Brazos River to my south has crested and a mandatory evacuation has been ordered; that Harvey is moving north and east; that people are being rescued even as the sun dries their flooded homes; that bodies of the missing are being recovered. I call my Koumbara in Alexandria, LA to check on them as the storm moves in their direction.
Tropical Storm Irma is in the Atlantic.
It’s Thursday. I have serious cabin fever, so I take a walk around the neighborhood. I wonder how far I will get. At the foot of my drive is today’s Houston Chronicle. The headlines are no surprise – grim statistics for rescues, recoveries, power outages, fires, new floods and evacuations.
This thing is relentless. I walk down the street and visit with two neighbors who emerged from the storm unscathed. Someone has lined up three plastic jack-o-lanterns to catch water, a primitive water gauge. In their wildest dreams, kids will never get this much Halloween candy. At the corner, I am confronted by a sight I did not expect.
The street is under at least eight inches of water, down from much more if the water marks on the driveways are any indication. Three helicopters circle above me. I follow the path I used to take with my dog, and all I see are more flooded streets and people clearing debris. But everyone stops to chat, to check on one another. Natural disasters do that to people. They bring us to our knees, and then they raise us to levels of decency and kindness, no matter race, religion, ethnicity, age, gender. I hope you’re seeing that on TV, too.
Irma has been upgraded to a Cat 4 Hurricane.
It’s been a week. The water has receded in the neighborhood. My supermarket has restocked shelves but rations milk and eggs. We drive into Houston, and if I didn’t know what I know, Hurricane Harvey never happened. Streets are dry; there are no fallen tree limbs; people are riding bikes and walking dogs. Nothing but sunshine. And then we turn a corner into the twilight zone. Traffic lights are flashing. Front lawns look like giant dumpsters. People wearing boots and gloves are standing with hands on hips, bewildered, robotically dragging their lives out to the esplanades.
It’s been a week, and each day I have cried a little – for the devastating losses, for the unflinching heroism, for the unparalleled generosity, for the endless frustration, for the overwhelming sadness, for the unsurpassed dignity.
Today, I baked bread for my neighborhood firefighters as a thank you, and my graduate assistant gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
Welcome to Houston, Henry.