Standing in line at the grocery store yesterday, two women in front of me were discussing their Harvey experiences. One woman concluded with a wave, “I guess we all have our stories.” She’s right. This one is mine.
I was born and raised in Houston. Fewer than 10 years of my life have been spent anywhere other than Houston, and I have never left the State of Texas for more than 3 months. Hurricanes are not new to me. The first hurricane I can remember clearly was Alicia, and I recall lying in my mother’s bed, listening to the eerie silence when the eye of the storm passed directly overhead. There have been others, so many others: Danielle, Alicia, Jerry, Rita, Ike.
Even before Alicia, my first experience with hurricanes was Allen. My family and I were in Corpus Christi; I was a toddler, and this was shortly before my grandfather passed. My grandfather loved to fish, and I can remember we were standing on the pier, fishing, and my parents were wondering why we were alone on the pier and why the water was so rough. For whatever reason, my parents had no idea a hurricane was approaching imminently. We still laugh about that one. Other hurricanes were painful. Rita was when I discovered my first marriage was a sham. But Ike was the worst. My father died unexpectedly the night Ike showed up. Nine years later, I’m still not okay.
Harvey was different. I don’t know if it’s because Harvey sat and stayed and didn’t just pass through like the other hurricanes, or if it was because this time I was solely responsible for two lives that were not my own. Either way, Harvey felt (and still feels) different.
The neighborhood I live in, Meyerland, has made the national news on two different occasions in the last couple years by being completely inundated with flood waters. Harvey was the third, and worst, flood. The neighborhood is almost entirely within a 100-year floodplain, and due to several issues that local residents are familiar with, is prone to extreme flooding. During a regular, garden-variety heavy rainstorm, my street floods. Not excessively, but enough that you wouldn’t want to drive in it. I lost a car during the Memorial Day flood. My house is raised significantly off the street, so I knew that my house wouldn’t flood with Harvey. But just about everyone in Meyerland knew that, at best, Harvey was going to flood us in again. Sadly, we also all knew how to prepare; however, interestingly, there’s very little you can do for your property ahead of time.
My mother, who lives less than a mile from me, tried to protect her house by filling trash bags with kitty litter and placing them in front of the doors. The water entered through the weep holes of the house and soaked every exterior wall and all of the flooring. She, like so many others, is now essentially homeless, while the demolition and reconstruction of her home proceeds. She is lucky. There was no standing water in her house, she did not require a rescue, and she knows that she can live with me for as long as it takes. I wonder what it’s like for those displaced who do not have a place to stay. One of my neighbors is renting out his garage apartment to a single mother who lost everything.
Driving in my neighborhood now, street after street after street is lined with the detritus of flooded houses. Furniture, bookcases, pianos, artwork, carpet, wood flooring, and layers of shredded sheetrock form piles taller than the humans that created them. It’s heartbreaking. You see an upended sofa and you just know that someone sat on it to relax after a long day, or shooed a dog off of it, or admonished the kids not to sit on it with their Gatorade. In other words, life happened, and that piece of someone’s life is now destroyed and sitting out on the street, abandoned.
Thankfully, these are all things. Things that may or may not be replaceable, but they are simply things. The loss of life accompanying Harvey is unimaginable. Today was the day the city of Houston held the funeral for the police officer killed during the storm. I can barely read the local headline summaries about the funeral procession, and I didn’t even know the man. Nor can I read the stories of devastation in the Caribbean and Florida. At a certain point, it becomes meaningless to compare disasters. Statisticians and economists will make their calculations based on square feet and dollars, but the personal cost remains incalculable.
Maybe the hardest question to answer is why did this happen? Is the explanation religious or scientific? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Whether the widespread destruction is a divine condemnation of society for not following religious precepts, or whether it is the consequences of interfering with nature, it’s irrelevant. The one thing we can learn that is common to any explanation of why is that we need to start treating each other better. Racial issues were forgotten as Houstonians helped one another escape the rising water, without regard to skin color. It shouldn’t take a major catastrophe to meet your neighbors and share food with them. It shouldn’t take the near destruction of a city or a town to make us focus on the facts that life is precious and things are replaceable.
More than two weeks later, street lights are still out, and despite the loss of nearly half a million cars and the fact that so many people are still unable to return to work or school, traffic is inexplicably far worse than before Harvey. It feels different, though. People seem more willing to give allowances for delays. Road rage seems to have quieted. Long lines at the grocery store are now an opportunity to chat with the person in front of you rather than roll eyes at the holdup. Everyone seems to be listening to each other better. These and so many other positives are happening regularly in Harvey’s wake. I can only hope they continue.
Featured image by kakela: Flickr.