HOUSTON – “We are way overdue,” my friend Alison said a few weeks ago, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up in agreement. If you have lived in Houston long enough, as I have, you know that big storms come with the territory. I can trace much of my history through weather crises – Carla (1961), Alicia (1983), Allison (2001), the Katrina/Rita combo (2005), Ike (2008), and now Harvey, which looks to be the worst yet.
We missed the wind here – the coastal towns of my childhood vacations are in tatters – but we have water like no one has ever seen. Earlier this summer, I looked into buying a generator (a must-have for hurricane geeks), but now I think I should have bought a flat-bottomed boat and motor. As I write, two friends have lost their homes. The freeways that keep this city moving are underwater. People are stranded on rooftops with tornadoes forecast (“Stay out of your attic” seems to be the advice of this half-hour). The National Guard is on the way. And the rain continues.
In the days leading up to when Harvey hit, I was busy following the rules, but like most Texans, I was pretty sure the situation was being, well, overblown by the media. At 9:30 Thursday morning, I bought the only water left at Target – it had a pink label and was marked extra pure for babies – and stocked up on ice, snacks like graham crackers and pretzels, and C and D batteries for the lanterns and flashlights left over from previous storms.
I did this not because I thought anything would really happen, but because I was procrastinating on a writing project. This made me feel as though I was accomplishing something. People started canceling weekend parties “just in case,” which always happens with heavy rains here and is generally a big relief.
As the hours passed, I watched as Harvey’s bands of rain came closer and closer on the TV weather maps, and began experiencing the marriage of social media and climate change. “Kroger on 11th is open and has water!” my neighborhood website, NextDoor, reported. “Is Target open this a.m.?” someone else asked. “I just realized I am out of toilet paper.”
Then, as Harvey neared the coast, television weather reporters started using words like “catastrophic,” “multiple threats” and “life-threatening.” These terms had not, in my memory, been used in the past.
“This is Dr. Erika Navarro’s moment,” my husband said of the comely Weather Channel Wellesley graduate who has been on 24/7. In this era of so-called fake news, I had a bad feeling she was giving it to me straight, and headed back to the grocery store. The checkout line had the feel of the last days of Saigon, even though, at times, the sun was occasionally peeking out from behind the clouds.
I made a quick trip to the emergency room for my husband’s kidney stone on Thursday, before Harvey made landfall. Traffic was light. No waiting. It was like a holiday, when all the workers were anxious to get out to do their own last-minute shopping.
Things got worse when our governor, Greg Abbott, who is a climate-change skeptic, and Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, who is not, issued contradictory orders over whether or not Houstonians should evacuate. The ongoing war between Texas’s blue cities and our red-state government was continuing apace, even in time of disaster. Those of us who hit the road to escape Hurricane Rita in 2005 – and spent nine hours trapped on the highway – knew better than to follow Abbott’s advice, anyway.
Abbott also announced that he was suspending the occupancy tax at all Texas hotels and motels. But at a news conference Saturday, when asked about reports that people assumed to be undocumented immigrants were being turned away from shelters if they couldn’t show proof of citizenship, our empathy-challenged leader responded by saying, “I don’t know about that.” Only later did he decide he did know, after all, and no one would be turned away.
The real rain started Saturday night, just as we were finishing dinner. Suddenly, it was as though we were living near the Niagara Falls, the roar of the water was so loud. With it went my sense of humor, as over the next few hours, our house was pounded by the downpour. NextDoor was soon filled with posts from people asking for sandbags and help for the stranded.
“This is going to be a fairly mild tornado,” was the warning on television news Sunday morning – not all that reassuringly since we were still urged to take cover.
“We’ve already registered with FEMA,” said my friend Amy, whose house was just flooded, for the third time.
At least no one is checking for ID. Yet.
The New York Times