Saturday, September 2, 2017

When Harvey Met Houston

Scott D. Parker

I have the happy ending.

That is the fact you must know before you go any further. For all the details I relate in this post, there are thousands of folks like me who did not have the happy ending. It is for them my heart breaks and my eyes fill with tears.

SATURDAY, 26 August

When I woke a week ago today, my thoughts were on the folks down in Rockport. They withstood 140 MPH winds as Harvey ran ashore. For us in Houston, it was a gray day. We had prepared our house the previous day, so Saturday was a day of waiting. The rains started overnight (6 inches by 9am Saturday) and no one knew if the hurricane proper would meander up Highway 59 to Houston. Many stores closed around noon. We stayed home, satisfied our craving for a hamburger by grilling under the over hang of my house (it was raining of course), and just waited. The rain started.
By 9:00pm, I measured the bucket I was using as a rain gauge. It read 12 inches. So that was 12 inches in approximately 24 hours. I had made a few sandbags I used to divert some of the water away from our patio. That probably saved water from getting into our house.
We went to bed with the constant sound of rain. Overnight, my wife and I took alternating shifts. We woke up every two hours and checked outside. Still raining. Hard. Even when your shift was over and it was time to return to sleep, sleep was hard to come by, especially when every cell phone in the house would buzz with tornado warnings.

SUNDAY, 27 August

We woke to rain. It hadn’t stopped at all. I checked my rain bucket at 7:45 am. It read 12 inches. That was 12 inches since the previous night at 9pm. Total so far: 24 inches.
The rain slackened sometime through the day but never stopped completely. My son and I trekked out of our house for some scouting around, specifically at the bridge to our north.
I live south of Buffalo Bayou about half a mile. The two reservoirs y’all heard about are to my west (Barker) and northwest (Addicks). We are downstream. The bridge over Dairy Ashford has a depth meter, but I wanted to see the water in person. I wasn’t alone. Lots of folks were seeing what Harvey had brung to our neck of the woods. In west Houston, the Buffalo Bayou is a hiking/biking park with paved walkways and wide open stretches on the north side. The distance fluctuates but I’d say there is about 30-50 yards in many places from the north bank to the first line of homes. On the south, much less.
The rain had lessened, but never quit. The height of the water had reached the bottom of the bridge and the cement arch that ran across it. My favorite do-nut store, Shipley’s, had taken on about 8-12 inches of water. Dairy Ashford was blocked by water just north of the bridge.

 Even the roaches sought protection.

We were mainlining local TV coverage, KPRC, our local NBC affiliate, was our resource. In addition, there is an excellent local weather site, SpaceCityWeather, which features a couple of guys, one of which used to work for the Houston Chronicle. They were invaluable not only for their clear-headed forecasts but also because they were caught in the middle of it, too. They weren’t holed up in some bunker somewhere. When they were pessimistic, you knew to be worried. It was the worry and uncertainty that knifes through you. I carry stress in the back of my neck and upper back. By Sunday, those places hurt.
The rains started again and went for the rest of the day. By midnight, blessedly, the rain had completely stopped. The only sounds were the drips of water. It was blessedly silent. I checked my rain gauge. A new 10 inches, for a total of 34 inches. Maybe it was over. Still, the wife and I took shifts through the night. I had the 3am shift.

MONDAY, 28 August

Surprisingly, I woke at 6am to mostly silence. It didn’t last long. The rain started up again. I checked the perimeter of my house, picking up branches and shoveling mud to make it easier for water to flow. I even dug a couple of small trenches to get the water away from the house. But the rain was unrelenting. In seeing the radar images on the TV, you get the point of thinking: If the rain would just stop, the water would have a chance to do its natural thing and drain away. But the rain never stopped. That knife in the back of my neck twisted a little, but it was nothing like the evening announcement.
The Harris County Flood Control District, in communication with the Army Corps of Engineers, held a press conference. In it, they said the two reservoirs to the west of Houston, the Addicks and the Barker, were full. The fact was mind boggling. You can see in images just how big those things are. And they were full? And the Addicks was starting to overspill. They made the gut wrenching decision to open the dams and start draining the reservoirs. If they didn’t, there could possibly be a need for an emergency release. Or worse. I think you know what ‘worse’ is. The water flows into Buffalo Bayou. Yes, the bayou would rise. When a reporter asked a particular question, the answer was unambiguous: yes, houses that were dry up to that point [and had survived the hurricane’s rains] would be flooded.
Yeah, really.
I’m geek enough to admit that the famous line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan drifted into my mind: The needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few. When you see it in a movie, it’s a cool line. When the possibility that you might be in the few, that’s something else entirely.
That knife in my neck grew white hot. I literally felt it turn. My stomach dropped. My wife and I looked at each other, and it was a look only spouses know. Now what? At the time, they had no way to know exactly where the water would go, but it had to go somewhere. Like many around me, I frantically searched for information on the internet about elevation and distance from the bayou. The distance from my house to the lowest bend of the bayou was half a mile, about 3700 feet. My elevation—another fact I didn’t know before Monday—was 12 feet higher than the southern bank of the bayou that was already overflowing. It was now we had to make the call: stay or go? If we went, what do we take?
By this time, my neighborhood Facebook group—which, up until this past weekend was devoted primarily to play days and pool gatherings—was in high gear. One of the dads posted the neighborhood directly to our north, across an east/west road called Briar Forest, was flooding. Now, I’m a fiction writer so when I hear the word “flooding,” I start with Noah and work my way backward.
I drove north and assessed the situation. The back (northern) part of the other subdivision was underwater. Someone had put a brick to mark the water line. I could still see the brick. I checked two other north/south roads and marked their water lines. I came back home. With other information gleaned from the internet and other sources, we prepped the house just in case. I looked at the map and the topography of the area and began to think of just how much water needed to fill a sizable area in order for it to reach our garage door. It was a vast amount of space. And the water I’d seen was flowing north and east, away from our house. We decided to stay and took shifts again.

TUESDAY, 29 August

People ask me all the time why I’m so happy in the mornings. It’s because I woke up, something not guaranteed when you go to sleep. I woke on Tuesday morning, still to the sound of rain, but in my house. I smiled and immediately said a thank you prayer. I rode my bike and checked the water lines. Slight increase, but more or less holding steady. But they hadn’t opened the dams to full capacity yet. I rode to the nearest intersection to the Dairy Ashford bridge and couldn’t believe what I saw: Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel. Aw, crap! He never goes anywhere good.
In talking with my Facebook group and other neighbors and newly minted friends, most folks didn’t think the water would get as far south as my house. The government officials, too, issued an image of the extent they expected the flooding to get. My house still stood to the south of that line. It didn’t make Tuesday any better.
But by Tuesday afternoon, the winds had shifted, the rain had stopped, and blue sky peeked out from behind the clouds. As I wrote on Facebook, it wasn’t a rainbow, but it was darn close. Then the sun broke through. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one whose eyes filled with tears.
I hadn’t heard from all my friends and family, but I heard from some who had fled, some who had stayed, and some who got flooded. All the while, we stayed dry. 
 Michael Ciaglo‏ on Twitter on Tuesday said it all: Maybe the best sunset Houston has ever seen, or needed #Harvey

After midnight on Tuesday, I sat in my reading chair, a wing back, stiff alcoholic drink on the bookshelf next to me. I sipped maybe twice and fell asleep in the chair.

WEDNESDAY, 30 Aug to FRIDAY, 1 Sept

Time has a way of scraping by when there is nothing but dread in your mind. The water appeared to be staying away, but more reports of friends started coming in. My Sunday School teacher’s house was flooded although he had safely evacuated. A trumpet player in the church jazz band/orchestra had three feet of water in his house. A member of my book club had to evacuate by boat, but his second story apartment was fine. Others were fine, like us. Now, my section of west Houston had no way of going north, but the southern paths were open. To give you an idea: if I wanted to get to Interstate 10, just a couple miles north of me, I would have to go 9 miles to the east or 16 to the west.
Each morning, the first thing I did was check the water lines. Both mornings had less water, but not very much. Everyone’s new best friend, Jeff Lindner of the Harris County Flood Control District, was a steady rock of unambiguous information.  He was typically up past midnight answering Twitter questions and dispelling rumors, specifically on whether or not the dams would fail. He knew his words would affect people's lives, and he delivered the news in a clear, straight-forward manner. By his own admission, he had been at the office a week and slept maybe 7 hours the entire time.
He had the bad luck to tell people that their homes would flood. By Friday, he had the unenviable position of having to tell folks whose homes flooded as a result of the dam release that the flood waters would not recede for 10-15 days. Ten to fifteen days out of your house. Get your mind around that. Oh, and it would take three months (!) to drain the reservoirs provided it didn’t rain. We are in the heart of hurricane season and about to start autumn, a wet time here in Houston. You can do the math. Just imagine: it’ll take until Thanksgiving for the reservoirs to drain.

As I write this, around 8pm on Friday, the situation is still dicey. There’s a voluntary evacuation notice for folks living in a large rectangle with Briar Forest as the southern border. The reason is the officials don’t want folks to hunker down in a second floor of a house for two weeks with no way to get out.  The two Kroger grocery stores near me are open but with certain staples like bread, milk, eggs, and produce down. In one of the moments that made me chuckle, when I went to stock up on things I missed last week, many heads of cabbage still remained. I guess some folks don’t know what to do with cabbage.
Oh, and the internet is out at my house. At least it didn’t go out during the storm.

I have many things that’ll be hard to forget:
The sound of Coast Guard helicopters flying overhead.
The idea that there were children who were excited about starting school on 28 August having purchased all their needed school supplies and new clothes…and it’s all gone. And maybe their school is, too.
The idea that the parents of those children could do nothing to stop the rain or the flood waters from rising and taking away all they owned.
So many other stories you’ve likely already read or heard.
The emotions that overflowed me and my wife when we watched Lester Holt on Monday as he came to my hometown to report on this catastrophe. There’s something about a national presence that brings a different perspective.

But there are also all the stories of true heroism.
The heroism of our first responders was remarkable. The first truly memorable photo is this one showing Houston Police SWAT officer Daryl Hudeck as he carries Catherine Pham and her 13-month-old child.

Then there was Brandi Smith, the KHOU reporter, who helped save a man’s life. [LINK}

The heroism of the citizens with boats was also remarkable and not surprising. It’s just what people do. The idea that the Cajun Navy saw the need, hitched the trailers and boats to trucks, and hauled ass to Houston to help complete strangers. It’s just what people do.
The heroism (although he doesn’t like that term) of local furniture salesman Jim McIngvale who opened his showroom for survivors, not caring about the cost. Because it was the right decision.
The heroism of Mayor Sylvester Turner and Judge Ed Emmitt. They led us in a dire situation with steady calm.The same goes for Police Chief Art Acevedo who would also speak in Spanish so those folks could understand the issues.
The heroism of Officer Steve Perez who tried to drive to his station to help but got caught in the floods and drowned.
The heroism of our local media who stayed at their posts the entire time. Without them, we’d be in the dark and even more scared than we were.
The devotion of local officials like Jeff Lindner who stayed at their jobs when their own homes were being threatened or flooded because it was the right thing to do.
The heroism of the volunteers who came to the rescue of their fellow people.
The sight of the police cruisers from San Antonio and Fort Worth who came to town, sirens blaring and lights flashing, to take over and allow our local police officers a respite. It swelled the heart and made the eyes well up.

The hashtag #HoustonStrong has already made the rounds. Yes, it’s a hashtag, but it’s also the truth. We are a strong folk down here. We will rebuild, but Harvey has likely changed us. It brought to the fore what most of us already knew: Houston is a great place to live, with fantastic people, fantastic food, and fantastic culture. It is a melting pot of peoples from around the world. Out here in the Energy Corridor, you can go to parks and hear five or six languages spoken. We all came together this week for this unprecedented event. I want HoustonStrong to be emblazoned on everything and seared into our memories. When Harvey unleashed its worse, Houston stood up and showed its best.
They say that 1 trillion (here, let me show you the number: 1,000,000,000,000) gallons of water fell in four days here. You can look up the statistics of what that equals. The one that clicked home is that is the amount of water gushing over Niagara Falls in two weeks. We got it in 96 hours. Staggering.
 I heard a man on the local news who was then driving a boat to help people say something that pretty much sums it all up: There’s more love here in Houston than water.

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