I texted my oldest friend to see if he was ok.
He lives in Texas.
The floods had been on my mind since the beginning of last week. I had meant to send the message on Friday. I don’t know what stopped me. Actually, I do know what stopped me, but it’s uncomfortable to explain the how and why of some things when they point out that your thoughts are conflicted. What stopped me was the desire to not be a bother when they could be in the middle of a dangerous situation or in the process of avoiding one.
I could picture my imposition clearly. I practically scripted vignettes. Then I filmed them in my head. Then I replayed them.
Jason, my friend, baseball cap pulled low, two-day stubble, dark shadows under the eyes, shouting and receiving instructions with his wife and the kids, trying to load up belongings and the dog so they can get to somewhere safe. Or, April, his wife, holding the hood of her rain jacket and telling the kids to stay inside so she and Jason can finish checking to make the house is watertight. And there, in the middle of lashing something down, or trying to hear a question, or something else equally urgent, there would be my message interrupting.
So, I didn’t send a text on Friday.
I waited until Saturday, and felt foolish before and after I sent the text.
With all of the news devoted to Hurricane Harvey it’s easy to start worrying. The events surrounding the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina are a fresh memory. The water swallowing the streets like a river before climbing the sides of buildings and houses.
Video loops of desperate families leaning out of windows, climbing onto the roof to scrawl messages listing the number of people inside. Elderly couples huddled in the rain while helicopters hovered above. Cars, bodies and all manner of garbage floating in a grimy sludge.
But the recollection is interrupted by my friend replying that they are safe. “Hey bro. Ya we’re good. Just windy & rainy but ain’t bad.”
And, for a moment there is an end. Despite a day or more of procrastination, I’ve done the check-in and now I know everything and everyone is OK.
Of course they are, because I finally remembered that they live near San Antonio and the storm was moving East toward Houston, the targeted destination.
For the rest of Saturday and Sunday I check the news. The storm besieges Houston. Torrential rain and winds scream at 73 mph according to some reports. Reporters broadcasting from the ground look miserable despite shell jackets and hoods drawn tight. Every framed shot includes trees or another device to demonstrate the force of the wind or rain.
By Tuesday a levee has broken. Video footage from helicopters shows suburban developments submerged, property fences are inches from disappearing below the water and rafts and boats continue trolling for the next rescue. Over 2,000 have been pulled from the waters or helped from a submerged residence. Eight have died. A veteran officer among those counted, killed while driving into work had argued with his wife about going in and would not relent that his reason was “this was in his DNA.”
Common sense began to kick in. A simple search reveals that not only is Houston 197 miles north and east of San Antonio, but that the home of the Alamo is 650 feet in elevation and Houston is a mere 47. Simply put, flood waters 197 miles away and 650 feet below don’t really affect cities by the Gulf of Mexico. Thank you internet. Thank you distancesto.com.
But, now the attention returns to the source of the news stories.
Houston is drowning. Over 3,000 people were rescued on Monday. Tuesday is almost over and 9,200 people are staying in the George R. Brown convention center in downtown Houston. The Addicks Reservoir is spilling over its gates and the Barker Reservoir is expected to do the same on Wednesday. Nearby rivers are already swollen. The rural and suburban homes are in danger from the overflowing rivers, the overspilling dams and the unrelenting rain.
In January and February of 1997 an El Niño system moved through California with a force and fury that drenched the Golden State. Late-night talk show hosts couldn’t stop blaming things on El Niño. I was living in the San Joaquin Valley at the time. This wasn’t a hurricane like Harvey or Katrina, but a depression of rain that swirled and sat on top of the valley and filled it like a trough. The rainwater filled the San Joaquin Delta and the surrounding irrigation canals to the brim.
Then a levee broke. Waters were already swelling the 205 freeway that brought commuters from the valley out to San Jose and San Francisco every morning and then carried them home in the afternoon and evening. You could see it lapping an inch below the freeway during the moments when traffic came to a standstill and there was a moment to look around at the rising water and the low-hanging fog that kept the headlights on cars running day and night.
When the levee broke, the waters spilled down and onto the farm lands that were the breadbasket industry for the surrounding towns and the entire county. Leaving the 205 to reach I-5 I passed the homes of classmates and teammates, and those homes were surrounded by an impassive sludge. I saw one classmate talking to the news about filling sand bags at his place. When they were done they would check with neighbors and then friends to see if they needed sand bags for their places.
At that time I lived within a few short miles of these people. But I felt separated from all of them by the threat of the water. It was growing closer to overtaking the roads, the homes — my parents home. It was changing the way I was thinking. I thought I could see it on the faces of others too.
Hurricane Harvey is already changing the way scientists, government offices, media and the public understand the classifications we use for hurricanes, tropical storms and depressions, and flooding. Predictions are already stretching the duration of flooding to weeks and maybe months. From 1,900 miles away Harvey looks like a state hovering above a city and its suburbs and rural communities.
When mankind faces the elements head on there is always a sacrifice. The people of Houston are facing a giant in the shape of a storm. Only the actions of the willing and the unselfish will make the difference. Only the fearless can face down a giant.