Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. I heard this phrase for the first time after moving to Houston from Manhattan, a few months after September 11, 2001. I heard it again the night Hurricane Harvey arrived onshore 210 miles to our south, as a Category 4 hurricane. This phrase means we make our plans, but we don’t cling to them. But it is, more than anything these days, a nod to a more pastoral time. Before technology, before all the things we’ve built around ourselves, physical and otherwise—levees, reservoirs, Netflix—to keep out the creek. We say Lord willing, or I do, but we know even if it rises, when it rises, we’ll get through.
Before Harvey, I scrolled through posts on Facebook from friends who reminded us that the storm was going to hit Corpus Christi. There was a good deal of minimizing and digital eye-rolling about its potential impact on Houston. Someone made a funny reference to Hunter S. Thompson’s feud with retired Houston meteorologist Neil Frank, whom he called a “hurricane junkie,” whose “doomsday style reporting elevated him to the status of a holy man, a literal messenger of God.” He wrote, “more people have abandoned their homes and fled to high ground on the word of Neil Frank than ever ran blindly around the mountain and through the Red Sea with Moses.” Houstonians are wary of hype, we laugh at floods, mostly, because they happen so frequently. And since we believed that the hurricane itself was not a direct threat, there was a sense that the storm would do what storms almost always do—shift, veer, drag itself off to die a lonely death in Louisiana or Arkansas. But we also saw that the reliable storm models, those shared by trusted, local meteorologists, showed that Harvey would stall out and dump water for days, water that had nowhere to go except in our streets and inside our homes.
This is the third hurricane I’ve lived through in Houston, and my husband, daughter, and I drove to Dallas in our rattling, twelve-year-old Honda before a single drop of rain fell. On Thursday night, while the meteorologists debated, I packed up our pets and a few essential items and we left. Though I doubted it would get too bad, I wasn’t willing to risk being stranded with no electricity and rising water. I know how high maintenance I am. I grew up in Manhattan; I’m no survivalist. Going without AC in Houston in August for a few days would be tough for me. I believed fleeing was going to be inconvenient more than anything, and I’d be embarrassed at how I’d overreacted once it was all over. What I didn’t anticipate was the guilt I felt, marooned in Dallas, watching the devastation in my adopted city from afar like the rest of the world. The creek was rising.
My move to Houston in 2001 had been an escape, in part. I was in love with a Texan, and after 9/11, after I watched the Twin Towers turn to pillars of ash and collapse from where I stood on Fifth Avenue, love seemed more important than my struggling career as an indie-musician. I moved to Houston to get married and start a new life, and it seemed at first, that my escape for love would hold the world’s disasters at bay. But after a few weeks in my new city, I experienced my first flood. I watched the bayous by our apartment fill with rainwater, the roads disappear under sheets of water, as debris—cars, coolers, car seats—washed up on sidewalks and roads. When my husband was late coming home in a storm, I called the police. They were unfazed. Houstonians take these familiar gully washers in stride. Pulses rarely escalate. Eyelashes don’t bat. I’d run from one sort of disaster, the kind that makes a crater of the southern-most part of Manhattan, the island I was born on, to another. To the kind of disaster that will most certainly recur every hurricane season.
From a third floor apartment in Dallas, the last Airbnb that I could find that would accept pets, one we couldn’t rightly afford, I watched my friends mark themselves safe online before they knew if the city would flood, and then unmark and re-mark themselves safe. I watched text threads from my in-laws about a terrifying night of relentless rain, of tornado sirens, then a harrowing morning as my brother and sister-in-law tried to leave their house, which was suddenly under mandatory evacuation, after all the streets and freeways were already flooded. Friends posted photos of piling up kids and pets in closets while tornadoes passed overhead. I watched slack-jawed as families trapped in homes, hemmed in by water on all sides, begged for help on Facebook. I scrolled through photos of my neighborhood—live oak trees half-buried in churning brown water, white caps licking street signs, the coffee shop, the running trails, all submerged. “Please pray,” my tough-as-nails mother in law, a native Texan, texted. “Please pray for us, our beautiful Houston and all of Texas.”
How a city handles disaster says a lot about its people. In Houston, I struggled to change from New Yorker, an identity that itself was shifting dramatically in the aftermath of 9/11, to Houstonian. I expected Texans to be different from New Yorkers, to be gun-wielding, ground-standing cowboys. New Yorkers came together in unprecedented ways after 9/11, and I soon learned that Houstonians do the same. Only they do it more frequently, maybe because they have to. On average, it’s once every few years, or more recently, every few months. Every time the creek rises.
Houston has suffered one-hundred-year and five-hundred-year flood events in the last two years alone. Harvey is what they were calling an eight-hundred-year-flood event on Monday, and now—a thousand-year-flood event. In other words, it’s the sort of flood that isn’t supposed to happen, that city planners don’t plan for. But it’s happening now. And the tales of rescue, of teenagers in canoes pulling neighbors to safety, of the reporter who saved the life of a semi-truck driver, are everywhere. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, there were tales of freezers being emptied for block parties, shared generators, camaraderie. Because Ike was a hurricane, and it passed. The talk of “aftermath” was appropriate, because we endured it for a night, and by morning it was gone. Harvey is something else.
After September 11, my complicated relationship to New York—the never-ending question of should I stay or should I go—answered itself. I was a New Yorker and always would be, no matter where I lived. Though every hurricane season I wring my hands over why we stay in Houston, over whether or not we should, watching my neighbors brave the most cataclysmic rain event in US history, I’ve never been more proud to be a Houstonian.
But watching this all from afar is excruciating in ways I could have never predicted. Would I have left New York before 9/11 if I could’ve? I remember thinking that it would have been harder to have not been there, because those of us who were became bonded in a way that still startles me. We know what it was like. We know in ways we can never un-know. I believe the same will be true for Houston. I will listen quietly while friends and family tell stories of all they’ve suffered. My heart will break, and is breaking, because I will not know, not really, what it was like. And that feels like a betrayal. I know I’m not alone. I’m hearing my friends in Houston, whose houses have somehow miraculously not flooded, call what they are feeling now “dry privilege.” Though they are organizing donations, manning shifts at the George R. Brown convention center where more than 9,000 are being sheltered, though they are plucking neighbors from flooded houses in kayaks—with love and good humor, they fear they aren’t doing enough. A friend who is a self-employed massage therapist, called me from her house in Sugar Land, a one story house beside a creek that is somehow bone dry. She wept. She wanted to know why she’s been spared when so many haven’t? There is no answer to that question. But in the spirit of Texas, of Houston, she is rolling up her sleeves and offering free massages and cups of tea to her neighbors who weren’t quite so lucky.
As we pack up our car and our kid and our pets to make our way home to Houston, I don’t know what we’ll find. One thing I know for sure, is we are making our way home. To a community that has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, that has struggled to keep it’s head above the floodwaters. Lord willing those of us who can help will help, in any way that we can.
Where to give:
Photographs © Cort McMurray and Paula Hammon.