As the waters rose on Saturday night, Nic and I were out with the dog, trying to get him to do his thing one last time before the brown waters covered the green. Who knows when we would see it next. Suddenly, there was a young black man, his sister (baby in arms), and their mother. They had to abandon their car in our garage before trying to find their way to their apartment. It was only across the road. But the water was rising, the situation changing as rapidly as the water rushing down the road. But the gates to our apartment were closed; to their knowledge, there was no way out of the complex. All I did was use the fob on my keychain. The gate opened. Then what? I urged them to go, to be careful of the fast-moving water. The fear was palpable. The young man ran across to make sure the gate to their apartment complex would open. It did. And somehow the young woman, baby, and mother made it through rushing water shin-deep. They could have been swept away.
Soon, our apartment complex was an island. We lost power and water almost simultaneously the following afternoon. We were somewhat prepared: water, canned food, ice. Empathy.
We were unprepared: guilt, helplessness. Empathy with the inability to act on it.
Houston is one of the most diverse, integrated cities I have ever lived in. Granted, I’ve only been here for eight weeks, but I think our raised apartment complex parking garage could have been a microcosm of the city. For the next couple of days, all sorts of people milled about the cars that were jammed in as many open spaces as possible. People were trying to get their pets to do their business on the concrete, while many others were just walking endlessly in circles on the ramps to stretch their legs, to triage their cabin fever. Others sat for hours charging their phones in their cars and listening to the news, and still others collected rain water in buckets. It’s safe to say that virtually everyone who had access to the parking garage remedied their fear and uncertainty by talking to folks they had never talked to before to trade stories, to check on general well-being. I got Frank to pee on a palm frond and shared that tip with a middle-aged white woman whose only companion was a two-time cancer-surviving 13-year old lap dog who hadn’t peed in 36 hours.
There was an amphibious and aerial rescue operation at the apartment complex across the street on Sunday evening. People–Latinos, whites, blacks–who had hung out together on the second floor walkway all day talking–and laughing, even–were plucked and taken to safety.
Anxiety–for which we were unprepared–was very real in spite of the fact that we were four floors above the 5 feet of water on the ground below. We went to bed early that night, the rain lashing our window, trying to get in through a little crack; I felt it was within the realm of possibility that the wind would push it in. Why not? So many things outside were crumbling.
I texted a few of my new acquaintances–a white woman from work, a Brazilian woman from work, a few black folks from the apartment gym, a visiting scholar from Bangladesh that I met at Rice new employee orientation a few weeks ago. Almost everyone is okay, having suffered none, some, or a lot of flooding. I have yet to hear from my Bangladeshi friend, who is a new dad and has a wife who speaks very little English.
From our tiny balcony, we watched abandoned vehicles appear as the waters began to recede late Monday. Army Corps of Engineers drove their big green trucks, one of which was flagged down by a Latina with her 4-year old in her arms. She had had enough.
By Tuesday night, I had had enough of watching from the balcony. The water was almost all gone, and I had watched three men clean out a car for much of the afternoon. I grabbed my remaining beer (bouzhy shit from local craft breweries and a few tallboys of The High Life), took it across the street to offer help and refreshments. My broken Spanish was pressed into action, as these gentleman were Cubans; we shared a drink and a couple of laughs at the expense of my language learner’s ego. We pushed the car to an easier place to work. As night fell, I shined a light on the engine as they sprayed it out–I will forever be unprepared for dealing with car-related issues. Los Cubanos had been up for hours; they had housed 16 people in their second-floor two-bedroom apartment over the last couple of days; they had had friends airlifted a couple days before. Carlos “Segundo”–as we decided to differentiate–, his father Carlos “Primero”, and his friend Carlos “Loco” all had to work the next day. Yet they insisted that I share a meal with them–barbequed bisteque prepared by Segundo’s 8-months pregnant wife.
Yesterday, I was incredibly restless. Nic was back at work, and I needed to do something. Several of the more organized efforts at evacuee relief (Red Cross, homeless shelters, food banks) have vetting processes to go through. I filled out many online applications. Though the recovery effort will be long and my services will be needed for weeks and months to come, I had to do something. Somewhere along the line of my humanistic development, I was not prepared to be okay with just being alive. I took our remaining water reserves to a women and children transitional residence south of downtown.
That was enough for yesterday, as driving around was still ill-advised.
Today, I tried to stop in at NRG Stadium but, as I expected, was turned away because my Red Cross application had yet to be processed. I toured the road along the bus route I take along the Brays Bayou. Homes had been disgorged of destroyed contents; a group of Catholics had come through to help empty out houses of entire lifetimes. Accumulations lay in junk heaps along the curb. I turned into a neighborhood not far from our apartment; before dawn, I had taken the dog for a run here and saw silhouettes of the same type of domestic entrails piled in front of homes. But upon returning in the daylight, a whole new level of reality set in.
Where do I begin? Where does anyone begin? I helped older Jewish man and his employee clear out a few things from his home office (chairs, ruined blue prints, stacks of correspondence). When I first asked what I could do, the man said he wanted to get the pool up and running again; his employee directed my efforts elsewhere. I walked down the road farther; the Catholics had apparently been through this area the day previous, helping to get all the ruined furniture to the curb. But there was still work to be done. I helped a black man load up a fridge onto his truck, contents of once-frozen chickpeas and pesto spilling out of the freezer compartment.
I am unprepared for this. I need gloves. I also need organized guidance in my first natural disaster recovery effort. I will cast about the surrounding areas doing little bits to help anyone until I get a call.