A collection of thoughts on the recent disaster. Many of you have shown concern for what's happening here and I thought I'd offer some of the finer details of a big disaster that isn't necessarily seen in national news.
Let me open by saying this is in no way intended to draw sympathy for me personally. I have suffered nothing in these two weeks. My power didn't even go out. My immediate family had minimal issues, despite being adjacent to some pretty serious water levels. Really, this is just a collection of things for those of you unfamiliar with hurricanes and how long they really linger.
I've lived in Houston for 18 years. After a while hurricanes become a fact of life. Though unlike Florida, we are tucked way in the back of the Gulf of Mexico. It takes a lot of overlapping conditions for a hurricane to gain entry. Most of the time there isn't enough warm water to strengthen the storms. In your average summer, there will be a few close calls and maybe once a tropical storm will break through. Other years (usually drought years) high pressure lingers over the area and nothing enters the Gulf at all. Tropical storms aren't a big deal. It rains a bit, it's not really windy, and they're over in a day. In fact, we have thunderstorm episodes that can drop more rain than a tropical storm. In 2007 I took this sarcastic photo of my apartment complex at the time "prepping" for a tropical storm.
Places were calling off work, the whole thing, and it rained, kinda. We are so used to rain that it takes a lot to really rattle the population. A tropical storm or Category 1 hurricane is uninteresting.
Coincidentally, in 2008, we got smacked by Hurricane Ike. The aftermath of that storm is incredibly similar to what we're going through now. It's felt identical to me the whole time, more on that later.
Initially, Harvey was a tropical storm. In fact, at one point in its trajectory over Mexico it had weakened so much that they took the name away. As a collective we were unconcerned and uninterested. It reappeared a couple days later but was still projected as a tropical storm. As I said, those are nothing really. The night before Harvey showed up I was at a baseball game, got gas with relatively little hassle and waited for inevitable one day off of school. I had some food but nothing resembling a hurricane hoarde.
Friday night it makes landfall in Rockport, a beach town 3 hours southwest of Houston. It started raining in the afternoon, nothing major. We probably could've gone to school. Then the forecast got ugly. It was going to rain, but the storm was going to creep north slowly (5 mph) and stop, so it was going to rain A LOT. I've been here for enough major flood events (2001, 2008, 2015, 2016) and enough minor ones (any old random Tuesday morning we can have a thunderstorm that drowns a freeway for a couple hours) to know that A LOT of rain is bad. Why so much? Well, the California heat wave to the west and a high pressure system to the east left the hurricane with nowhere to go. It wasn't strong enough to move north, so it stayed. And rained. For 75+ hours.
As the storm meandered across the area, the intensity varied. Every so often you'd be in-between bands and the rain would stop. But the damage was done. Saturday night most of the major ways in and out of town flooded, so there was no leaving. The ensuing marathon of rain made the puddles deeper and deeper until every big flow channel in the region burst taking 150,000 houses with them.
At that point your local news channel probably started covering it. The flooded cars. The water rescues. The helicopter rescues. The lakes surrounding entire neighborhoods. Even as the rain calmed through Monday or Tuesday there was no sensible reason to leave your house if you were ok. Every five minutes local news begged and pleaded that you just stay put. All the roads were flooded. Emergency services did not have the time to deal with you. Unless you had a big vehicle and a boat, your best contribution was to stay inside. By mid-day Wednesday it was over.
This is an initial assessment of property damage from various sources. This is incomplete, not all surrounding counties are included.
All the damage was concentrated around the biggest water channels, our bayou and creek system that rush water to Galveston Bay. At different points in the five day ordeal, all of them topped their banks in multiple places. Even the large rivers to the southwest hit record levels never thought possible. I live on the west side of town, in one of those big unaffected areas. My school was the same. For us, it's like nothing happened.
A couple days after the storm, life returned. Local roads became passable. Restaurants opened. Gas stations opened. Grocery stores started limited hours. After five days stuck inside harboring families or newly displaced neighbors, nearly everyone was low on supplies. Kids reappeared in the parks. Cars returned to (most of) the freeways. Businesses and schools started finding paths to reopening. Some schools realize that unfortunately, there will be no opening this year.
For the vast majority of us, everything was pretty ok. For a sizable minority of people, that was very untrue. In one suburb, 3000 of 9000 homes were a total loss. There were similar tales all over town. If you were within spitting distance of a major spillway, you took a hit. And only approximately 20% of those people had flood insurance.
You might wonder, how could there be such a low insured rate? You JUST said these things show up all the time?
Not all hurricanes are created the same. Harvey had no wind when it came. In fact the winds rarely topped 20mph, not enough to be a significant factor. There were homes and neighborhoods with wind/tornado damage and that's covered by hurricane policies. Water damage without the wind to rip off your roof is another story. Another issue before you call these people crazy is that the areas that flooded had no significant history of flooding. For a lot of people who took on water, it was never something any property assessment would've informed them was possible. Some homes didn't flood until it became necessary to sacrifice them to avoid dam breaches.
Hurricane Ike in 2008 was a windstorm. Trees were down everywhere. Power was out for over a week or more in some areas. High rise buildings in downtown had glass windows blown out in the hundreds (one lost 50 stories worth on its eastern side). I sat at a church service outside (the main sanctuary was ruined) the Sunday afterward as the pastor held a chunk of the metal roof that had been found twisted around something several hundred feet away. Flooding was present but not the major problem.
The Annoying Rate of Normalcy
In both Ike and Harvey, the days that followed were equally weird. People emerge from hiding and attempted normal things. There is a collective "whoa" among everyone. We all know what just happened, but we'd prefer to just try and pick up where we left off. Except you can't. The city is only about 90% normal right now.
You might say, wow, 90%? That's not bad. Except it's kinda not. Some grocery stores are open, but only for a few hours. Bread and water are on hard purchase limits. Restaurants open here and there, but often on very limited menus. Fast food places go drive thru only to cut down customer load. Gas gets a little more difficult to find. Gas prices spike. Food doesn't restock very quickly. Shelves go empty and stay that way. Most of the roads open. Important ones don't. Traffic gets bad. Then it gets BAD. You hear the rumors: 2 hours to get to work, 3 hours to get to work. Some important bayou crossings could be closed for a month. You realize you had packages that vanished in the frenzy. You try to track them down. The shipping companies aren't really sure where anything is. You watch a person get frustrated that two day delivery doesn't currently mean two day delivery. The skies are filled with military helicopters.
I say annoying rate of normalcy, because it's just that, annoying. And not even like actually annoying. It's just a collection of incredibly tiny, minor annoying things. Like a 1.5/10 on the annoying scale. You have to fight the urge to let being annoyed become your mood. This is a time for immense and determined patience. This is the struggle of the days after a hurricane, you must remind yourself of what is not annoying. You are fine. Your house is fine. Your family is fine. Your students are fine. You can deal with the lack of bread.
The weather is irritatingly nice after a hurricane.
The South is incredibly friendly (have you met Julie Reulbach?). Texas especially so. When taken to task, people rise to the challenge. Thousands of people with the means ran to their trucks, boats, and jet skis and found every last person they could in the flooded neighborhoods. Local reporters spent hours and hours all over town looking for people, riding boats at night with the police, flagging down sheriff's deputies to save a man about to submerge in his 18-wheeler. Thousands flocked to shelters to give supplies and time. Every church, mosque, temple, synagogue, and school district reached out into their communities looking for people to help. Two dozen volunteers grabbed their crow bars and hammers and just wandered the streets looking for people who needed help with demolition. Garages became staging grounds for cleaning supplies, ready for neighborhoods to reopen so clean up could begin.
People in affected homes showed tremendous resolve. Calm, collected, and focused on the task at hand. Their houses gutted, their stuff wet or in tubs of bleach, but they have their health. For that they are thankful. Others said screw it, let's climb the trash pile and sing Les Mis:
We go on. The debris will disappear. The schools will open. The roads will open. The houses will return. The Whataburger Patty Melts will come back on the menu.
Did I contribute? Yes. The details are unimportant. Don't ask me. I won't tell you.