On August 25, 2017, Houstonians like myself watched live news coverage as Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas coast to our south, leveling towns like Rockport and Port Aransas with category 4 winds and storm surges.
The damage was extreme and unsettling but with the storm’s eye located two-hundred miles south and with memories of the disastrous 2005 Hurricane Rita evacuation in mind, many of us Houstonians were feeling okay about our decision not to evacuate and thought this might be just another storm from the tropics that, for all intents and purposes, would be a nonevent for Houston.
Then Saturday happened.
As Mayweather landed the final blows on McGregor late Saturday night, Hurricane Harvey began unleashing rainfall of Biblical proportions on Southeast Texas and on the Houston area. In what seemed like an instant, water rushed through neighborhoods, encroaching into front yards and devouring vehicles. Tornados touched down around the city, and nonstop tornado warnings lit up phones and TVs, all while a maddening display of lightning and thunder rolled over Houston and its neighboring counties.
By Sunday morning, neighborhoods that had never even come close to flooding in prior decades had water creeping inside into living rooms and kitchens. But this was just the beginning. More bands of blinding rain poured and poured into the area. Weather radars revealed blotches of red and yellow regenerating over and over again, leaving little hope that the dread would soon end. The bands did not stop until neighborhood streets were transformed into urban rivers, street signs submerged, airports closed, and an infrastructure supporting over 6,000,000 people was brought to its knees.
Hospitals scrambled to evacuate patients, helicopters soared overhead with evacuees swinging from baskets, and hundreds of thousands of people — from inside the heart of Houston out to its sprawling suburbs and beyond — began to slowly accept the reality that they were now a part of a full-out humanitarian crisis with no way to escape. And not just any crisis. A 1,000-year flood — now expected to be one of the most devastating storms to ever hit the U.S.
At first, the catastrophic damage formed the storyline of this storm. TV viewers were drawn to the unbelievable aerial shots of subdivisions drowned in brown flood waters and crested rivers and bayous breaching their banks. The sights of National Guard trucks and U.S. Coast Guard boats plowing through flooded city streets that so many Houstonians called home was surreal to witness.
We’d been through floods and hurricanes before but nothing even close to this. Not in our wildest dreams.
Each hour, the situation became more bleak. Horrific photos like that of elderly women quietly sitting in a Dickinson nursing home with several feet of water creeping up surfaced online.
Hundreds of bone-chilling pleas for rescues populated social media news feeds, some getting shared hundreds of times. Some pleas even came from Katrina refugees who had lived this nightmare in New Orleans a dozen years ago.
You could sense the desperation gripping thousands of people. It was fear, heartbreak, confusion, and frustration all bundled together. And all of this while the rain continued to pour, breaking records for most rainfall ever to hit the continental U.S.
As 911 and other first responder emergency call centers became overloaded with calls, thousands of citizens were left feeling helpless. After trying for hours to reach help, many were forced to stubbornly accept the reality that their vehicles and belongings would be lost and that the focus was now on one thing: not dying today.
Water levels continued to rise to unthinkable levels, reaching the ceilings of first-floor homes and even up to second-floor apartments. Treacherous currents flowed from rivers, creeks, and bayous — well beyond their record-setting crests — obliterating structures and swallowing up vehicles, including a family of six in an unimaginable tragedy.
Rescue crews worked tirelessly to pull mothers with infants through windows onto boats and to carry elderly people in wheelchairs down stairs. Meanwhile, residents in relatively dry areas who once believed they were safe, were evacuating from overflowing reservoirs that were threatening to send flash floods capable of topping their homes. It seemed that with each news update the chaos and destruction only grew more widespread and more severe.
All while Harvey’s grey clouds drifted slowly over Southeast Texas.
But another story line began to emerge as the flood levels rose and more people’s lives were in danger. And like the storm that created it, this story line would sweep the Texas countryside in record-setting fashion….
Houston is the 4th largest city in the US and is home to the largest and one of most well-respected medical centers in the world. It’s home to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, more than 25 Fortune 500 companies (beat only by NYC), a persistently robust economy, affordable housing, and it’s one the most ethnically and racially diverse cities in the country. Remember, H-Town gave the world Beyoncé.
Houston is home to several professional sports teams where athletes like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde “The Glide” won championships, and Earl Campbell, Nolan Ryan, and the Killer B’s left lasting legacies in iconic stadiums like the Astrodome.
Houston is home to world-renown universities like Rice University, a 17-block Theater District, and is filled with world-class museums like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum Of Natural Science. Houston, perhaps the energy capital of the world, is extremely international with over 90 languages spoken and the third highest number of consular offices in the U.S. and yet still unmistakably Texan as the host of the world’s largest livestock show and rodeo.
In short, there’s plenty of reasons for Houstonians to pride themselves on their city and state.
But after Harvey, there’s something special about Houston and all of the affected Texas communities that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
At a time when social media feeds and media outlets are filled to the brim with endless bickering, conflict, and division, Texas has shown the world that love truly is the great equalizer between people.
My parents live in Dickinson, Texas, one of the worst hit areas of flooding and were subjected to a mandatory evacuation that came all too late. Like many others, they’d never flooded and were caught by surprise. Water levels started to rapidly rise inside their one-story house and after hours of waiting for emergency personnel to show up to no avail, their worry grew more intense.
A neighbor saw their plight and without hesitating offered to rescue them on his boat and to take them as far as he possibly could. They then fled their house via motorboat along with their little maltipoo, Hurley, taking with them only a bag full of clothes.
Due to the uneven streets and flood waters, the boat could only go so far and my dad, who isn’t far from 70-years old and not a strong swimmer by any stretch, along with my mom and little fur-ball Hurley, waded almost three miles through water that at times came up to their chests, a frightening and grueling task for someone of any age, especially with currents tugging the entire way and the lingering threat of gators (and Lord knows what else) from the nearby Dickinson Bayou.
When I found out my mom and dad were safe, I breathed a deep sigh of relief that only a tragedy can brew. I felt relief knowing my parents were safe but also joy because I knew that that same situation, of neighbors helping neighbors, was playing out thousands of times all over the Houston area and that as a result, others were experiencing the same peace I now felt. We were all in this together.
Texas doesn’t do everything perfect. It has its flaws just like everywhere else. But we’ve witnessed something historical with Hurricane Harvey and it wasn’t just the rainfall and the destruction, which were both monumental.
We witnessed thousands of humans showing love for each other in a way that left no doubt that beyond all of the constant drivel, negativity, and hatred that we’re bombarded with, we are still by and large a united people. We may come from different walks of life and have different perspectives on how the world should work but at the end of the day we are all still people willing to reach out our hands to prevent our neighbors from suffering simply because we know it’s the right thing to do.
These efforts came from ordinary citizens across the state of Texas and from Louisiana and even from other parts of the country. Thousands of people put their own safety at risk because of convictions and instincts that told them to be there for their fellow citizens. In the time we find ourselves in today, this is profound.
Think about this. Flooded avenues were filled with a mix of everything from motorized boats and rafts to pool floats and dump trucks. Rescue personnel consisted of private citizens, emergency crews, state and federal agencies, police departments, and countless other organizations and they were all being sent in different directions in severe rain and wind, some even operating in the night.
Yet, despite all of the challenges, chaos, and danger, rescue operations still ran as orderly and as effeciently as you could hope for. And I believe it’s because love really is the great equalizer that can bring order and peace to our existence unlike anything else in the world.
I won’t go as far to say that we “needed” Harvey but as a society we certainly needed what Harvey gave us. And that was a glimpse of a world where the majority of people share a common bond to do good for others and choose to act on it. Not because they’re told to do so. Not because they want something in return. But because they simply want to do the right thing and show their neighbors, “I’m here for you today and whenever you need me.”
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