We never fancied ourselves to be the type of people to post a crazy-looking, hand-scrawled sign on our front-door warning looters they could be shot. To avoid any misunderstanding in our disaster zone with law enforcement, a companion sign asks police to call the homeowner. This became critically important, as documented on our front-porch security video (more on that later).
Hurricane Harvey’s devastating aftermath unfurled a new normal that includes such lifestyle changes as having a “slow no wake” navigation sign on the back of your vehicle, using a gasoline-powered generator to keep on the fridge, fans, WIFI and satellite TV, and washing coffee pots and cooking pans in the backyard.
The good thing coming out of our mostly submerged subdivision next to the overflowed Addicks Reservoir in Northwest Harris County is a new fellowship in the neighborhood. We have 144 single-family dwellings that are usually well-kempt. Historically, people here give friendly waves and tend to socialize with their immediate next-door neighbors.
Some of the neighbors had flooded before, with Hurricane Ike in 2008 and with the Tax Day Flood of 2016. This is by far the worst. But something funny happened when evacuees started clomping back in with waders and boats. A friendly spirit buoyed people. A Facebook group started filling up with neighbors who had not yet met, and while their homes were still flooded, they asked when we could have a neighborhood cookout to get to know each other. Our waste treatment plant is damaged, so we don’t have sewer service, but people are ready to party.
Who is Houston
That is Houston. If you’ve never been here before, allow me to explain. When I moved here in 2006 from Washington, D.C., I was amazed how Houston is so friendly. You have the best conversations in office building elevator rides or at the grocery store. Houston is like a funky, sophisticated hybrid of the congeniality of a small Southern town and the cosmopolitan amenities of the multi-cultural megapolis that it is. It does not matter if you are from a small Texas town or the other side of the world, the only constant is friendliness.
In prior months, I saw an article suggesting that while the Houston region is extraordinarily diverse, it is fractured socially among demographics, even geographically. That gave me pause as I wondered what the author is talking about. Our neighborhood looks like the United Nations, just like this region as a whole. Think of a ginormous set of contiguous suburbs that are primarily diverse.
Basically, if you are not friendly or helpful, you won’t fit in here. Texans are also very resourceful; suddenly flooded streets in this region were filled with john boats, kayaks and lifted-up pickup trucks. My boyfriend and I are in one of the only houses in our neighborhood that did not flood (water came up to the caulked doors and into the garage). We watched on TV and Facebook what we called the Redneck Nation coming out to save people. No one is going to make fun of a monster truck again.
A Tale of O. Harvey
We were not able to get out in our own boat for a few key reasons. Just before the storm, Byron had bought a john boat for a gator hunt. The Friday morning before Harvey’s landfall near Rockport/Port A/Corpus, a delivery truck driver brought me the 210-lb. engine in a crate. The outer bands were already bringing rain and I saluted him to drive carefully to get home to deal with his own affairs ahead of Harvey.
We then nosed our vehicles up the sloped driveway to the garage doors with the hope of keeping them dry. When the street became laden with rainwater, we moved a vehicle to angle out the boat. We realized we might have to employ the boat well ahead of the gator hunt. The water began to rise and our immediate neighbors started communicating at each others’ doors. Byron and I realized we needed to get the big engine on the boat. Once secured, we turned our attention to our gasoline supply. We patted ourselves on the shoulders for having filled tanks ahead of time.
Then, it hit me. I asked Byron where the motor oil was for the boat motor. We did not have any. We asked a neighbor, but no luck. Soon we were surrounded by shockingly and frighteningly high floodwaters. To borrow from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” water, water everywhere, but no operable boat engine. Forgive another literary allusion, but I realized we were in a modern-day scenario befitting an O. Henry short story.
Think of the O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi,” in which the wife wants to buy her husband a fob for his watch for Christmas and he wants to buy her combs for her long hair. She cuts her hair to sell to pay for the fob, and he sells the watch to buy the combs. Well, at least they had each other! We wish to commend the armada of volunteers from Texas and beyond. We owe you one.
Hello, Men with Guns
I have Byron, who I first met in an outdoors club. We have had hunting and camping trips together, including roughing it for a week in the Arizona desert, which prepared me for camping at home. Byron spent formative years in Lagos, Nigeria, moving in after a civil war there, before his family moved to Beirut, Lebanon, only to see its civil war break out. The man is cool as a cucumber, no matter what is happening. Which brings me to the gunmen at our front door at a time where the only way into the subdivision was by boat (unless you knew we could open a backyard gate into a backroad that had become an ad hoc public boat ramp area).
Upon waking, we saw a security notification on our phones and checked the video: at 4:46 a.m., two men came to our front door with AR-15s, and one of them actually swung his leveled rifle at the front door. If you are not a gun owner, let me tell you some gun safety basics: consider every gun to be loaded (#1) and do not point a gun at someone. In this scenario, don’t ring someone’s door at 4 in the morning and point your semi-automatic weapon at the door.
We then reviewed the footage in a video editing program on my computer and could zoom in for some stills. I called the Harris County Sheriff’s Office non-emergency number (we live in unincorporated Harris County) and the dispatcher sounded shocked. An officer called me right away and within minutes, two deputies were standing on our patio reviewing the video. Two more deputies arrived and then the supervisor in charge of all patrols in this area. Officer Smith was outstanding!
He looked closely and said they were not his men and did not appear to be any other Harris County law enforcement (we have constables too). He asked me to give him the images so he could circulate it. The officer also related there is a volunteer group of law enforcement officers who had come in from other jurisdictions to provide patrols.
There had been a call to our sheriff’s department around the time of our porch visitors from someone reporting four men with flashlights. We don’t know if these were those men or if they had been looking for those men. Later that day, Byron reconnected by phone with our State Representative, Dwayne Bohac, who came right away prior to this incident when I reached out to him to discuss the neighborhood’s devastation.
Byron is HOA president and concerned for the welfare of all the homeowners, especially as the preponderance of them flooded. Representative Bohac came out in waders to see firsthand the scope of the damage. He also has followed up to see how it is going. When you are in a widespread disaster, you need to communicate.
The Facebook group has helped a lot, but visiting face-to-face with neighbors has been the most informative. We met a multi-generational family that lives on the opposite side of the subdivision, closer to the creek that enters Addicks Reservoir. One of the sisters related that as the water rose around them, they had opened some windows and heard people screaming from the house next to our retention pond. The people inside were inundated, could smell natural gas and could not get through to 9-1-1, she related. She got through.
The neighbors were saved and soon enough, strangers in a boat showed up for her family. They loaded her grandparents, both in their 90s, onto the family couch to float them to the rescue boat. Once out on the road behind our house, she said the family collected and then her dad had a funny question: “Is that my couch?” Those rescuers must have had a really big boat!
We have been incredibly lucky to hold down the fort with our dogs, but there rarely seems to be a moment’s peace in a crisis. I was looking forward to Saturday Night Live for much needed comic relief, but instead local newscasters announced they were going to keep on with continuing coverage, which turned out to be footage of people cutting out drywall. There have been deaths and near deaths across dozens of counties, a brand-new mandatory evacuation had been announced earlier and a chemical plant was controlling a fire, so I get the point of breaking news. (I am a former journalist.) Wet drywall isn’t news. Just as I was bemoaning the lack of laughs, someone rang our door.
Our hearts pounded as we scrambled to look at the live video on one phone and answer the phone call on another device (our sign to law enforcement). They called. They were real law enforcement. I saw the guy in charge holding his hands over his waders to show he posed no threat.
I felt bad for scaring them! While Byron spoke to this officer (from the San Antonio area), I peered out the window by the door. His face was so nice! He looked earnestly at me as he signaled all was cool. I wished I could have thanked him, but they were gone. They were checking on people. God Bless.
Natural Disaster Etiquette
If you have friends or family in the zone of a colossal disaster and you wish to express concern, be aware that calling them at 7 a.m. might not be so considerate, as intended, if they were up all night in a sleeping bag wondering if their house would flood in the manner of a scene from “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” or recovering from the adrenaline rush of late-night doorbells.
Basically, don’t ask for details about to what extent people are naked and/or afraid, or what they are eating, etc.
Similarly, expressing political outrage on Facebook about Melania’s stiletto heels for her hurricane wreckage tour is stating the obvious to people who are using camping toilets with specially designed plastic baggies and showering on their patio with a garden hose. Besides, if she had shown up looking like someone outfitted her by Cabela’s for an early teal duck hunt, people would have mocked her for that. The clothing is irrelevant.
In the same vein, do not tag your hurricane victim friends with articles by national magazines or news organizations written to argue how stupid their region’s existence is. Or, criticizing their elected officials as hypocrites or some such. As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, we can criticize each other in our community because we are a family. Think about how you would feel if people outside your family said something bad about your mama, during a crisis, no less.
Mayor Turner also had advice for anyone getting ornery around here: “Check Yourself! Check yourself.” We are getting through this together as the amazing, strong and beautiful region, and Texas strong family, we are.