I’ve lived in Houston for almost my whole life. I lived
elsewhere for college, and there have been times I’ve wanted to live elsewhere again (usually during the dog days of summer when I have to drive places with
Kleenex wadded under my armpits for several minutes before my A.C. kicks in), but I love this city fiercely, protectively.
I first heard rumors about the tropical storm forming over the Gulf last Wednesday evening. If you would like to know why the decision to mandate a city-wide
evacuation is incredibly nuanced and could have been far more catastrophic in the case of Harvey, see my footnote for reading material.
By Thursday morning, my first period students were abuzz with news that the tropical storm was projected to hit Corpus Christi, over two hours away. By lunchtime that same day when I checked my phone, I had dozens of missed texts from friends and family about the storm, now a category one hurricane. My afternoon classes were somber.
“It’s going to be okay, right?” one of my students asked,
her eyes wide. “Like, it’s not going to just, you know…” For summer reading, she and many of my students had read Isaac’s Storm about the 1900 hurricane in Galveston, which left between 6,000-10,000 dead.
“Oh, for sure,” I told her. “Don’t worry. We’ve got way
better technology now, and ways to mass-communicate. Even if it hits us directly, we’ll be okay.”
I have thought about that conversation a hundred times since then.
By Thursday evening, my district cancelled school on Friday.
I don’t have cable, but the weather radar on my phone app showed a projected path for the hurricane to hit mid-coast Friday night, then travel upwards on to
Houston. I packed a small bag and drove to my parents’ house—also in Houston, but in a neighborhood higher than mine—and there we waited for Friday to come.
Imagine with me for a moment that your Facebook feed—usually full of grinning babies, squinting selfies, grills lined with slabs of brisket and ribs, dogs almost as cute as yours—is now a parade of the unimaginable.
Imagine that it started with a photo taken from the second story of a friend’s house of dark flood waters sloshing over the wooden interior stairs.
Then it was a picture from a neighborhood minutes from yours of a car completely underwater—still on, mercifully unoccupied—its tail lights glowing several feet below water like the huge, red eyes of a giant, mythical sea monster.
Then it was everyone.
Imagine post after post of rising waters, cries for help,
frantic questions and pleas thrown into the Facebook void:
“Does anyone have access to blood thinner medication??”
“My cousin is in labor and is trapped in her house—we’ve called dozens of numbers but they’re all busy and the roads are flooded, someone help us!!”
“I just talked to the fire department– if you’re escaping
rising water, either go onto your rooftop or your attic but take an axe with you so you don’t drown.”
Imagine learning that a childhood friend had to be rescued from their roof in the middle of the night.
And then a former coworker had to be rescued in the same way.
And then your friend’s parents.
And then a neighbor.
And, and, and.
Imagine that it is no longer shocking to find out that
people in your community are being rescued from their homes this way.
Imagine that for four days in a row, the text thread you
wake up to is one in which you and your friends and family are checking on each other to see whose homes have water inside them, who needs help. And when
someone doesn’t respond on the text thread, it is no longer absurd to assume something terrible has happened, because something terrible is happening.
Imagine seeing videos posted by nationally syndicated news organizations featuring people from your hometown.
These are people that you passed in the halls of your high school, being interviewed by camera crews as
they drive their boats down the middle of streets where you grew up searching for those who need rescue, the wake of their boat lapping up onto rooftops.
Imagine people you love spending the night in lines of cots in middle school gyms and cafeterias, churches, the inside of a furniture store. Imagine not being able to get them because the roads to get there are flooded.
Imagine that during all of this, it’s still raining, and
that it will be raining for another three days.
Imagine hearing that one in three homes in your city has water in them.
Imagine that, just when you think the worst is over, the
dams in your city begin to release, and you see on the news a helicopter image of the neighborhoods surrounding your school underwater. In some places the only thing visible are the treetops.
Imagine for four days watching the news with the persistent, dark feeling that you’re about to see faces of students you teach or have taught.
Imagine the impact all of this will have on your
students—current and former, and their families, their schools.
Imagine, after five days, driving back into the city you
love, seeing the devastation firsthand. From the elevated highway, you see what you’ve been seeing on the news, but there’s something about seeing it through a window instead of a TV screen that breaks your heart wide open.
You drive past the Target in your neighborhood, full of military vehicles, fire engines, huge search and rescue trucks from across the country—Oklahoma, Lousiana,
Nebraska—and this is where you crumble. Your world is underwater and you were gone for most of it. You pull over into a parking lot of a business you used to
frequent where there is debris in a neat line on the windows four feet high. You put your head in your hands and cry.
I am unbelievably lucky. It is not lost on me that
everything I just described is nothing compared to the trauma of those who lived it. My house and car were left undamaged by Harvey, but it has nothing to
do with me or my decision-making (I don’t have flood insurance, for instance), or being “blessed” and has everything to do with chance. The god I believe in
is a god that is unflinchingly good and is present in the love that we show each other, not one that handpicks certain special people to spare.
Many of my friends, neighbors, and community were not so lucky. As I write this, much of the damage is still unknown. Many people can’t know status of their homes because roads leading to their neighborhoods are still blocked by five, ten feet of water. The dams protecting the city are still releasing water. I don’t yet know when our schools will reopen.
Houston has been fantastic in setting up shelters for
immediate relief of its citizens. Yesterday, I looked up a list of needs for the shelter nearest me, and by the time I checked the list again before heading to the store, it was at capacity for all donations. What I’m more worried about is the long haul, and the needs of people who will be piecing together their lives after total losses, particularly those communities who were struggling even before the storm hit, from Rockport all the way to Beaumont and beyond.
I write this for several reasons. I write it because, even
as my city is still underwater, I hear about the conversations the rest of the country is having, judging my city and its people or politicizing the events of
the last five days, and I think about how hard it will be when these people one day know a horrible sadness. People who have known horrible sadness know that
you can never understand a situation—especially the ones that tempt you with the thought that you would have done it better or differently—until you are in
I write this also because I consider so many of my readers family. If you are in Texas and are hurting, know that I stand with you, and if you are elsewhere, know that we desperately need you on our side right now. Many of our students are hurting, and will come to us when schools reopen with a range of emotions we can only begin to predict. Many students will not know how to articulate these emotions. For teachers in this
area, who, even in a normal year go above and beyond to make their class a safe and welcoming space, we are stepping into uncharted territory.
And finally, I write because, as someone who sustained no property damage from the hurricane, I am now in a position to help. As I’ve said, much of the damage is yet to be assessed, but for now I think the best thing I can do as someone with a platform is to give a space and a bullhorn to those who need it.
Teachers, readers, whoever: if you or someone you know has funds set up for your students, your homes, your classrooms that were flooded or damaged by Harvey, please comment either on this actual post or on Facebook and I will create and continue to update a list below. There are so many people willing to help who just need to be pointed in the right direction.
Links on how to help/donate: (note: as most of these links have expired as of 04/09/19, I’ve deleted them. But there are still plenty of ways to help teachers through teacher resource crowdfunding sites such as Donors Choose.)
So much love, always,