Reflections from within the storm
*A personal post*
“What the heck is this all about?” I thought to myself as I grabbed the last gallon of bottled water off the shelf. This was eight days ago, just two days before Hurricane Harvey (never did like that name) blew into Texas. I mean, I knew there was a doozy of a storm coming, but jeez people - let’s not panic! I continued through the isles in my small cart, stocking up on essentials for the next few days. I joked with friends that I was good to go – I had three bottles of wine to get me through. It felt like a familiar routine. My former neighborhood in Washington was prone to flooding, and I grew up in Northern Wisconsin (it gets a bit of snow). I know the drill when it comes to hunkering down for a few days due to less than awesome weather conditions. And believe you me, I love me some hunkering down. In fact, I was excited about the possibility of having to stay inside for three days during a storm. Movies, candles, reading, writing (and did I mention those three bottles of wine)? Kevin and I haven’t had a chance to spend much time together lately, so this was going to be epic. That night as we crawled in bed I asked him, “Isn’t it terrible that it takes a hurricane to get me to slow down for an entire weekend?”
We don’t evacuate because we are told not to. Since Houston wasn’t going to take a direct (wind) hit from Harvey, and it was the rain we had to worry about, there was a greater risk of danger to be on the roads vs. in your home. The thing is, you cannot evacuate millions of people from one place in 72 hours. It’s just not possible. Houstonians learned this lesson the hard way when they evacuated some years prior during Hurricane Rita. Stuck on the highway is not a place you want to be when the flood comes. So we stay.
Two days later.
The news is on, and it’s here to stay. It’s here that I begin to learn what a major deal this is turning into. This isn’t just a storm. It’s a category four hurricane, and it’s coming over for a late dinner. The pit in my stomach is forming. I’m saddened to know that Harvey will be destroying so many parks, beaches, homes, businesses down near Corpus Christie (right on the gulf). I am silently holding space for those who will be affected. I’m so thankful to be in the 200-year flood plain. Because if it hasn’t happened in a couple of hundred years, it won’t happen again, right? But I’m not one to take a pass on preparations. I was preparing for the “worst” – no power (and therefore no water) for several days. At the advice from a few, I filled my bathtub with water. Correction: I filled everything with water. Water? Check. And oh – the pink bucket has a hole in it. Propane and butane camp stove? Check. Portable toilet with extra double doodie bags? Check. Pre-cooked a few days of food and packaged it up so that I could easily cook it on my camp stove in the coming days. A real Girl Scout, that Shannon.
A few more hours go by.
It’s been said that when it rains, it pours. Indeed. And when it pours (and pours, and pours, and pours) for days on end – it floods. And when that flood has nowhere to go – it devastates. The rain that had fallen over the greater Houston area was double the predicted amount.
We learn that despite our dry track record, our home may flood. The reservoirs that supply us with our drinking water are spilling. They are full, and the water has nowhere to go. Because of the added pressure, the integrity of the drainage systems is being compromised – broken gauges; structure damage; dysfunction. Knowing now that we were in a flood zone, we took things one step further. We moved a majority of our first floor belongings to the second floor. I get my head around the fact that I may be living in the upper level of my home for some time, trapped, with a flooded first floor. Troubling, but doable.
We remain glued to the TV for the next four days. All of the roads are flooded. Mandatory evacuations are being announced daily, but people don’t really have a way to get out. We watch it all unfold on the 60” screen, knowing that what we are seeing may be us within a matter of hours. People are being rescued by boats – many of them privately owned and volunteer assisted. We see thousands upon thousands of families being relocated to shelters, as the news anchors let us know the items they are in desperate need of. People mourning; people grateful to be alive; people helping people. It’s equal parts heartbreaking and heart-warming. The NBC nightly news shifts from Harvey coverage to a piece on "How the hurricane will impact your prices at the pump." I want to vomit. Too soon, Lester. Too soon.
Days blur together. Kevin and I slept in shifts so that one of us could watch the news for important updates. Patience has never been my strong suit. Waiting to see if I was going to lose my home was unbearable. But waiting to see how we would have to evacuate was a nightmare. Would we float out the front door on our air mattress, or would the water be too high for that? Would we have to get out through one of our upper-level windows? If so, how exactly would someone get to us? Would we be safer staying on the upper level of the home, or getting out via boat? What about debris that could be floating in the water? What’s the strength of the current? Could I drown? What should I pack in my evacuation bag? (Assuming it will all get wet…what do I need that can handle getting wet?) What will I climb out with/on? How will I hang onto Odie Boy as I’m climbing out a window? Will they even allow a dog at these shelters? Should I give him a doggie Xanax before this goes down? Should I take one? I wish I had a helmet and a life jacket. I’m thankful I have a raft, rope, bungee cords, and a first aid kit. I wasn’t prepared. We were ready for three days of rain – not an emergency survival situation. Although I will say this - I like the way my brain works under pressure.
I was flipping back and forth between a victim mentality and some sort of superhero persona (best described as MacGyver meets Wonder Woman – fairly bad ass). I can remember standing in my kitchen, staring at the “Make good choices” note I had written myself on my white board. I wrote this three weeks ago to remind myself to eat healthy foods. It was a profound moment for me, given the much greater significance of the message, as I was beginning to map out our evacuation prep plan. Yesterday it was about being 10 pounds overweight. Today it’s about survival. In just one day, everything on my calendar became completely irrelevant. Everything in my life became irrelevant (ironically, to preserve said life). That Maslow character? He was onto something.
As we were moving certain first-floor belongings upstairs to the Wanderlust studio and my Papermoon office, I asked myself, “Which of these things are most important to save?” And my answer? All of them and none of them. How do you really choose? I have a strong habit of keeping only those things in my home that are beautiful, useful, or truly sentimental. Everyone kept telling me, “It’s just stuff. You can replace your stuff. You can’t replace your life.” I obliged in the moments, but I will say here and now that I only partially agree with that. I can’t replace my baby blanket. Or my pictures. Or the ring my Grandma Ethal gave me on Christmas Eve in 2002, the night before she died. Or the hope chest my Dad built for me the following year, engraved on the inside. And really, I can’t necessarily replace anything, because we don’t have flood insurance and we just spent our money to completely remodel this home six months ago. Not to mention the fact that with multiple thousands of homes destroyed, it could take months before our home could be repaired anyway. And depending on how long the water would sit in the home, it could potentially destroy the foundation to the point of needing to be taken down. Yes, it’s just stuff. And while so well intended, I didn’t find much comfort in those words. Because some stuff is actually really fucking important.
Meteorologist Frank Billingsley is my new hero. He kept it real, gave hope where appropriate, and called it correctly. I’m not sure if he stopped working at all. Jeff Lindner is a close second. He’s the Harris County Flood District Guru who gave updates every morning, evening, and as needed in between. Millions of people were clinging to their every word. Their words were our fate. Tragedies bring out the best and worst in people – and in journalism. Some pointers for all of you budding reporters out there: Frank and Jeff? Good. Pointing a camera and microphone in the face of someone who is literally climbing out of a raft after being rescued from their massively flooded home? Not. Good. Please have some sensitivity.
I cried my eyes out to the point of exhaustion and pain, many times. Despite many failed attempts to ground myself, I was absorbing all of the energy the news was projecting – knowing that I needed to turn it off and give myself a break but also knowing that I couldn’t afford to miss an important update. I prayed a lot. When you’re in a dire situation, what you really believe in is revealed to you. I believe in God. Not sure which God (or Gods, Universe, what have you) and I don’t even have to know. In fact, I’m not the least bit curious. I have a Christian upbringing, a Muslim boyfriend, six Buddha statues, an affinity for astrology, and an obsession with crystals. So you tell me. But I prayed for my home not be flooded, with the caveat that if it were to flood, I would understand why in fairly short order. So even among my greatest fears, evidentially I still favor the bigger picture. Go figure. I had three panic attacks. In one day. I was humbled by the number of friends and family who reached out to see if we were okay (And if I’m being honest, saddened by a few that did not). And we were okay. And we are okay. Our beautiful home remains unflooded, and we’ve been told that we are in the clear. But this tragedy is far from over. There are still people trapped in their homes awaiting evacuation. There are still homes that haven’t flooded but will within the next 24 hours (adding to the already staggering number of 40,000 flooded homes). As of 8/30, Harvey has unloaded 24.5 trillion gallons of water on Texas and Louisiana. In one week. At one point I heard there were almost 150 tornado warnings (as in separate warnings so separate sightings). Mother nature isn't begging to be heard. She is screaming in our face at the top of her lungs. And yes, I am out of wine.
This morning, eight days after I grabbed that last gallon of water off the shelf, I am back at that same grocery store. It’s sparsely stocked, understandably. I make some mental adjustments to my weekly meal plan, and adjust the shopping list accordingly. I’ve never been so grateful for the opportunity to buy food. For the first time in my privileged life, I feel what a luxury this is. I’m saddened by the fact that the store has signs hanging in every isle apologizing to customers for the lack of food being offered (sad that we live in a world where they would that feel the need to apologize for such a thing, given what we’ve gone through). Some businesses really step up – financially and otherwise.
I’m so emotionally drained, coming off a week-long adrenaline high and continuing to monitor what’s going on. There’s a sense of guilt I’m feeling for being one of the “lucky ones.” There were situations when my safety and a dry home depended on the flooding of another (the water has to go somewhere). You’re praying for your home, but what does that mean for the home 15 miles from you? It’s just so awful.
I feel like I need some time to rest, reflect, and readjust back into a mindset where everything on my calendar is relevant again. But I also feel like I should be helping everybody else who is less fortunate. I think there is room for both, which is why I let myself take the last two hours to put these thoughts down on paper. Perspective comes in many shapes and sizes. This dose will stick with me for a while.