“It was like a war zone.It was a full blown, epic, biblical disaster.”
After the trauma of the flood, Texans have one thing on their minds: rebuild
As Hurricane Harvey starts to become a memory for people watching around the world, south-east Texans are left standing, mouths agape, at the magnitude of this disaster. As the water levels drop and the damage becomes painfully evident, most people are left struggling to work out what to do next. But the overwhelming theme in Houston is: we simply have to rebuild.
Kristin Keating Sanders, who escaped Kingwood, an upmarket north-eastern suburb of the city, said the day she evacuated with her husband, two young children and her family pets was quite simply the worst day of her life.
“It was like a war zone,” she says. “It was a full blown, epic, biblical disaster.” When the water was still more than a metre from her front door, she started moving expensive rugs, pictures and furniture upstairs — just in case. “None of us thought our houses would flood,” she says.
But her house, which has never taken on water in any storm, started filling up late Monday afternoon, by which time there was no way to evacuate. The streets were already flooded. She says she will never forget the sound of the water pouring into the ground floor through the night.
“I heard water splashing in my house," she says. "The floors made popping noises as they started to come up in large chunks. I was listening to my grandmother’s china crack and break. The commodes and sinks were bubbling and gurgling. It was just so eerie. It sounded like we were on a ship that was slowly sinking.”
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By morning, the water was more than four feet deep. By then, everyone in her neighbourhood needed rescuing. But it was not merely a matter of wading through water.
“This was like a raging river,” says Sanders. “You couldn’t stand in it.”
Neighbours navigated the turbulent flow in a kayak to get to her house. When Sanders handed them her six-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, she says, “That is when I broke down. I was the captain going down with this ship. That’s how I felt.”
She and her husband then tried to get away with their cat and dog in their own canoe but the current was too strong. “We almost capsized. My cat almost drowned. We crashed into a porch across the street. That saved us.” And then the neighbours came back with their kayak. Her family is now in Austin, staying with a cousin. “The minute we can get back in the house, we’ll go,” she says. “We will rebuild.”
While some tell of harrowing escapes from homes that are now completely submerged, others are shocked that they were spared. Seana Moss, a school librarian in the Spring Independent School District, said the water reached the top step of her front door and then — to her amazement — stopped. Every house to the left of her stayed dry; every house to the right was flooded.
Moss, who has lived with her mother in the Kingwood area since 1992 knows she is lucky. She is also resolute: Houstonians will get through this, together.
“We help each other out. Here, it’s neighbours first, government second," she says.
The corporate world has pitched in to help, to make the situation just a little easier. Uber is giving free rides up to $50, to and from shelters in the area. Houston Independent School District will provide three free meals a day to all its students throughout the school year. Shelters have been overwhelmed with donations and volunteers. Some have even had to turn volunteers away. For those living in a metropolitan area of 6.5 million people — incidentally, the twin city of Abu Dhabi — that solidarity is immensely reassuring.
Wayne Murphy, an engineer who moved to the Houston area only last year, lives in a first-floor apartment. When it became obvious that all ground-floor units would flood, he took in his downstairs neighbours — a couple caring for their grandson, who has special needs. He had never met them before. They spent the night together, but when morning came, it became clear that the first floor was at risk of flooding too. They all needed to evacuate. Murphy says, “We blew up an air mattress and I floated the son out on the mattress. I was in water up to my chest. Once we got him to an airboat, the rest of us were rescued.” Murphy is now staying with a co-worker. Every ground-floor apartment in his complex is gutted and with his car flooded too, he has no idea when he will be able to check if his own first-floor home has survived.
As the waters recede, people are left aghast at what remains. Social media is filled with people desperate to find missing pets and people searching for the owners of pets they have found. Cars are emerging from the water, their windows smashed by the propellers of the rescue boats. Concrete barriers on motorways have been shifted from one side to the other by the sheer force of the water and major road junctions are littered with dead fish. Personal belongings from flooded homes have turned up far from where they belong.
Julie Parker's home had never been flooded. But when she and her two grown-up children were rescued, there was well over a metre of water in the house and rising, and the US coastguard boat was able to pick them up right at the front door. That was after a helicopter rescue from an upper storey window failed.
“They hovered over our house for about 45 minutes. They dropped a guy down to get us, but because our trees are so tall and it was so windy, it wasn’t safe,” she said. Their two dogs were rescued too. Parker’s house, and everything in it, has been destroyed, and though they moved their four family cars to higher ground, they flooded too.
“I don’t know what my next move is,” she says. “Our insurance will provide us with rental cars but we can’t get to them. And even if we could, there aren’t enough cars for everyone who needs them. We have no transportation.”
As she tells the story, another rescue helicopter flies overhead. The sound has become commonplace now. Sitting on a bench at a community centre with her children and pets, Parker is hopeful that her brother will take them in — as soon as he can get to them. As for the rest, she says, “I’ve already cried three times today. It is just stuff. We survived. I got a toothbrush. I’m grateful for my toothbrush.”