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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Hurricane Harvey: situation in Houston changing 'minute by minute'

There will be more flooding and more damage before this is over ... we could lose water soon, and we've already lost power, writes Stacie Overton Johnson from Houston

Cattle are stranded in a flooded pasture on Highway 71 in La Grange, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017. Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP
Cattle are stranded in a flooded pasture on Highway 71 in La Grange, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017. Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

When it comes to natural disasters, what you see in the news is often an exaggeration of what’s happening on the ground.

While news reports tend to focus on one or two bad areas - leaving people on the outside looking in with a false sense of doom and gloom - what you’re seeing in the news now about Hurricane Harvey's devastating impact on Houston is not an exaggeration. The doom and gloom is real. This powerful, giant oil city by the sea is drowning.

I’ve been through four hurricanes before, all in Florida, and not one of them compares to what’s happening right now in Houston.

My family moved to Kingwood, a north-east suburb of Houston, a few months ago.

While the rain has been relentless, with plenty more to come, we feel relatively safe in our little corner of Houston. Though several streets in our neighbourhood are impassable because they’re under water and local tornado warnings abound, our house has been spared. We know that we’re lucky.

There have been comments on social media from people all over the world wondering why Houstonians did not evacuate before Harvey made landfall.

Evacuating would have been a good idea indeed – that’s easy to see now. But, save for those in the coastal towns that took a direct hit from this hurricane, most of us – including hurricane experts – were not expecting this.

And the mixed messages from people in charge didn’t help.

“If you wait until you realise how serious this condition is, you will likely find that it’s too late for you to evacuate,” Texas governor Greg Abbott said in a press conference before Harvey made landfall.

It was sort of a call to evacuate but not an official one.

That was quickly followed up by local officials who urged residents to listen to them: it was not necessary to evacuate Houston, they said.

So most of us stayed – not because we didn’t fear or respect Harvey’s strength, but because we’ve done this before. I have evacuated from one hurricane in the past (and stayed put for three), and believe me, evacuation is a lot more than just getting in a car and driving west.

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Read more:

Houston to shelter 30,000 people as flood waters continue to rise

Experts warn of ‘life-threatening’ flooding

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Houston is no stranger to hurricanes. When officials evacuated the city in the face of Hurricane Rita in 2005, thousands of people were stranded on highways, stuck in traffic jams.

More than 100 people died because of the evacuation efforts.

Emptying a metropolitan area of 6.5 million is no easy feat. For those of us who have been through hurricanes before, it’s simply an easier decision to stay.

But Houstonians know that staying is risky too.

Houston’s police chief told residents who plan to seek refuge from rising waters in their attics not to do so unless “you have an axe or means to break through onto your roof”.

The people who were plucked off those rooftops by first responders in helicopters knew they were taking a chance when they stayed. People who have been rescued by boats from major highways snaking through downtown Houston knew they were taking a chance when they stayed.

And many of those people are owning that.

They’re not asking for sympathy. Instead of blaming mixed messages from officials, or blaming themselves even, they are simply moving forward, finding a way to survive.

People are fleeing flooded homes only to trudge through flooded streets where snakes, alligators, fire ants and dislodged manhole covers pose a whole new set of hazards.

If we’ve learnt anything from the past few days, it’s that Houstonians are resilient in the face of unthinkable conditions.

Alexendre Jorge evacuates Ethan Colman, 4, from a neighbourhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on August 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas. Charlie Riedel/AP Photo
Alexendre Jorge evacuates Ethan Colman, 4, from a neighbourhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on August 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas. Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

We’re seeing first responders - overwhelmed by a disaster of such scale, and referred to by the Texas governor as "one of the worst floods Houston has ever had" - making heroic rescues through sleepless nights.

On social media, a picture of wheelchair-bound elderly women sitting waist-deep in rising waters went viral. They have since been rescued and evacuated.

Garry Hoyt, a firefighter/paramedic in Kingwood has been making rescues in Pearland since 6am Friday morning. His wife Mia thought he’d make it home for a spell sometime in the early hours of Monday but there was no sign of him when morning came.

On the phone, he told his wife the calls for help have been non-stop. In what must have eased the mind of his young daughter, worried about her dad, Garry told her about rescuing a person from one house where there was a litter of kittens.

He saved the kittens too, he told her. “She’s a total cat nut, so he’s her superhero now,” Mia said.

But first responders aren’t the only heroes in this storm. We’ve seen civilians in boats, canoes and kayaks rowing through flooded streets, rescuing those in need. We saw one man pulling two jet skis behind a truck, looking for ways to help.

So far, there have been no reports of mass looting or violence. In the middle of one of the biggest disasters Texas has ever faced, when our cells phones won’t stop buzzing with emergency alerts warning of flash floods and tornados, there is an underlying - and unexpected - sense of calm. Watching strangers help strangers, when they themselves are dealing with their own flooded homes, has been a light in Harvey’s darkness.

There is an end in sight, officials tell us, but not yet.

There will be more flooding and more damage before this is over. There were reports on Monday that the water treatment plant in Lake Houston - which supplies our neighbourhood with water - is now submerged. We could lose water soon, and we've already lost power.

The situation is literally changing minute by minute.

At 1am on Monday, the Army Corp of Engineers began a controlled release of water from two dams that were at risk of failing. If the dams fail, half of Houston will be under water. But that released water will subsequently flood homes unlucky enough to be in its path.

People in those areas have been given either a voluntary or mandatory order to evacuate, but with so many arteries into and out of the city flooded, there aren’t many ways to escape.

Chetna Koshy, who is from Houston but now lives in Abu Dhabi, said her neighbourhood in Sugar Land is now under a mandatory evacuation because of the controlled release from the dams. The tenants in the Sugar Land home she owns have left, but not before moving their valuable items upstairs. “We have flood insurance but it does not save lives, just belongings,” says Koshy. “We are praying everyone is safe.” Koshy’s parents are in a voluntary evacuation zone in Sugar Land. Because Koshy’s mother just had knee surgery and is using a walker, they’ve decided to stay. “They are worried they will get stuck in rising water,” says Koshy. “But they have nowhere to go.”

“The worry and anxiety have been very difficult. Our hearts are broken and we are praying for our home town. Sometimes it takes an apocalyptic event to make you realise where home is.”

It’s a surreal experience to be in the middle of this disaster as the rest of the world looks on in horror. As we continue to watch the rain come down in buckets and the water continues to rise, there is a sliver of hope in the sense of solidarity that has emerged. There is a definitive feeling that although no one here is safe right now, no one here is alone.