We first evacuated from a hurricane in August, 2005. I was 11 years old and gearing up to start the sixth grade. We’d recently pierced my ears at Claire’s; a heroic gesture from parents who allowed me to start junior high with earrings as opposed to making me wait until the age of 12.
We received warning of a storm—Katrina, she was called—and began to secure everything we owned. We elevated couches and living room chairs atop cinderblocks. All photo albums and frames were moved into drawers, and glass items were stowed away on closet floors. My parents gathered our birth certificates and social security cards. I packed a juvenile suitcase full of diaries and my baby blanket, with maybe a few practical items. I knew what was important to me.
We took our loaded-down Dodge Caravan north to Rockwall, a trip that usually spans four to five hours even in the height of Thanksgiving traffic. Bumper to bumper with every other Houstonian leaving town, this trip stretched to 23 hours. I remember a highway cop approaching our unmoving vehicle as my dad begged to know the next exit. He had three daughters screaming to pee.
“Do you have a bottle?” the cop asked.
“They’re all girls,” my dad replied. “But thanks.”
I think about those parents sometimes. The young adults who uncertainly threw their entire family in the back of a minivan and took off with the knowledge we might return to a different town. How terrifying. How utterly terrifying and brave for families to evacuate their lives, unpanicked as to convince their children it was no more than a surprise vacation.
In the week following—one spent at my aunt’s house, making fun of local children who still had school in session—we’d learn how unpredictable hurricanes could be. Katrina unexpectedly veered east of Houston, taking Louisiana by storm. The levees broke; a phrase that meant nothing to me at the time, but would come to haunt the southeastern United States. I recall footage of rows and rows of FEMA trailers, over-populated cots lining the floor of Houston’s reliant center. New students searching for positive first day of school introductions, despite their memories of a destroyed home and an abandoned hometown.
My family was lucky that season, surviving both Katrina and Rita with no more than a fallen backyard fence. A few years later, we’d have similar luck with Ike, remaining untouched while others lost everything. There was no strategy to these storms’ paths. Hurricanes don’t map things out beforehand, targeting vacation homes or passing over low-income housing. They come in, distribute their rage randomly, and leave whoever is left to put everything back together.
Words are insufficient in describing how helpless I’ve felt watching Harvey ravage my hometown while I sit safely 1,115 miles away. I’ve heard of my sister’s apartment and cars taking on water. I’ve seen videos of friends kayaking into their own homes to salvage what little has been left untouched. I’ve watched drone footage of my favorite breakfast place and the highway I’d take to high school submerged, unreachable and unusable by standard vehicles. I’ve watched videos of people living out of tents on their rooftops, remaining visible to rescue boats passing by. I’ve seen photos of strangers carrying their babies and puppy dogs through waist-deep waters, choosing to be survivors despite these unprecedented conditions.
And although I’m horrified, I remain unsurprised. That my dad’s softball friends have gone out on jet skis to bring neighbors to safety. That church friends took their van to my sister’s flooded apartment and brought my niece safely to her grandparents’ dry home. That Mattress Mack opened up his Gallery Furniture stores to refugees. That shelters are being inundated with supplies. That the people of Houston and surrounding areas have taken to the flooded streets and bayous in personal boats and vehicles to address the needs of a desperate community themselves.
My home has, again, been one of the more fortunate. We’re at six days of heavy rain and the house has yet to see water inside. My family is short on nothing, save Netflix content appropriate enough for a four-year-old and interesting enough for adults. They’ll get out and help when they can; when surrounding waters have receded and the city is ready to rebuild. And it will rebuild.
I sit in the comforts of a coffee shop, watching the rain fall gently over Chicago, wondering how I’d feel wading through it at waist-level. It is unimaginable. I have yet to understand the magnitude of loss, to calculate the absolute chaos and destruction that has extended from this storm. But I know nothing has ended, and no one has given up.
As the rains still pour, my neighbors and family and friends look to the future. They ask who needs help, who requires rescue. A friend uploaded a photo of his new home, half-submerged in water, still offering to come by boat to pick up others who are stranded. That’s how I know this town will be okay. This city, with six million plus in its surrounding areas, remains full of people who look at their own heartbreak and say, “What can I do to ease yours?”
May we all follow suit.
Here is the organization I’ll be donating to, in lieu of sending supplies to possibly overstocked shelters and organizations. If you’re able, your donations are appreciated: