A Kind Revolution

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I think about things all of the time. Some people might call my mental gymnastics worry or anxiety. I simply see myself as having a very active mind. Some people have difficulty standing still. They are always moving about. I find it hard to shut down the thoughts inside my brain. I am always observing, asking questions and considering solutions for problems. Sometimes my mental processes are so active that I have to calm myself just to relax enough to sleep.

Lately I’ve really been considering the effects of climate change and ways in which we might address the issues associated with the storms and droughts and other weather events that are plaguing our earth more and more often. When I look for guidance from experts and I ask probing questions I generally find myself feeling as though nobody is actually prepared to consider all of the consequences, unintended or certain, that may occur from choosing one plan of action over another. It’s frustrating because it sometimes feels as though the issue being presented as a zero sum game regardless of which of the extreme sides one decides to choose. Instead I think that there is surely some alternative that is more viable.

On the one hand we are being told that our time for hesitation is long gone. We must begin to accept draconian measures if we are to avoid economic collapse and social/political chaos. The warnings are dire and not totally unfounded based on scientific research but they also seem to ignore some very basic questions that seem to have no real answers. The very scenario of economic doom might also come to pass if the most exacting sacrifices are indeed enforced. Little thought has been given to how to radically change the ways in which we do almost everything so that people do not lose their livelihoods. It’s difficult to get a major road built in under ten years so why should we believe that we can totally redesign how we live in a short time without leaving large sectors of the world’s population in economic danger?

On the other hand there are the climate change deniers who seem stubbornly unwilling to accept the facts about how we humans have literally changed the workings of the earth. They are gambling with our futures by insisting that the whole idea of climate change is little more than a hoax being propagated on the world as a means of upending political systems. If they have their way we may in fact one day find ourselves having to relocate the people of entire cities and the hardships of the Great Depression will seem like a cakewalk compared to the human upheavals that may transpire.

Somehow I find myself thinking that the most invested groups are running the show while the rest of us sit back ignoring the possibilities. My innate logic tells me that there must be a better way. If we all agree to work hard to do things to lessen the impact of climate change then perhaps we can forestall scenarios of doom and gloom while continuing to search for more intelligent solutions.

The truth is that we have too many cars rolling down the road at any given hour. Back when I was young most families owned a single vehicle. The drivers had to take turns using the family car. I remember going on the bus with my mom to do our shopping because my dad had to take the auto to work. When we had appointments in places not serviced by buses we would drop my father off at the bus stop and he would ride to work that way. We lived by the school so we were able to walk everyday. In fact, we walked and rode our bicycles to a number of places. We managed to get everywhere we needed to go by being flexible and inventive.

With a bit of sacrifice and a willingness to consider other alternatives to having multiple cars much of the carbon footprint from driving might be mitigated. Even better would be to make more and more autos that are hybrids or reliably electric at affordable prices. Neighborhoods should consider allowing residents to move about in electric golf carts or community trolleys. Bike lanes should automatically become standard on side streets. Businesses should encourage employees to ride share by providing bonuses or parking for those who do.  Governments might provide tax incentives for those willing to take such steps as well. Cities need to invest in more viable and environmentally friendly mass transportation systems and be rewarded for doing so. The modern world should begin to look like the imaginary one of futuristic thought. 

There is a home in my neighborhood that is fitted with Tesla solar panels. Our climate is particularly well suited for such innovation but the cost of installing such systems is prohibitive for most people. If lawmakers are truly serious about taking bold steps to reduce the carbon footprint then they need to help make it financially feasible for the average homeowner to invest in solar energy or other alternatives. Just as the government built the nation’s highways after World War II this can be a national campaign to redesign the way we get energy for our homes but it has to be affordable for it to work.

We must also encourage all forms of energy innovation. I know of a man who has been attempting to sell the idea of having personal windmills in every backyard but he has encountered far too much opposition. While his inventiveness may need a bit of tweaking I wonder why nobody has encouraged his designs by investing in research to make it better. Think of how Thomas Edison changed the world as it was known in a very short time because the movers and shakers of Wall Street saw merit in his ideas. Capitalism does not need to be a foe of climate change believers but rather a source for encouraging new ways of doing things that will make the world a better place for everyone.

There has been much criticism of older and past generations of late but we might also take some pages from their stories. They built houses that have lasted for centuries. The designs took advantage of cross breezes so that air conditioning was not required to be cool. They built foundations on pillars that raised homes from the water of floods. They installed clotheslines in every backyard to use the sun for drying laundry. They recycled virtually everything including packaging for purchases. I wore many a dress handmade by my grandmother from the cloth of flour sacks. Old clothes were turned into warm quilts that were used in piles to eradicate the need for heat. Most people kept vegetable gardens in their yards.

We have to educate the populace to be flexible and willing to think outside of the box. This means taking the brilliance of mankind and using it not just to create an uproar but to formulate more efficient and evironmentally friendly ways of living. We can incentivize good habits and create a movement that works for everyone in an ever changing world. We need to begin to think ahead planning our moves with a willingness to quickly adapt them to whatever situation arises.

Most people despise lectures about what they have done wrong but they enjoy the idea of  being part of progress through innovation. Surely the same people who were able to put a man on the moon in only a decade can move the environment to a better place without robbing the rich or leaving the poor in a state of desperation. We can do this as surely as we went from a sleepy and isolated nation to the heroes of World War II. It may take a few sacrifices and changes in the way we live but it will also include exciting new ways of doing things that will be better than anything we have ever seen. We should join together in a spirit of optimism to design a kind revolution for saving our planet that respects everyone. We can do it!

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We Can Do It!

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It’s true that the city of Houston floods, and that flooding affects large numbers of people whenever it happens. What is not necessarily true is that the floods that we see are something new in the grand scheme of Houston city life. As a matter of fact there are recorded incidents of inundated streets from time to time dating back over one hundred years. Both my mother and my mother-in-law spoke of witnessing Mother Nature’s soggy fury in their childhoods. The city’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico which is only about fifty miles away makes it vulnerable to violent storms that dump indescribable amounts of rain in a short period of time. Add to that the countless bodies of water that dot the landscape and a recipe for periodic trouble emerges. 

Before World War II Houston was a rather small town. Neighborhoods ringed the city center which has the highest elevation in the area. People studied the behavior of the bayous and the patterns of storms and built homes accordingly. To this day it is extremely rare for the houses near where my mother and mother-in-law grew up to flood. There was a certain care taken in choosing a site on which to build a homestead but the war created a demand for oil and Houston became a boom town with its location near production sites and its port to deliver the products.

The growth of Houston necessitated new neighborhoods and the new suburbs were sometimes built rather hastily with little regard or knowledge of flooding patterns. Nonetheless there was still so much open land that drainage was often accomplished by vast open fields. In the meantime the population continued to expand so that more and more of the raw land was being developed into roads, businesses and houses. The prosperity continued without any sign of slowing all the way into the nineteen eighties and with it came construction in areas that previously might have been considered unsuited for safe habitation. The old timers had always had a sense of where the water might flow in a big storm, but the push for expansion negated all of their concerns. 

All of the places where I lived as a child in Houston often became islands when big storms came but literally they have never once taken on water inside. Not Allison nor Harvey nor our most recent Imelda have encroached on them. My husband’s experience has been the same. Many of the places around town that flood regularly were built from the nineteen sixties to the present. They were erected on land too close to bayous and river ways which made them attractive in dry spells but posed danger when the rains came. The demand for housing created more and more risk taking thus increasing the likelihood of damage and loss when the inevitable storms come our way.

My husband lived within walking distance of Interstate 45 and remembers when it was being constructed. He used to watch the construction crews create the roads and the overpasses. In the evening when they went home he rode his bicycle on the unopened highway. He pointed out that the massive system was actually designed to serve as a place for water to go when it rained so that the side streets in the neighborhoods would be spared. Whenever he sees images of a flooded freeway near his home he notes that the construction is working as it was supposed to do. His old house is always high and dry and the addition of that massive expanse of concrete has actually protected it from harm.   

It has only been recently that there have been serious discussions about how to deal with the big storms that are certain to rage over Houston and flood the streets just as they always have. The question becomes how we might manage to provide housing that will withstand the effects of the weather. It is apparent that some areas will need to be turned into parks or wildlife refuges and construction will need to take storms into account. Hunkering down in safe conditions until the rains end is not all that inconvenient, but having to repair thousands of homes that fill with water is unnecessary and untenable.

Stricter rules about where and how construction takes place have to be considered. Advanced drainage systems should be installed. More land needs to be left open. Bayous should be deepened and widened. The city should invest in studies and partnerships with engineers in places like the Netherlands where once historic flooding has been virtually eliminated with modern technologies. There are things that can be done with a bit of imagination and sacrifice if only we have the will.

Houston proves again and again that it is a magnificent city because of its people. When disaster strikes ordinary folks come to the rescue without regard to race or socioeconomic status. Nobody riots or loots or burns places down. Instead they rise to the occasion again and again. Perhaps the time has come to think of improvements that might prevent some of the destruction. It won’t be easy and it will cost a great deal but the investment will make Houston stronger in every conceivable way. Our ancestors understood the dangers from the periodic flooding. They built for safety and long lasting value. With all of the modern technology that we have we should be able to do things even better than they did to transform this glorious and worthy city into a model of human ingenuity.

An Ounce of Caution

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Here in Houston we get hurricanes from time to time and they are capable of causing great damage from both wind and rain. I worry during the long hurricane season that runs from about June through October in this area. I get especially anxious around the middle of August until the middle of October because that seems to be the time in which we are the most likely to get a violent storm. I’ve learned how and where to hunker down if I decide to stay in my home until everything blows over. I prepare myself both mentally and physically in July while there is still time to get things in order without a rush at the last minute.

I’ve learned to have plenty of batteries, flashlights, lanterns and water on hand along with a supply of nonperishable food. My mother-in-law taught me to fill all of the bathtubs and big pots in the house with water ahead of the hurricane so that I will have a good source of that life saving liquid for some time. I’m always happy that I have a gas stove because even if the electricity goes out I am still able to cook. I store away anything that might blow around in my yard and put tape on my windows. Then I usually go to my father-in-law’s house in the Heights. It’s been standing there for over a hundred years and is rarely affected by anything other than the loss of electricity.

There are more precautions that I have wanted to take but somehow I just never get around to accomplishing the necessary tasks. I have friends who cut and store plywood to cover windows. They have each plank numbered according to the area of glass it is designed to protect. There are many years in which the custom designed works of caution do little more than gather dust in the rafters of the garage, but when a storm threatens in the Gulf of Mexico they are ready to prepare their property while everyone else is scurrying around like folks gone mad.

My husband and I have looked at various generators from time to time as well, including the ones that are permanently affixed to the natural gas supply and designed to automatically kick into gear the moment that the power goes out. The folks who have those experience a small blip and then everything continues working as though nothing had happened. The rest of us with no backup system might find ourselves operating like our ancestors with candles and oil lamps until Reliant Energy gets around to repairing the lines. It can be miserably hot and humid, not to mention cut off from information since none of the electronics work. I’ve tried to encourage my husband to make an investment in some kind of generator, but so far he has not seen a reason for purchasing an expensive item that may be used once in a blue moon.

The hurricanes that I remember are Carla, Alicia, Ike and Harvey. We stayed with my Aunt Polly during Carla when I was just entering the eighth grade. The storm did a great deal of damage around the area but our home suffered nary a scratch. For Alicia we went to my father-in-law’s house. Again our own place was high dry and untouched but the electricity stayed off in part of the neighborhood for weeks. I was a teacher then and the schools did not reopen for quite some time. Ike sent us back again to my father-in-law’s place. I was awake when the storm passed over Houston and I marveled at the strength of the house. It was like watching a hurricane in a movie. The windows barely moved in spite of the power of the storm. For Harvey we stayed in our own home. We had no idea how devastating that event would be for so many of our friends and family, but we luckily came through unharmed. Nonetheless I recall becoming uncontrollably anxious as I watched images of my city going under water. I was certain that we would have to bail at some point, but somehow the water kept miraculously draining.

There is something quite serendipitous about Mother Nature. It’s difficult to predict where she will aim her fury, but there is enough time with the approach of a hurricane to get a fairly good idea of the path that it will take. There are ways to prepare and usually time to do so. The only trick is to get things done early because once it seems certain that an area will bear the brunt of tropical fury  most of the needed supplies will fly from the shelves of the stores leaving only blank spaces for those who have procrastinated.

While I become anxious each summer lest a powerful storm come to our city, I know what I need to do when the threat is clear. Tornadoes and earthquakes are another thing entirely. They come with little or no warning which to me makes them doubly frightening. Living under a constant threat of such things would no doubt make me a basket case just as it has done for those in Houston whose homes flooded with the nonstop rains of hurricane Harvey. Now when thunder and lightning roar in the sky they worry in ways that they never did before. I suspect that living in an earthquake or tornado area might have a similar effect.

My family lived in both northern and southern California for a time when I was eight years old. I recall real estate agents instructing us in what to do in the event of an earthquake. We even had periodic drills at school. I was terrified because we learned that such incidents are rarely predicted. I feared that I would be away from my parents when one struck or that some enormous piece of furniture might fall on top of me. I found myself checking out buildings for strong areas and ways of exiting and wishing that I might return to Texas where such things were exceedingly rare.

My daughter often experienced tornado warnings when she lived in a Chicago suburb. She kept a closet under the stairs cleared so that she might readily run inside with her babies whenever the sirens began to blare. It was nerve wracking because things happened so instantly. I suppose that none of us ever know when we will become entwined in the wrath of nature but it’s always a good idea to have a plan of what to do and how to keep in touch with friends and loved ones when such events come our way.

My brother was a first responder and always told us to check for exits in movie theaters and hotels. He cautioned us to use stairs rather than elevators in an emergency situation. As a teacher I took part in planning and drills for all sorts of possibilities. I learned to be ever alert. I’d like to think that I am ready for just about anything, but I also understand that the world is filled with the unexpected most of which we luckily never experience. Still I am reminded each summer to be prepared. An ounce of caution never hurts. Maybe this year I’ll buy that generator just to be sure.

Summer Is Coming

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I have a love/hate relationship with summer. I enjoy the long days and the possibilities of adventure, but the season brings back memories of tragedies that I have endured, and then there is the heat and humidity that slows my energy and puts me in a state of lethargy. “Summer is coming” is a phrase that causes worries to silently fill my head. I fret about storms and hurricanes that may find their way to the places where me and my family and friends live. I feel a caution and not too little anxiety in summer that does not leave me until the end of September when the first hints of fall shorten the days and cool the air. I suppose in my distrust of summer I am quite different from most of the people I know.

I do not like the heat of summer. I seem to wilt and lose my energy as the mercury rises. I become sluggish and prone to stay indoors. I don’t like using all of the electricity that is needed to keep my home at a reasonable temperature, and I hate summer fashions that leave so little to the imagination. Summer is a time when I suppose I should head to cooler places for a long stay, locales where I may still need a jacket and do not require machines to cool me.

Summer is the time when far too many people that I have loved have died. I have a difficult time recalling birthdays, but I seem to always remember the dates on which my favorite people left this earth. I go into a kind of quiet sadness at the same time that everyone else appears to be celebrating the joys of warm days outdoors. I harbor groundless fears during that time, watching for signs that someone I know will have a heart attack or a stroke or a mental breakdown because summer is when those I care about have endured such things. I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but somehow the timing of tragedy in my life almost always coincides with the summer months, and so I am cautiously optimistic when June rolls around.

Hurricane season coincides with the summer, and it terrifies me. I fear the weather reports, and watch for signs that a storm may come my way. I know the kind of destruction that those heartless freaks of nature impart on humanity. I have seen firsthand the sorrow that they may bring. I cry at the thought of a Katrina or Harvey or Maria randomly choosing an area to destroy. I don’t think upon such things every minute of every day or I would surely go insane, but I do carry a healthy fear in the back of mind. I remain alert and prepared until the danger has passed.

I worry about too much water and too little when the summer comes. I’ve seen entire forests on fire and witnessed the loss of whole towns in images on my television. I’ve watched my own plants whither under the hot summer sun unless I ply them with water that I feel guilty using when there are people dying of thirst in some parts of the world like Jordan where water is only available once a week. It seems so ironic that California may be on fire at the very same time that homes are filling with the ravages of rain in my city.

As a child I loved the summer. My mother would cut my hair each June so that breezes might caress my neck. I’d live in shorts and sleeveless tops with bare feet grown brown from the sun and the dirt. I’d run and play and ride my bike with hardly a notice of the heat. I’d enjoy the peaches, plums and watermelon of the season, and the freedom of lessons and homework. I had few worries other than how to fit all of the fun with my friends into each day. I’d read books next to an open window in the high heat of the afternoon or join in a competitive card game with my playmates. I never thought of the weather or its consequences. Worries about tragedy were not on my radar, at least not until my father died.

I sometimes long for the innocence of my youth when “summer is coming” meant swimming at a city pool and Sundays at Clear Lake with my cousins. Summer meant total freedom with adventures that would have rivaled Tom Sawyer. My skin would freckle and brown and I never once worried that I might be damaging my health or in danger of developing skin cancer. I was a free range kid of the highest order, running without shoes in the woods, romping in the muck of the ditch behind my cousin’s house, and playing almost arm breaking games of Red Rover with the multitude of kids who lived up and down my long street. I quenched my thirst from the garden hose and played from the first light of dawn until the street lights came on in the dark. I don’t recall feeling uncomfortable when I went to bed in our unconditioned house where the temperatures had to be in the high eighties. Nor did I ever worry that some evil might come into our home by way of the open windows that never closed during that season, even when we were away running errands.

Perhaps I have become too old to fully appreciate the summer. I get hot and cranky if I am outdoors for too long. I dislike the feel of the sunscreen that I am compelled to slather all over my body to protect me. I don’t like the way I appear in shorts and skimpy tops. I’ve become grumpy about the very time of year that once enchanted me, and that actually makes me sad. I so want to feel the unbridled pleasure of my youth when I lived in the joy of the moment rather than considering what might go wrong. Returning to that kind of exuberance is something that I intend to seek. Summer is coming and I want to make the most of it and be unafraid.

Three Days in August

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Some things are so traumatic that they leave a permanent scar on the heart. We vividly remember how such events felt even years later. For me those moments have been the morning when I learned of my father’s death, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the moment when I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been killed, 9/11, and the three days of rain that flooded my city last August as a result of hurricane Harvey.

It has now been a year since fifty one inches of rain fell in virtually every part of Houston over that three day period. I remember all of the dire warnings that were being bandied about even before a drop of precipitation made its way to earth. I made a few preparations, but truly believed that the weather forecasters were overreacting. As a matter of fact, I joked with both of my daughters in a group text noting that the news reporters were all going to have egg on their faces when the whole incident became a bust. We all three worried that such wolf crying would one day lead to disaster when none of us bothered to listen to them anymore.

Most of the people in my neighborhood stayed home all day long getting ready for we knew not what, but before long we were bored and more than ready to get out and about. Precaution kept us home nonetheless and we reverted to binging on Netflix just to get away from the dire predictions on the local television stations. My next door neighbors baked cookies to fill the hours of waiting for a disaster that seemed in grave doubt of ever materializing. It finally began to rain in the evening, but nothing about the downpour seemed to be especially alarming. My husband, Mike, and I retired feeling content that the morning would find everyone doing well.

Of course that was not the case. By the time I awakened and turned on the television to see what had transpired during the night there were already areas of town that were severely flooded. Almost one third of Friendswood which is only about fifteen minutes away from my home had been hit hard. People were being evacuated in boats after their homes filled with water. All along Interstate 45 there were reports of grave problems. The images on television were frightening, and even more so were the messages from friends on Facebook who had been forced from their houses in the middle of the night.

The rain kept coming down, with no sign of letting up. I became more and more concerned mostly because Mike had been struck down by a stroke only a few weeks before. We had been told that he was in a critical time period when the chances of his having another attack were the most likely. I began to worry that he might need emergency medical care that would not be forthcoming, but I said nothing to him because I wanted to keep him calm.

Mike was sleeping quite a bit at that time, so I took advantage of the moments when he was dozing to slowly move items upstairs just in case our house began to take on water. I put many things on countertops and high shelves in closets. All the while I monitored the nonstop coverage of the event. The news was not good. The rains kept coming and the photos got worse and worse. I prayed for even a few minutes of respite from the inundation, but none came. My neighbors and I sometimes met outside to determine how well our street was draining. Somehow it seemed as though there was no way that we would ultimately be spared from flooding inside our homes. We promised to watch over one another to the end, whenever that might be. Day two ended with even more horrific stories than the first, but we were somehow safe.

Mike and I went to bed upstairs but I slept very little. The constant droning of the rain made me anxious. I checked over and over again to see if my home was taking on water. I’d also quietly turn on the television to see if there were any signs that the rains were finally going to end. Somehow all hope seemed to be gone. I cried over the images that I saw. I sobbed each time another of my friends or relatives reported that they had been forced to evacuate their homes. I thought surely that my beloved city was so hopelessly wounded that it would die an excruciating death. Not even the stories of courage and compassion that were so numerous were able to convince me that we would somehow survive the ordeal. Mostly I continued to worry about Mike and all of the unfortunate souls who had already lost so much. One of my students provided me with a small slice of optimism when he texted me to assure me that if Mike needed to get to a hospital he come immediately with his big truck to save the day.

There were fears of levees bursting in neighborhoods where dear friends and relatives resided. It seemed as though the news grew worse and worse and worse. Still the rain kept coming and I finally reached a point of sheer terror. I had done all that I might to prepare for the worst. I was exhausted but unwilling and unable to sleep. I kept watch all night on the third day, certain that my street and my home would soon have no place to drain. Many people that I love had already had to flee. It seemed that no area of town was untouched.

It was early in the morning, about five, when I realized that the rain had stopped. I held my breath expecting the inundation to return at any moment, but we had finally reached the end. Four and one quarter feet of rain had come done without even a short pause. There were people whose houses flooded only thirty minutes before the end came. Some who had survived the deluge went under water when the county had to open two reservoirs to prevent the downtown area from going under water. As a city we were wet and tired and overwhelmed by what had happened. I truly believe that we may have suffered the largest case of mass PTSD ever recorded. Little did we realize that the work of repairing our city had only just begun, and it would continue for months, and in some cases, more than a year.

I used to love rainy days. I reveled in the sound of thunder and the raindrops falling on my roof. I have yet to find storms as relaxing as I once did. I watch the weather reports religiously. I have been on high alert all during the current hurricane season. I sometimes suffer from guilt that I was spared while so many had to endure sheer terror as the water rushed in through the weep holes of their walls. I am thankful for my good fortune, but not able to celebrate because I know all too well how horrible the past year has been for so many others.

Even with flood insurance or assistance from FEMA most people had to dip far into their savings to return their homes to a livable state. Those without such funds still walk on concrete floors and lack the privacy of walls. For many it will still be a very long time before life returns to normal. It’s difficult to know who they are because from the outside it appears that Houston is as normal as it ever was. Still we know that the suffering lingers.

We are proud of how we behaved and the ways in which we helped one another. We will be eternally grateful for the kindnesses extended to our city from people all over the world. We will move forward as we always seem to do, but we will forever be haunted by far too vivid memories of those three days when biblical tales came to life. I suppose that if we make through a few years without a repeat performance from Mother Nature we will eventually calm down, but for now we just want to reach the end of hurricane season without any excitement. We remember what happened on those three days in August all too well.