Not Yet Down and Out

shutterstock_441927634-1024x683.jpgIt was a sunny day in Houston, Texas on a January afternoon. The streets and highways were filled with people enjoying the break in the cold weather. It somehow seemed impossible that only five or six months ago those same roads were filled with flood water from hurricane Harvey, creating unbelievable images of devastation. Everything appeared to be so normal, and it felt as though the recovery and healing of our scarred city had gone smoothly and far more quickly than anyone might have ever imagined. We had even begun to believe that we might have a good chance of winning the big Amazon prize that would bring thousands of jobs to our area along with millions of dollars to boost our economy. Perhaps it is in our Houston DNA to be upbeat and unwilling to be counted out. We’d done the impossible so many times before that those of us native to this flat featureless plain see our city with different eyes than those of outsiders.

This is a town built on land encircled by bayous that is otherwise landlocked, and yet we have one of the busiest ports in the country, dug from the Gulf of Mexico to a site in the shadow of the place where Texas gained its independence. Somehow our town took a field that had once been home to grazing cattle and transformed it into the center of the worldwide space race. A wealthy academic from the east coast imagined a Harvard of the south and founded the prestigious and renowned Rice University. A doctor imagined a home for cutting edge medicine and convinced benefactors to build a medical center that would one day be a leader in research and talent. We have done the impossible time and again with the help of visionaries who saw beyond the limitations of our geography, and on any give day it feels as though we have miraculously moved beyond the horrors that beset our beloved Houston on those three days in August when the sky rained its fury on all of us.

We all know that things are not always what they seem to be. Those whose homes were filled with brackish water that rushed in through the weep holes inundating their rooms and their peace of mind are mostly still working to get back to normal. The piles of debris that represented the destruction are generally gone misleading observers to believe that all is well. Inside the repair work continues at various stages. The mucking out of water and dirt is done. The walls of water soaked sheetrock have been removed leaving frameworks of studs marking load bearing structures and outlines of rooms. In some cases fresh new sheetrock and paint now brighten the areas. In others the skeletal frames await the resolution of claims that may one day bring the funds for repairs. Carpet and flooring is difficult to find even when there is money to purchase it. Cold concrete has become a way of life for many Houstonians who celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the new year with their homes torn apart, and still wait for normalcy to return. They sit on lawn furniture and sleep on air mattresses attempting to stay calm and carry on when in truth they are exhausted and broken hearted.

On that sunny day when all seemed so normal, of course it was not. I drove through a neighborhood that had been heavily impacted by the storms and at least a third of the homes still had huge dumpsters parked in the driveways. Trailers and RVs dotted the landscape and told a tale of homeowners still camping out while their homes recovered very slowly. Daily life has become a marathon for them as they cope with realities and fears that sometimes feel overwhelming. They walk through their days attempting to be as positive as possible even as they worry about the impact this all has had on their psyches and savings.

It has been estimated that eighty percent of those affected by hurricane Harvey did not carry flood insurance. They have had to rely on FEMA for funds to repair their houses and many of them still wait for that money to be forthcoming. Generally the most that they might receive is only slightly more than $30,000, and in the majority of cases it will be far less than that. FEMA does not replace their household goods, so many people are creating massive debts just to begin again. Those who did have flood insurance are all too often waiting even longer for the relief that they need to put their homes back into working order. Supplies are scarce, and the great deals that merchants offered in the early days after the disaster are mostly long gone. Nobody thought that there would still be people in need this long after the catastrophic event.

Our city is wounded and our spirit is being sorely tested. Naysayers warn us that we will never again be the same. Our luster feels somehow diminished as investors and dreamers grow wary of locating here. Amazon passed us over, choosing Austin and Dallas as more worthy possibilities for their center. People from outside our area view our town as an ugly humid place more suited for mosquitoes than humans. They underestimate our determination to overcome the odds that have often appeared to be stacked against us. Houston has always been a city that should never have been, and yet here we are winners of the World Series even as we limp through the worst days of our history. It seems that Amazon missed the essence of who we are as people and may have ignored the very qualities that would have made their venture truly great. They did not understand that the images of courage and community that they witnessed when nature had battered us mercilessly were not aberrations, but rather an unvarnished revelation of who we really are. The secret of Houston is that we are willing to take on any challenge and rise from the muck and the mud to triumph over adversity. This is a hard working city with dirt under its finger nails and visions of a better future in its soul. 

Think of us now and again. We are still here even though we have not yet totally healed. There remains much to do, but you will rarely hear us complain. We don’t want to be pitied or thought to be beyond hope for we still believe that our city has a great future. Don’t pass over us or assume that we are out of the game. This city called Houston is a miracle built on unstoppable dreams. Plan to keep hearing from us. We’re not yet ready to be down and out.

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Houston We Still Have A Problem

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I have a friend who is a widow. When she first lost her husband she was showered with attention, but as time went by she became more and more alone. It was almost as though she had simply been forgotten. She and her husband had enjoyed an active social life until he became critically ill. After his death the invitations and visits that she had always so enjoyed became less and less frequent.

I recall the same thing happening to my mother over time until she mostly relied on family to invite her out of the house now and again. She remarked that it was human nature to provide comfort at the beginning of a loss, but that people slowly become preoccupied with daily routines that sap their time and energy making them less likely to stick around. She was quite understanding and nonjudgemental of those who drifted out of her life. She adapted and made do with the help that was offered, and didn’t dwell on the friendships that withered away because her life had become so different with my father’s death.

As the sun shines, schools open and so many people return to a semblance of normalcy after hurricane Harvey I find myself worrying and possibly even panicking for those most impacted by the devastating storms. Most of them have all of their possessions piled in heaps on the curb along with mounds of sheetrock, flooring and carpet. The stench of mildew and rot fills the air around their neighborhoods. They await word from FEMA or insurance adjusters to tell them how much assistance they will receive in rebuilding their lives. They often wear somebody else’s  clothing and shoes. They rely on others for rides because their cars are gone. Their futures are so uncertain that they are numb. They sit in their yards or rented rooms staring absently into the distance. Everything feels so overwhelming, particularly as the interest of others wanes. They have been the disaster of the week, the big news headline, but now it feels as though so many begin to move on to the next big thing.

Even the people who still remember them and appear to understand their plight are being pulled and tugged by the everyday demands of existence. They have to schedule their voluntary hours and assistance now. There is so much pressure to get back to the usual grind and a pervasive feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish all that must be done, but the piles of rubble are still there. The shells of what were once rooms where memories were made await financing that may or may not come. Stressed out homeowners jockey to book overworked contractors to bring their dreams back to life. Word is that it will take months, maybe even years to make all of the needed repairs. What are the injured parties to do while they are waiting? How much debt will they incur? Is there really any way to help them to feel safe and secure once again? Will they eventually be forgotten, or should they expect to be mostly on their own? These are the questions that haunt them in their sleepless nights. These are the worries that fill their thoughts.

Harvey has already been pushed to the back pages of the news. Irma is the new kid in town, the tragedy of the hour. FEMA is moving some rescue efforts from Texas to Florida. There will be competition for limited resources and funds making frustrations even more intense. All the while we have to continue to support our neighbors in the long journey that lies ahead for them even though we too are tired. Still those of us who were lucky understand that we do not have the luxury of simply resuming life as though nothing has happened. Our neighbors are frightened and weary and just as psychologically scarred as their homes are physically.

Every part of town is feeling the impact of this horrific event. Harvey was an equal opportunity storm whose wrath made victims of the rich and the poor and virtually every race and ethnicity. We have rushed to provide stop gap assistance. We provided cleaning products, tools and the labor to clean out houses. We gave food, clothing and shelter to those who have been displaced. We took school supplies to schools and did our best to care for the personal needs of people of all ages. There have been untold heroes who have worked tirelessly and selflessly for days. Now comes the hardest part of all, the moment when we just want to have happy thoughts and forget about all of the pain. Unfortunately to do so would betray all of those whose fate might have been ours but for the randomness of the destruction.

In the coming weeks we must be certain that all of our neighbors get the repairs that they need to make their residences whole again. More than that though, we must insist that measures are taken to make our streets and neighborhoods safer. This may mean purchasing homes that are in harms way and repurposing them as green spaces. We may have to strengthen and build levees, create more retention ponds, get dams up to date, install pumps around town, build houses on higher freeboard elevations, improve drainage. We have the know how, but we also need the vision and the will.

Long ago Houston leaders had a dream of making what was then a small town into a major port even though it was landlocked. They dug a big ditch from the Gulf of Mexico all the way into the city that became known as the Ship Channel. Today it is one of the busiest commercial centers in the world. With a bit of imagination we built the Harvard of the South on the campus of Rice University and created one of the best medical centers anywhere. We need the same kind of willingness to use technologies and knowledge to rebuild a city capable of withstanding even the unthinkable. We showed the world that we are not a population of ordinary people. We Houstonians are quite special and its time that we translate all of our spirit into a victory over tragedy. Houston we have a problem, but we have found answers to other conundrums before. Now let’s see what we might do to unravel the complexities that caused the worst flood that our country has ever seen, and insure that we will be prepared if such an event were ever to occur again.

Filed Away Into Oblivion

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All across the Gulf Coast of southeast Texas from Corpus Christi to Beaumont/Port Arthur the devastation from hurricane Harvey has left a trail of destruction, tears and questions. Weary citizens have spent days upon days mucking out houses, washing flood soaked laundry, cleaning the everyday items that were once the fixtures of their households. Neighbors have helped neighbors. Family has embraced family. Strangers have opened their hearts and their wallets. The restoration has begun in earnest even as some areas still lie in the clutches of high water with no sign of when their residents may return.

It doesn’t seem to matter which part of Harvey’s path one might choose to explore. Virtually everywhere that the beastly storm chose to go there are entire neighborhoods or unlucky blocks where the evidence of its heartlessness is horrifyingly present in the endless piles of debris that rise several feet from the ground and on the vacant faces of those affected. Seeing the wreckage is mind numbing and heartbreaking. Witnessing the people who are attempting to deal with the unthinkable is unbearable. While there is a determination to rise from the waters, there is also a kind of pall over the landscape and wonder if the things that we took so for granted will ever be quite the same again.

It is estimated that only twenty percent of those whose homes and property was damaged had purchased flood insurance. Many of the affected areas had never before been inundated and there was little reason to compel homeowners to buy the policies. It will be up to the federal government and FEMA to help the families to rebuild, and the cost will no doubt be staggering. More disturbing will be the loss of a sense of security that even those who were spared are now feeling. We fret and worry over what will eventually become of all of us who endured the tornadoes and days of relentless downpours that poured fifty one inches of rain over our rooftops. The memories of one weather warning after another and all night watches over the water creeping toward our doors are still so fresh and terrifying. The sights and smells of the destruction seem to follow us even as we close our eyes and attempt to shower the grime from our bodies. The fear that we all experienced stalks us now that we attempt to go back to work and our usual routines.

As the sun shines once again in our part of the world, a monster hurricane threatens Florida and the east coast. Others have formed in the ocean. Fires burn in Montana, California and Oregon. It seems as if Mother Nature is unleashing her fury, and we begin to ask ourselves questions and consider what we may have done to be accomplices in the creation of such events. Are there proactive steps that we might take to change the course or the magnitude of climatic events in the future? These are the thoughts that fill our brains and none of the answers are easy or certain.

My husband likes to call himself a belt and suspenders kind of guy. In other words he is a very cautious sort. As such we expend large amounts of our income on various kinds of insurance policies and fraud protection systems. When the federal government first began selling flood insurance he signed up immediately even though we had never experienced water seeping inside any of our homes. We have continued to renew the policy year after year in spite the increasing cost and lack of use. Our thought as native Houstonians has been that we never quite know what strange occurrences my happen, and we want to be ready for the unexpected. I suspect that after Harvey the premium for our policy will go through the roof, but we will continue to purchase the safety net just in case, and I would recommend that everyone else do so as well. So many of those affected by the damage would be sleeping so much better with that little piece of added security in their pockets

The bigger questions involve infrastructure and building practices that may or may not have helped to prevent much of the damage. It has come to light for example that engineers from the Harris County Flood Control District outlined a plan to improve the drainage system of the Addicks and Barker dams all the way back in 1996. They presented their concerns and suggestions to the Army Corps of Engineers and nothing happened. The report was filed away. Today the tragedy that the study predicted in very clear terms has come to pass. The belief is that it might have been prevented at a cost of under ten million dollars rather than the billions it will take to rebuild the neighborhoods that sit under water today.

When we are cautious in the way we do things we sometimes never know if our efforts actually have some sort of effect or not. If wisdom had ruled the day and the money had been found and spent to improve the dams’ drainage capabilities there would be no flooding in the affected areas and we would wonder if we had really needed to expend all of the effort. That is the way of proactive measures. Often the occasion to use them never arises, but when it does we pat ourselves on the back for being so prescient.

We might argue forever about topics like climate change, building practices, drainage systems, and insurance, but our question becomes why we would ever want to take unnecessary chances. It is a fact that hurricane Harvey created an unprecedented event with its fifty one inches of rain. It is true that homes that have been high and dry for decades only flooded because the storm dumped an amount of water that no form of planning might have overcome, but I find myself wondering why we would want to just walk away from this experience without considering important changes that might actually help if and, God forbid, when we have to experience such an event again.

Our ancestors were more often than not a bit more inclined toward precautions than we were. The Addicks and Barker dams were built in the 1940s because of major flooding incidents in the city of Houston in 1929 and 1935. My mother and mother-in-law often spoke of those events and how they impacted the people who had endured them. The dams themselves were eventually located on land far from the center of the city and most of the population. Adjacent tracts were purchased to insure that there would be no habitation in the path of water. Sadly, as the city grew and sprawled across the landscape developers purchased plots next to the city owned land and built suburban neighborhoods without thought of what might happen if those dams were ever overrun with water in the kind of scenarios that experts had foreseen.

Back in the old days people avoided building too near the bayous and creeks. They elevated their homes on pillars. They terraced the lawns and built houses considerably higher than the level of the streets. Most of the neighborhoods and homes built by our parents and grandparents weathered the deluge just as they have done for decades. They were constructed in ways mindful of the presence of the network of bayous and creeks and rivers that crisscross the geography. Perhaps it would behoove us to consider such things just as they once did. There really should be an appropriate way of building for specific parts of the country that takes the possibilities of nature’s whimsy into consideration.

Of course there is the lurking question of the part that climate change plays in wreaking havoc across the globe. I suggest that instead of wasting our time arguing over whether or not it is true, we simply begin to change our ways just in case. What would it hurt to become more considerate of the world in which we live? Why can’t we all become more conscious of the ways that we use and waste the earth’s resources? Simple gestures multiplied millions of times will indeed make at least a small impact, and every little bit will help. We can be more like our parents who only allowed the television to run for so many hours a day. They scurried about the house turning off lights and appliances. They created compost heaps and recycled bottles. They were mostly being frugal, but their habits certainly helped to reduce waste and emissions of carbon dioxide.

I would never want to be accused of being one of those people who smugly suggest that somehow all of us who live in Harvey’s path are somehow responsible for what happened. Ours is a tragedy wrought by a storm that would have inundated any city or town regardless of what protective measure had been taken. Still, I believe in reflecting on tragedies and asking ourselves hard questions about what measures we may take in the future to alleviate at least some of the suffering. It is something that we must do. We have to insist that reports that predict disaster will never again be simply filed away into oblivion.