As I write this, we’re recovering from record-breaking rainfall here, which submerged some neighborhoods and caused at least one death. Normally, that story would command my attention, but my mind is elsewhere, across the Gulf, where torrential rains from Hurricane Harvey are destroying a swath of Texas with what are being called 1,000-year floods. At press time, the story is still unfolding; new catastrophes could eclipse the horrors happening now.
Here in Florida, we understand the power of these storms that feed and grow monstrous on warm sea waters, and we know that just slight atmospheric changes could have brought Harvey to us. (And we also know that other storms could still head our way.) Grand manifestations of nature’s majestic, indifferent forces, hurricanes mesmerize me. I remember sitting frozen in front of my television for an entire day, too terrified to even make evacuation plans, watching Andrew morph into a Category 5 hurricane and take aim at Florida.
At the magazine, we have another reason for fixating on Harvey. Our parent company, SagaCity Media, publishes Houstonia magazine, and we’ve come to know and care about our colleagues there.
I just spoke with managing editor Katharine Shilcutt, who was at downtown Houston’s convention center, helping to unload an 18-wheel truck full of supplies for the 9,000 people—and many dogs and cats—sheltering there. Her home, on a nearby rise, is safe, but just down the street, where the White Oak and Buffalo bayous converge, she said the normally sedate waterway has become one wide, angry torrent. “It looks like the Mississippi River,” she said.
How do you imagine 50 inches of rain pounding more than 6 million people for five days straight? Shilcutt has weathered many hurricanes and tropical storms, but she’s never seen anything like this. “I don’t think anyone in Houston ever thought they would see anything like this,” she said. “It’s filled the city.”
And how can you imagine the aftermath—the mud, the mold, the stench of refuse and swarms of mosquitoes in stifling heat for weeks without power, with many tens of thousands of people homeless and years of rebuilding ahead?
You can’t. You can only imagine it one story at a time. The nursing home residents in wheelchairs submerged in chest-high water. The woman who told a TV reporter she just watched another woman lose her grip on a tree and drown in rushing water. The Hispanic mother who insisted that, although the water was rising to their second floor, she and her family didn’t need help while others were in more immediate danger.
As Shilcutt spoke to me, her parents, who live next to a dam where water was surging to the top, had decided to evacuate, and were zig-zagging their way around roadblocks and flooded freeways. Several magazine staffers had also evacuated or been rescued, and one had water rising towards the second floor. One sales rep has lost her home to roof-high flooding. “And it’s not over,” Shilcutt noted.
Yet she sounded cheery and stalwart. When I said that, she laughed. That’s just Houston, she told me. As one of the fastest-growing and most diverse cities in America, “Houston is bold and resilient,” she said. “We take all comers and we understand that superficial differences don’t mean anything.” Neighbors of every color and background are wading into those filthy waters to rescue any human being they can find. They’re animated by the same spirit one rescuer expressed on CNN: “I couldn’t sit in the comfort of my home and watch these people suffer.”
“We don’t have natural beauty or scenery,” Shilcutt says. “We have each other. I would choose five more hurricanes over leaving Houston.”
Shilcutt says she hopes that city officials will take a lesson from their citizens, overcoming bipartisan divides to work together to address climate change and mitigate the effects that storms will continue to bring.
At a time of such national divisiveness, I’m inspired by Houston’s spirit of unity. And I’m also inspired by the journalists who are braving danger and exhaustion to bring us back these gripping stories. I’m thinking of The New York Times journalist who reported from his rapidly flooding house; the team of weather experts the Washington Post sent; and the local newspaper and TV journalists who Shilcutt says are “doing amazing work.” At Houstonia, editor Catherine Matusow says they’ve made their social media “all Harvey, all the time,” and posts that might normally focus on hot restaurants or lifestyle trends are now sharing essential information about public safety and resources.
Last night on TV I watched a young African-American woman, drenched but calm, standing outside a shelter. “I am humbled by this,” she declared. “If nobody is humbled by this, then something is wrong with them.”
If you'd like to help relief efforts in Texas, you can donate to local charities or text HARVEY to 90999 to give $10 to the Red Cross.