It was the swift and anomalous conduct of wildlife that got to me initially, the ants in particular, which had been observed floating in odd heaps throughout the city, each insect clasped to one another, thousands of them, like some kind of freakish, buoyant phalanx. They drifted, impermeable, furious, for miles. Sources warned residents to stay away—the rafts of displaced colonies might swarm your body in an instant. The weather had turned the terrain strange, and the animals seemed to channel its most dramatic permutations. Later that week I’d spot three deer in a quarter-mile stretch of suspended freeway, all of them dead, all of them mature bucks, improbably posed there on the damp shoulder, high above the city. I saw cattle, too, and horses, huddled on bare islands of pasture, and I thought, in an irrational spiral of anxiety, that the rain would never stop, that the fauna would disappear, and the city I knew as a child would sink, quietly, gradually, into an industrial Atlantis, a relic. I rode that wave for a week or more, keyed-up, electric with faint paranoia.
I’d started by watching the radar at my home in Iowa, where Harvey blossomed into a fierce, twirling rose over the Gulf. When the eye got closer to Texas, I turned to the feed of a resident’s webcam in Corpus. Before evacuating, a man had propped his laptop in the kitchen, faced it east through a window, and left it on. The stream lasted until the sky sank and the rains turned horizontal. The shrubs began to whip back and curl over the home’s deck. Then the feed went black.
I switched to another live cam, this time on a dock in Port O’Connor, where a row of skiffs bobbed, then rocked, then shanked violently against their pilings. When that feed dropped, I called my mother. She lives in far west Houston, in a two-story house overlooking the upper reaches of Buffalo Bayou. Just a year before she’d watched the bayou crest and swallow a home behind hers. I called once, and she didn’t answer. Then I tried again, and again. Finally she picked up, and she sounded calm. The storm was still distant, making its ominous U-turn back toward Bay City, lining up for its projected recharge on the coast. My mother was getting her nails done.
The stores had been a mess, she said, and she’d avoided the quarrels over cases of Aquafina, grabbing only a few minor provisions: some Pop Tarts and a case of sparkling water. She grew up in Houston, raised me there, too, and she’d learned, like millions of other coastal residents, how to survive the omnipresent threats of inundation, how to shrug off the Gulf’s seasonal proddings. If Harvey was the storm they said it was, she’d accept it with a local’s casual grace. She’d face it with fortitude and French tips. She went to sleep when the rain came, and hours later she woke to a knock at the door. A team in an airboat had floated up to her porch. They told her it was time to leave. The bayou was still rising. The house was surrounded by a chocolate-brown moat of churning floodwater. My mother thought of her animals, the thirteen cats, each with their ornate, dignified names (Isaiah, Meredith, Rose, Carmelita . . .), the two dogs, and the prospect of leaving them alone on the second floor, maybe for weeks, to fend for themselves. She stayed.
“Where’s the water,” I began texting her every half hour. “Still up,” she kept replying.
The next morning I rented a car and headed south. I didn’t know what I’d do for my mother. Chances were I couldn’t reach her. But I felt a pull in my gut, some cocktail of love and guilt. I felt that ethically slippery urge to bear witness, which is not without its selfish drive to inhabit the experience one can’t stand to observe from a distance. I wanted to be inside that flood, inside my city, and I wanted to hurt along with it.
I called Nigel, a friend from the Marines I hadn’t seen in years, and asked if he’d help drive the last stretch. He had a boat, and a jacked-up Jeep, and he lived halfway to Houston, in Tulsa, with his girlfriend and a restless Weimaraner. He said he’d go. I made it to Oklahoma that night, and from there we kept driving, bouncing over the Jeep’s roaring mud tires until Houston glowed in the distance. The rains came first. Then the highway dipped into a false shore. We’d reached the limit of I-45 as soon as we crossed the Harris County line.
We stopped at a donut shop in Spring to get the word on navigation. Inside, the place functioned as an unofficial Harvey outpost. The owner had stayed open all week, serving coffee and kolaches to cops and neighbors cut off by the flood. Strangers shared tables and watched updates on the small television mounted above the coolers. It was my first glimpse of the city’s storm-affected social atmosphere, and I’d expected a tense scene. Instead, the shop resembled a buzzing reunion: regulars propped in the corner, kids knocking back chocolate milk, and troopers wrapped in their neon dusters, haggard from shifts out on the barricades.
Up until then I’d been thinking of the devastation as an isolated villain, as if it contained an identifiable, damnable nucleus. I’d imagined the flood as an obstinate organism, an evil bubble of mercury plopped onto the coast, but I was wrong. A flood is no cooperative beast. It doesn’t distribute itself uniformly. Its edges stretch and shrink, and Houston lay underneath a giant, erratic web of floods, not a single sea but multitudes of individual ones, sprouting like fungus in the city’s every depression.
Nigel and I took off and zigzagged through side streets, approaching the city from the north, skirting west, then cutting east on an obscure two-lane. We’d been monitoring the radio chatter since Dallas on an app, and I’d listened to it chirp requests for rescues through the night. I’d written a dozen addresses down, and when we got close to one in Cypress we stopped, changed into boots, and launched the boat from a Best Buy’s flooded parking lot. Nigel did his best to guide us along medians and sidewalks, but it became immediately clear that the boat was a no-go. The flooding had reached a precarious level: too high to wade, too low to run a motor. The prop dug into concrete. The hull knocked us into a railroad track. We trailered the boat and drove, instead, in the direction of the Addicks Reservoir, the city’s enormous bathtub set to overflow in hours. We met a young man named Bryan, who walked toward us from the reservoir’s nearest edge.
“My dad’s in there,” Bryan said, pointing behind him, where houses sat in a lake up to their windows. “He ain’t leaving.”
Bryan stood dripping in his neoprene waders. He lit a cigarette.
“He’s an old stubborn son-of-a-bitch,” he said. “A disabled vet. I called him this morning, asked him, ‘You goin down with your ship, Cap’n?’”
Bryan’s father had no flood insurance (it had only recently been offered for the area’s homeowners, and at impossible rates) so his reasons for staying were a mix of the sentimental and desperately financial. Bryan’s father wanted to be there to save what he could, and if he couldn’t save anything, he wanted to watch it all drown. He had a boat, which he’d tied to a tree in the backyard. He planned to hop in when it got bad, but not until the very last minute. Bryan seemed at once disapproving and reverential of the plan. I asked him where he would go while his dad watched the climbing waterline. Probably back to his own apartment, Bryan said, or the Marriot by the airport, where he worked. Or a bar.
We left Bryan there, smoking in the intersection, and putted through more residential districts. Water lapped at the floorboards. The Jeep could clear two feet easy, but on a few occasions, we looked in the mirror to watch the boat lift off its trailer and shimmy behind us, then ease back onto its carpeted runners. We entered neighborhoods of homes where floods had already come and gone, where people had started the process of mucking the unsalvageable remnants of their dwellings. We travelled whole blocks where it smelled, as Nigel put it, “like the inside.” Along every street, in front of every home, there sat a steaming berm of soaked belongings. All that waterlogged junk filled the air with the scents of indoor living—the smell of potpourri and wet dust, books and carpet, ancient cigarette smoke, grease, and mold.
One man led me into his house after tossing a roll of carpet on his own pile, and in there I saw the familiar mark of the flood: the bare concrete, the smears of mud, and the naked studs where sheetrock had been ripped away to allow the home’s guts to dry.
I followed another man whose bed sat under a mountain of drywall and insulation. The night before, he and his wife had awakened to a crash and the sound of tearing material, then a strange weight on their sheets. It was the ceiling. A tree had punctured the roof, the joists had snapped, and rain poured through a jagged hole.
We kept driving, occasionally hopping out to check the depth of water on the road, then creeping slowly through it, careful not to stir a wake and swamp the Jeep’s intake. I wanted to reach the Brazos River, a landmark I knew well from childhood and could use as my own gauge for the storm’s damage. When we came upon it, the watershed was unrecognizable. The river, typically winding and indirect in its path, had jumped its banks and made a wide beeline to Matagorda Bay.
In a subdivision abutting the river, a frenzy of neighbors hustled in and out of their homes, either fleeing or coming back to see what the waters had done. Some residents stood in the comparatively shallow water on their lawns, weighing the options to swim or stay.
I helped one evacuating family fetch a raft that had escaped and floated across the street after a gust of wind. The water was deepest on the street’s edges, and at one point, just before I felt the curb under my foot, I missed a step and sank helplessly into a storm drain. For a moment I bobbed, neck-deep, my leg darting pitifully in the mouth of the hole. I took a deep breath, prepared to go under, and right then I felt how easy it was to be deathly careless in this place, how the landscape could wreck you in a second if you weren’t vigilant. I would die right now, I thought, in this frantic state, snagged by a shoelace, clinging to a cheap inflatable made for residential pool use. But the drain had no suction. There was no place for that water to go, and I eventually righted myself, grateful and ashamed.
On the neighborhood’s outskirts, I watched a team assemble a length of giant pipe, which they dragged with a tractor and affixed to a pump the size of a house. The pipe arched from one side of the levee to another, over which the crew intended to tap into the subdivision’s flooded section and “throw the water” into the swollen Brazos. The spatial implications of such a procedure escaped me. The scope was beyond my comprehension. Combined with the barrage of municipal updates we heard on the radio—the dam release rates, the plant chemical decay stats, and of course the mounting inches, fifty-one at last count, of cursed rainfall, the whole thing felt colossal and nauseating.
Military cargo helicopters circled us constantly, and humongous, olive drab high-water vehicles rolled around corners, sloshing gigantic wakes. It felt like an eerie flashback. The last time I’d walked like this with Nigel—the two of us on either side of a ruined street—we’d been in Afghanistan, and Iraq before that. Back then we carried rifles instead of life jackets. We both hated it. We longed for the release of civilianhood, and when our contracts ended, we bolted in our own directions. I went to school, started writing. Nigel went fishing. We’d kept up a loose correspondence ever since.
That night, we made a stop at my grandmother’s home in Sharpstown, a southwest Houston community, where my family, all Cubans, loving and loud, had taken to calling the house “Southern Ellis Island.” Many of them had evacuated their own homes and made it, barely, to her elevated porch, and now they were two nights deep into a Harvey-induced slumber party. We ate loaded plates of picadillo and rice and beans, drank café con leche, and watched the news.
The popular perception by then was that Houston suffered under an apocalyptic siege of the heavens. The broadcasts put it like death was on every corner, a spin I hesitated to confirm. The rescues continued, and waters still rose in Beaumont, but as I saw it, the tenor of the city at large rang surprisingly resolute, jovial even. No one I spoke to, for example, had been without a sideways joke about their flood experience. On driveways and in gas stations, anywhere, people were eager to talk to one another about their stake in the event. They shared stories. They lent tools. They checked on relatives and coworkers. In their own ingenious, respectable ways, people were dealing.
The next day, around noon, I joined a sizeable gathering in an empty lot near a convenience store, where several families surrounded a folding table, drinking beer. One woman stood over a mound of sizzling pork chops. The group welcomed me, offered me a plate. A few of the table-sitters poked fun at my shoes, a pair of old-school Reeboks I’d christened just the day before, wading in the Brazos-adjacent neighborhood. I laughed, kidded back, and attempted to hula-hoop for some giggling grade-schoolers. It’d become difficult to pin down what the city had gained in this mess, if anything, and it seemed morbid to appreciate any redeemable byproduct of such a disaster just yet, but I sensed a hopeful shift in the city’s consciousness. It’s been my experience that Houston, despite its size and unique dynamism, receives a dearth of recognition as the relevant urban center it’s become, often catching scrutiny for its generic sprawl but rarely for its remarkable cultural, aesthetic, and economic multiplicity. The storm had forced the uninitiated to look Houston’s way, at least, and to consider the singular manners in which the city thrived before Harvey hit. Now, in the novelty of that attention, the city radiated competence.
The roads now semi-passable, Nigel and I reached my mother’s side of town at last, where she’d made it out of the house and begun volunteering at a pop-up animal shelter in the parking lot of a mall. I watched her dunk those manicured hands into a bucket of warm bleach, then scrub vomit and feces from the floors of countless animal crates. I walked a brindle mutt from Pasadena named Ruckus. He had soulful, chestnut eyes. I saw more piles of donated Purina and Iams than I’d seen in any retail setting theretofore. I saw, from the morning and into the night, over a hundred volunteers, strangers as diverse as the city itself, sweating, giving their time under the welcomed but blazing Texas sun. The animals came from all over the city, packed into horse trailers and vans—strays and groomed domestics alike—and they left as quickly as they arrived. We loaded them in sedans and SUVs, where they rode to shelters around Central Texas and beyond.
At the only open restaurant we could find, I watched my mother drain two frozen margaritas with impressive haste. She was beat, dehydrated, and a little drunk. It was good to see her. Back at the house, which had miraculously taken on no water, I slept the dreamless, granite sleep of a sun-struck and rain-pruned traveler. Nigel and I would leave the next morning. We had professional obligations. I had classes to teach. Nigel had promised his girlfriend a week at the lake.
On the road, we listened to music. The wind whipped hard through the Jeep’s cabin, and we had the volume cranked. I have in my possession, both cerebrally and on the good old iPhone, an ever-improving Houstonian playlist, and I ran through the tracks. I played Henry Thomas’s “Bull Doze Blues,” a song I’ve long believed to be Houston’s most apt anthem, despite the fact that Canned Heat copped its melody for “Going Up the Country” in ’68. I played Guy Clark, and some of Townes’s cuts from the Old Quarter. I even played some Geto Boys, and Barbara Lynn, and, for kicks, as we blew past the box stores, Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.”
But it wasn’t until I turned to the radio that the rush of feeling came on. I heard a station queue up Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton belting out their classic duet, “Islands in the Stream,” a song I’d heard plenty before but never really latched onto. Previously I’d dismissed its back-and-forth as silly and cloying, and considered its primary metaphor—lovers stuck in a hard-fought relationship, both stranded and bound by the river of struggle that surrounds them—the clichéd territory of Nashville romance. But now, in the vulnerable fog of exhaustion and nostalgia, I listened. There was emotional density and nuance packed in there. “Islands in the Stream” is a song in which Kenny merely assists, nursing it like a trivial player does a football before a field goal attempt, balancing it on the turf with a gentle index finger while the kicker, Dolly, does a stutter-step and knocks the thing into galactic, spiritual regions. Something about the unbridled wail of her entrance in that song, the liquid imagery, the peak of soprano when she admits, confesses, “I can’t live without you if the love was gone / Everything is nothing if you got no one / and you just walk in the night / slowly losing sight of the real thing.” It’s a song of distance, of connection over water and enmity, of stubbornness, of making it work even when it shouldn’t. A song of resilience, that word I’d heard thrown around so frequently on the news—on television, on the radio and in the papers—to the point that it had begun to lose its edge, until now. The song’s protagonists grapple in the dark for each other, they find purchase and grab hold of what they can. It’s all anyone can do. It undid me. Right around the key change I started bawling.
I kept it together somewhat for Nigel, but when we parted ways in Tulsa and I was alone in my rental, I found the song on my phone and stuck it on repeat. I let myself sink in the seat, set the cruise, and had a healthy, sustained cry until Kansas City. I thought about Houston and the coast behind me, the sunken streets of my youth, and I thought of Bryan’s dad, alone in that wet room, the boat floating out back, waiting. I understood that illogical love of one’s native territory. I’d also violated it. I’d left Houston, like a coward, like a lazy lover hopping islands, never committing. And then I’d come back and left again.
When Harvey hit, I’d been working on a book about Houston, the Gulf Coast, and an abstract artist named Forrest Bess, whose life and work underwent a traumatic turn when his home was erased by hurricane Carla in 1961. Bess lost much of his work in that storm’s surge, and it ruined him. He spiraled deeper into mental illness. For a long time, his portion of the coast was wounded, economically and spiritually, beyond any timely repair. Before I went down to Houston, I’d been wrestling with my own case of creative paralysis in the project, unable to articulate what the land in and around Houston meant to me, and what exactly I wished to contribute to its memory. I felt clumsy and stuck, insecure. This storm seemed like a morose plot point I’d manifested in my own writerly angst, and that haunted me.
What I’d wanted to say about the place was this: the coordinates of your cultivation matter. I knew Houston possessed a kind of singular spirit I’d adopted as my own personal texture of place. It was conflicted and haphazard in its aesthetic. It was hard to find when I needed it, when I wanted to summon it in conversation or craft, but it was there nonetheless, I’d seen it in shades that week, in people’s faces, in the speech and action of the city. It drifted by, alive, forming and dispersing, like those bizarre mats of ants, the floating worlds of bodies, each one clamped to and counting on the other.
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