Let me start by simply sharing what I saw as hurricane Harvey entered Houston. The week of August 20, as I busied myself with business proposals and consulting work, I kept an eye on the weather. If living in Houston, every September you stock up on water, keep batteries and flashlights on hand, and stay up on what’s going on in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s what adulting looks like on the Gulf Coast.
So of course, this Facebook post by a friend caught my eye:
And so it began. As late as Wednesday, August 23, I was still contemplating attending a conference in San Antonio, then visiting family in Austin. By the 24th, my wishful thinking had become painfully obvious.
Understand, this is hardly my first encounter with a hurricane or a tropical storm. I vividly remember the aftermath of Alicia from my childhood. I was living in another state when Allison and Rita struck, but I was on hand for Ike, which left us without power for three weeks afterwards. So when Harvey organized, I was primed.
I couldn’t have been more wrong with respect to Harvey, which made Category 4 in a matter of days. I looked on with resignation, but not dread. We’re ready, I told myself. We’ve got supplies, we’ve been through power outages before, so let’s just get it over with.
But then it dragged on and on. The thing that amazes me still is how fast Harvey came together, then how slowly he crawled. It wasn’t like Alicia or Ike, which hit fast and hard then moved on. When Harvey came to town, he made himself terribly, horribly comfortable.
It’s a difficult thing to describe the sense of isolation that one feels, watching through the windows as the rain keeps on falling, day after day, seemingly nonstop. You start eyeing your food stores just a bit more carefully, because even though you did have the presence of mind to have extra food on hand, you start wondering: just how much longer will this drag on?
News and Social Media Bring Fear and Relief
Watching the news during it all was a mixed bag. It helped to understand where the storm was, the areas that were being affected hardest, but it also did a lot to chip away at the firewall against that sense of dread. As you watch the flooding, the suffering, people with small children wading through waist-deep (or deeper) water not far from your home, you can’t help but wonder: Are we next?
I am especially ambivalent about social media after Harvey. Facebook has been invaluable through all this for providing updates to anxious friends and family. But many of those updates leave one heartbroken, as one friend after another speaks of flooding and evacuations and loss.
Some of those updates were downright terrifying. As flood waters entered their home, one friend packed the family (yes, small children included) into a Jeep in search of shelter amid the pounding rain, posting updates during the drive. Another friend’s teenaged son called her in a panic as flood waters rose around his stalled car. With the battery dead and the car filling up, he finally made his escape, reportedly wading half a mile through chest-deep water to a gas station to huddle with a family. The father drove out into the storm in a bid to retrieve him, but ended up stuck himself, and finally had to resort to taking shelter in an unlocked vehicle. My friend posted a flurry of updates starting at midnight on August 27 until nearly 6 p.m. that evening, when the two finally made their way home.
Mercifully, it ended. Well, the rain stopped, anyway. But for the overwhelming majority of us in Houston, the hangover from Harvey has only begun. Thousands of people remain in shelters. Countless friends are clearing out (“mucking out” is the preferred phrase) flooded homes, or sorting out transportation in the wake of lost vehicles.
We Are All In this Together
I have especially come to appreciate the notion of survivor’s guilt. We didn’t flood, we had power basically the whole time, and while I know I’m not alone in my circumstances, I sure feel like I owe a debt to at least do something to help. So I responded to a Facebook request for help with the Red Cross. I’ve been helping coordinate volunteer efforts.
I’ve spent time mucking out houses, seeing the post-apocalyptic scene visited upon our humid city. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that pretty much every one of my friends on social media in the Houston area has been doing much the same. We’re all rather out of sorts—it can be a struggle to remember what day of the week it is—but we’re keeping at it.
There’s a silent understanding at work here: Harvey landed on all of us, so all of us need to step up. And we are, with no regard to who our comrades may be. In my work at the Red Cross, I’ve found that my supervisor is, without exaggeration, the single most politically and socially leftist individual with whom I have ever associated, and after years spent in digital marketing and the performing arts, that’s an achievement. With the sole exception of our mutual dislike of Trump, we likely agree on basically nothing. In the wake of Harvey, that really and truly means nothing, at least to me.
As somebody said on social media, “What happened in Charlottesville isn’t America. What’s happening in Houston is America.” With all that as a backdrop, I hope you can understand why I find rubbish like this so thoroughly, utterly crass and disgusting.
— Amber Athey (@amber_athey) August 30, 2017
A more articulate take is here, but the TLDR is that Texas will suddenly discover the glories of big government now that we’ve had our Hurricane Katrina. Others tut-tutted that Houston brought this on itself with its infatuation with sprawl. And then of course there’s this guy. Gee, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear y’all were just dying for any excuse to take a swing at all us right-wing inbred hicks.
Stop Swinging at Suffering People
I am well aware that a good portion of America takes a profoundly dim view of Texas. It’s a right-wing fundamentalist hellhole, we’re bitter gun clingers, Texans are full of themselves, et cetera ad nauseum. I am similarly very aware that the personal is more political than ever, particularly in these, the days of Trump.
But the people rushing to judgment of Texas in the wake of Harvey, literally before the flood waters have even receded, are saying, whether they intend to or not, that they are critically interested in scoring cheap political points above all else—and that they are generally disinterested in actually doing something tangible to mitigate the very real human suffering that is still in progress in Houston.
That suffering, in Houston and beyond, is hardly abating. Several neighborhoods in Houston will remain flooded for weeks as engineers discharge storm water from local reservoirs. East of Houston, Beaumont is in a terrible state of affairs, as the city of 120,000 has been left without running water. And I haven’t even mentioned Port Aransas and Rockport along the coast, which by all accounts were essentially destroyed when Harvey made landfall.
So here’s a modest proposal. There will be plenty of opportunity in the future to debate the role of government, Houston’s zoning regulations, global warming, the phase of the moon (remember that lunar eclipse from the week before last? I sure don’t), and any other factors, real or imagined, that might have influenced Harvey. But if you insist on blasting the Lone Star State before the flood waters have dissipated, I invite all you brave pontificators to first step up, put on some work gloves, grab a shovel, and join me in mucking out a few flooded houses. You might appreciate a bit more about what life is like these days in Houston, and it might lead you to think twice before exploiting human suffering to frame talking points.
Now, if you’ll excuse me: I gotta get some sleep. I’m back at the Red Cross tomorrow. And I’ll be mucking out a friend’s house later this week. And I have to get back to consulting work at some point this week. And…