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Deep in the Heart of Texas: Harvey Batters Houston, but Not Its Resolve

The most devastating natural disaster in Texas history isn’t over yet.

On Friday night, Tiffany Bishop and her husband Jimmy let their two boys, seven-year-old Joshua and fifteen-year-old Jacob, stay up late to watch movies. The Bishops live in a one-story home in a neighborhood called Bay Colony, thirty miles southeast of downtown Houston.

“If you want to mail me, I officially live in Dickinson,” Tiffany said, jokingly. “If you want to arrest me, I officially live in League City.” Even she is not completely certain which part of the the exurbs of Houston to claim, or which part claims her.

She was certain, however, that her family’s home had never flooded before, and on Friday night, there was no reason to think it would, despite Hurricane Harvey setting its sights on the Texas coast. “If we had been told to evacuate, we would have,” she said. “We have kids. In all of our years here, we’ve never even had water go beyond the curb.”

Instead, at around one in the morning, Tiffany watched as water slowly crept into her home. First in the garage, then through the front door, and then the side door. She, her husband, and their teenage son Jacob tried to salvage as much as they could, moving family photographs and computers and heirlooms onto their countertops and at the top of shelves. Joshua, their seven-year-old, slept, blissfully unaware, on the living room sofa.

When he woke up in the morning, their home had taken in more than a foot and half of water, and his parents were inflating a yellow raft they had bought for family trips along the Brazos River.

By 8:30 AM, they had loaded up the raft—the four of them and their dog Jack—and set sail down the streets of their neighborhood, with a brief stop at their neighbor’s two-story home across the street. Tiffany thought to document the episode. And even though she and her husband had just lost their home, all of their furniture, and both of their cars, they managed to minimize the negative effects of the emergency for their kids, especially for young Joshua.

“Adventure, Bishops!” Tiffany proclaims.

“Adventure time!” Joshua responds.

The Bishops floated for more than a mile, finally arriving on higher ground near a local public school, and on that journey, they crossed paths with dozens of others who had shown up to rescue their neighbors, almost all of whom were civilian volunteers. “We relied completely on good Samaritans,” Tiffany said. “There were government rescue workers as well, but it was incredible to see all of these ordinary people who showed up in their boats to help save lives.”

Tonight, the Bishops are staying at the home of the parents of their teenage son’s friend. “It has a swimming pool, and both boys are having fun, swimming in the rain,” Tiffany reported. Neither one, though, is completely aware of the magnitude of this event. It will likely take them more than a month of repair work before their home is habitable; the Bishops will probably move in with Tiffany’s mother and father, in their home down the street in Clearwater.

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The Barrios family lives an hour and ten minutes northwest of the Bishops, in a neighborhood called Cinco Ranch in Katy, Texas.

Anne Marie Barrios, who returned to work as a teacher after raising two children, was rescued by two pair of good Samaritans who showed up simply to help others. “I think it’s important to let people know that [they] came out of the kindness of their heart to help,” she said.

While the water hadn’t come into their house yet–at its worst, it reached about six inches from their door–they could see that their neighbors across Mason Road were already taking water, and that if the Barker Reservoir was emptied into Buffalo Bayou, the houses could take on several feet of water very quickly.

Anne Marie and her husband were only able to pack a couple of days worth of clothes and a few other essentials for themselves and their two dogs, Who Dat and Whodunit. (Barrios is a Louisiana native and a lifelong fan of the New Orleans Saints).

They attempted to navigate the knee- to waist-deep water on Fry Road to the nearest shelter– two plastic bins for their dogs to float in– and got some much-needed and serendipitous help from Danny and Alex, two brothers in their mid-30s. Anne Marie called them her “angels.” “It would have taken us three times as long to do this ourselves,” Anne Marie said. “It was physically taxing.” With the brothers’ help moving the Barrioses’ belongings and navigating the water, the group took about an hour and a half to navigate a mile or so, stopping at dry spots to rest and regroup.

Eventually, the Barrioses were picked up by Todd and Melissa, a couple with a truck large enough to navigate the waters, who lived across the Grand Parkway (Katy’s major north-south highway) and just came to help. Todd and Melissa brought the two to the shelter, then went right back out to help more people.

Good Samaritans drive Anne Marie, her husband, and their two dogs to the shelter. (Photo credit: Anne Marie Barrios)

“We turned around, and Todd and Melissa had left,” she said. “I didn’t even have time to give them a hug.”

Anne Marie was on the verge of breaking down by now, so it was a great relief that the shelter was so well-prepared to receive them, with duvet comforters for them and even crates for their two dogs. She noted how difficult it is to take care of your own needs in an emergency when you have pets to worry about: “The first priority is to put the dogs somewhere safe. You can’t do anything, you can’t go to the bathroom, until you get the dogs secure.”

The shelter at Cinco Ranch High School. (Photo credit: Anne Marie Barrios)

Baby supplies at the Cinco Ranch High School shelter. (Photo credit: Anne Marie Barrios)

Blankets and pillows at the Cinco Ranch High School shelter. (Photo credit: Anne Marie Barrios)

Anne Marie considers herself lucky for several reasons.

She, her husband, and their dogs were eventually picked up from the shelter by her husband’s co-worker and are staying in his camper, an arrangement preferable to that of many of Houston’s displaced.  She is well aware of this luxury, saying, “It’s just nice to have a little privacy.”

Having survived a flood in Mandeville, a suburb of New Orleans, in 1995, she was prepared. “We have flood insurance. A lot of people don’t, but after [the flood in Mandeville] I was never going without it again.”

Anne Marie’s experience with the flood has left her mentally prepared for what to expect, as well. “I know what’s coming. The work, the pain in the butt, and everything else.” She is already expecting to be displaced for one to two months, even though she has nowhere near the requisite supplies for that with her. It could take that long to clear the Barker reservoir, and they may not be able to move back in until that’s finished.

The Barrioses have people they can count on and are more fortunate than most: “We have people that can help us and we can go buy the things we need, but other people don’t… I still have neighbors across the street that didn’t leave, that I asked to come with us… There are still people in peril. I don’t know what they’re going to eat or how they’re going to get out… I’m in a lot better shape than I would be if I was sitting on the other side of that canal.

“I just don’t want people to forget: this will be with us at least another year. If 30,000 homes flood, that’s 30,000 people [who need to be re-accommodated until the damage can be repaired].”

“I want people to know: We’re going to need help. It’s going to last a long time,” she said.

Who Dat and WhoDunIt Barrios resting in the carrier donated by the Cinco Ranch High School shelter. (Photo credit: Anne Marie Barrios)

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Closer into the city, the effects of Harvey and the responses to it have been mixed. In neighborhoods like Montrose, toward the center of the city, the worst residents have experienced has been periodic flash flooding; even the streets are largely navigable by car. Venture toward the neighborhood’s borders, though, and you’re likely to have found severe flooding, whether at the border with upscale River Oaks, the location of megachurch pastor Joel Osteen’s $10.5 million estate, along Allen Parkway next to Buffalo Bayou, or downtown just across (and including) Interstate 45, the city’s only direct route to Dallas.

According to downtown resident Seth Hopkins, many of the streets are impassable in the heaviest bands of rainfall, but, for the most part, the buildings themselves remain functional and with all utilities intact.

Downtown Houston, August 27, 2017. (Photo credit: Seth Hopkins)

Downtown Houston, August 27, 2017. (Photo credit: Seth Hopkins)

Downtown Houston, August 27, 2017. (Photo credit: Seth Hopkins)

Downtown Houston, August 28, 2017. (Photo credit: Seth Hopkins)

Further out, conditions continue to vary neighborhood by neighborhood. Severe flooding has plagued not only the Heights, but also neighborhoods further north, knocking out power as well as flooding roads. Many of the major thoroughfares of the Oak Forest neighborhood are flooded with the rain, causing Whiteoak Bayou to spill over into the streets. Further north still, a Northside convenience store’s mangled sign had locals speculating that a small tornado may have formed in the area.

Yale St and Delz St, north of the 610 loop. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Sosa Bailey)

Highway 59 at Mandel Bridge. (Photo credit: Stephen Michael Mills)

Mangum Rd about a block from W 43rd St. (Photo credit: Christina Uticone)

Mangum and 43rd, next to Whiteoak Bayou, in the Oak Forest neighborhood (Photo credit: Christina Uticone)

And then northwest along Highway 290, in the Jersey Village neighborhood, the worst that a local had to deal with was some low-level flooding in his backyard, but even though his house and all utilities are intact, Jeb Britt, a mechanical design engineer, described his situation as “helpless.” Britt, a Louisiana native, lauded the “Cajun Navy” for rescuing people and lamented not being able to do more. “I have all this spare time sitting in my dry house with power and internet, but I don’t feel like I have the equipment to contribute to a rescue effort.”

Britt is well aware that it could be worse. “I’m lucky to be in a location that wasn’t affected by this event, but was affected by the Tax Day Flood last year.” (Last April, heavy rains led to flooding in parts of northwest Houston.)

“It’s unsettling to see how being safe in one event is no guarantee in another.”

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Three weeks ago, Ashely Gordon of Port Arthur, Texas, a small city in the southeast part of the state that is best known as the hometown of Janis Joplin, attended a public meeting about a recently-discovered breach in the city’s floodwall. Gordon, who grew up with Port Arthur’s newly-elected, 41-year-old mayor, Derrick Freeman, has always considered herself to be an activist for the community, even during the years she spent living in Austin.

The floodwall’s vulnerability was big news for the small city. Gordon lives about five miles away from the location of the breach, but only six blocks from the floodwall. “I was reassured by what I heard in that meeting,” Gordon says. “I’m impressed by our city government and how proactive our mayor has been.”

Home in Ashely Gordon’s neighborhood on Sunday, August 27, 2017. (Photo credit: Ashely Gordon)

Still, like everyone else in Texas’s Golden Triangle (which comprises Orange, Beaumont, and Port Arthur), Gordon is apprehensive about Harvey’s future path. Right now, even if she wanted to, there is no feasible way to evacuate. “1-10 is flooded on both sides,” she said. “I just learned the backroads are also impassible.

“We have no choice. We have to wait it out. We’re stuck.”

 

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct errors that were present in an early draft that was inadvertently published.

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