And on the fourth day there was light.
In spite of the weathermens’ too enthusiastic predictions that Hurricane Ike was a serious threat, and the call for mandatory evacuations of all residents of the coastal counties I shrugged the predictions off as nothing more than mass hysteria.
Ike’s predecessors Dolly and Gustav only had the strength to produce a few passing thunderstorms by the time they reached Houston -an hour north of the Gulf of Mexico, and at sea level.
In my year living here and speaking to life-long Houstonians I had come to the conclusion that anyone who evacuated for Hurricane Rita in 2005 was sadly misguided, and panicked from the fall out of Hurricane Katrina. They had to endure 12 hour traffic jams while people drove out of the city in the thousands, only to come home and find no more damage than a few overturned lawn chairs.
I asked the court staffers what I should do to prepare, and they non-chalantly told me to fill my bathtub with water, get batteries and flashlights, bread and lunchmeat, and tape my windows with masking tape so they would stay together if any flying object smashed into them.
Being the cynic I am I only bought a few groceries and some beer, filled a five gallon bucket with water and scoffed at the buzz a city awaiting impending doom had generated.
It was early Saturday morning before the winds started whipping. There was no rain, and as my neighbor and I watched the trees bend violently in the gusts he laughed and said, “This is it.” But the rain soon followed and in the lights you could see it streaming in horizontal angles to the ground.
Loud booming noises and ominous flashes of light added to our amusement as if we were watching nature play a hand we knew was a bluff and after chatting for a while and watching the lights go off in the complex across the street, and seeing our lights flicker, we came to the consensus that our power would be off soon but Ike wasn’t so bad after all.
In the morning we all realized how serious Ike had been. Trees were uprooted everywhere lying across buildings and roads, ditches were filled with water, windows were smashed and traffic signals hung inches from the streets.
A light but steady rain added a pallor to the dismal scene. The few people out looked joyless and disgusted as I walked my dogs around the neighborhood and saw metal roofs twisted in fantastic angles, and demolished store fronts still feeling curiously tickled like a little kid waking up to a world turned white with snow.
I felt like I should start helping clean up, but the destruction was so rampant I didn’t know where to begin.
Sirens sounded incessantly in the distance and a gradual sense of panic filled my gut when I heard from family in California that the power could be out for two weeks, and I didn’t have the foresight to withdraw any money before the storm hit. I drove the dogs to the park along a circuitous route.
Often the streets that I would normally use were flooded with uncertain depths of water. I was surprised to see people out jogging, knowing a shower might not be available for a few days.
When I came home a neighbor was walking her dog back and forth with a dejected look on her face. She said she was worried about the power, and had her door open to temper the humidity in her apartment.
I became fast friends with neighbors I’d barely spoken to before. We offered each other whatever we had: “I have cookies and chips.” “We have sandwiches.”
We traded predictions and rumors, the only information we could offer telephoned in from people outside the city. “It will be on soon,” we constantly assured ourselves as the storm dissipated into a calm, balmy aftermath.
A few stores in the area used generators to open up, but only let a few people in at a time to shop in the dark. Inflation reached a new, impromptu level and streets around the gas stations with fuel many of which didn’t have their prices posted backed up for blocks with drivers eager to fill their tanks.
Night fell and the humidity became oppressive. I opened up a south-facing window that I’d never opened before, stripped down to shorts and propped my head on a pillow, watching people across the street sitting outside their apartments, and playing dominoes, their figures lit up by the flames of barbecues flickering in the night. more
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The next day I saw some neighbors gathering sticks from the debris strewn about the sidewalk. They were out of charcoal and wanted to start a fire for cooking. They’d spent the night in their running, and air conditioned, truck because their 3-year-old son could not stand the heat.
All we could do was wait. I took the dogs for a three mile walk along the railroad tracks, then took them to George Bush Park west of town to splash around in the sodden sprawl.
The stoplights were out everywhere so each quadrant of drivers at an intersection patiently waited their turn, and took their cue from the first motorist who inched out into the intersection.
My neighbor wanted a hot meal so we drove out to Katy, an hour west of town, and waited a half hour to get a table at Chili’s. The radio announcers on the drive home were fielding an endless stream of calls from good Samaritans. “I’m at 59 and Gessner, and they have gas and ice.” “I’m at Toys R’ Us at Highway 6 and Eldridge, and there’s a FEMA truck out here giving out ice.”
I was impressed with how people came together in a spirit of goodwill after the storm, as I’d never been through anything like this before. It confirmed something I’ve always heard but never felt certain of: That most people are good at heart.
Finally while I was standing in a neighbor’s house eating a peach, the fish tank filter gurgled, we laughed with exhausted relief, went outside to pump our fists with others in triumph. We survived a hurricane. Nothing like Katrina I know, but still something Houston and Galveston will remember and take a long time to recover from.
And on the fourth day there was light.