I Don’t Like Ike

For Houstonians, the hurricane was not a disaster, just an enormous inconvenience. That didn’t keep us from griping about it for three weeks.

November 2008By Comments

“Houston looks . . . wounded,” my husband, John, said, choosing the word with care. I couldn’t disagree: More than three weeks after Hurricane Ike blew through town, the streets are still piled high with debris, and Houston’s beloved trees—mighty oaks, pines, pecans, and sweet gums—are still crashed into rooftops or chopped into mournful stumps at curbside. The traffic is, if anything, worse than before the storm; getting to the Galleria from downtown on Westheimer is both glacial and life-threatening, as every major intersection poses a new cognitive challenge: red light, blinking red light, or no light. The southeast side of the JPMorgan Chase Tower, a symbol of local pride, is boarded up like a slumlord’s warehouse, with hundreds of windows shattered not by vandals but by the wind. Houstonians, so accustomed to sprinting from the slightest unpleasantness, still seem enervated by Ike’s wrath, as if they cannot quite comprehend that a hurricane—and just a category 2 at that—could bring them to their knees. “I’m tired of this,” a friend told me, as if she had any option besides moving away from the coast. “I went through Alicia. I went through Carla.” More than forty years of storms and selective memory mean that most people assumed we’d be all cleaned up and back to normal by now, which proves nothing more than that Houstonians remain optimistic beyond reason and oblivious to the streams of fragility coursing through their assiduously modern city.

For most of my life, hurricanes have been a minor inconvenience. I was very young and far from the coast during Carla, in 1961, and spent Alicia, in 1983, inexplicably cat-sitting for a friend in West University. I remember that the eye passed over sometime in the late morning and that there were many downed trees and that my friend Tim broadcast live from downtown, reporting on falling glass from the Chase Tower. Even though some people waited three weeks for power, I went back to my apartment, turned on the lights, and resumed my life. It was the 2005 one-two punch of Katrina and Rita that forever changed my attitude, and that of my fellow Houstonians. Never mind that much of the devastation in New Orleans was created by collapsing levees—people had seen the social fabric unravel, and it wasn’t pretty.

As Ike approached, my first decision was the traditional one: Go or stay. I chose the latter because Ike was reported to be a big storm but with only category 2 winds. Three years ago, Rita had headed for Houston as a category 5, a difference of about 50 miles per hour and ten to fifteen feet in storm surge. I left then with our son, Sam, on orders from a tense troika that included my boss, husband, and mother and spent nine hours on the road to San Antonio while the storm turned east, missing Houston completely. (“I’m not doing that again,” my then fourteen-year-old told me definitively.) So on Thursday, September 11, I tried not to be anxious as I awoke to the familiar sound of hammers, drills, and table saws, as neighbors boarded up their windows before they left town. As befits my eccentric neighborhood, one Heights resident used Christmas yard decorations to cover the windows—candy canes and gingerbread men—while another used custom-fitted sailing cloth. The atmosphere remained relatively festive until Mayor Bill White and county judge Ed Emmett held a somber press conference to urge those who lived in particular zip codes to leave. The rest of us were supposed to stay put. With our family’s stay thus justified—my husband, a newspaperman, had no choice—I suddenly realized there was nothing in our cupboards except for the cans of Sylvia’s yams and lima beans I’d bought during Rita. I raced to my neighborhood Target, where they were sold out of the edible canned goods, along with the crank-up radios that had been piled high weeks ago; ditto most of the flashlights and batteries (a few tiny LED penlights dangled pathetically on hooks). Trips to four other stores—I’ll bet RadioShack has a crank-up radio!—and one near fistfight at a gas station left me pooped but prepped, like a Girl Scout who had crammed for her disaster preparedness badge.

I wasn’t nervous until the calls and e-mails started: the links to Eric Berger’s SciGuy blog in the Houston Chronicle, where a debate raged over how destructive the predicted 22-foot storm surge might be; the phone conversation with my CNN-addicted mother, who was already hanging crape about Galveston (“It’s . . . gone”); the “hope you’ll be okay” e-mails from people I barely knew; and the billing, by Anderson Cooper—surging our way—of Ike as “a storm as big as Texas.” Until lunchtime Friday, as Ike closed in on the Texas coast, the sky was clear, and there wasn’t much of a breeze. I could still cling to the notion that the storm might turn in another direction. I spent the afternoon with Sam, passive-aggressively storing patio pots in my husband’s office, collecting feral cats (two out of three), and listening to my son complain. Though he had never gone through a hurricane before, he insisted that it was “not coming here” so “why were we doing all this?” Then we waited, while the clouds built. Hours later we went out for a last dinner of Mexican food. Then, while my husband went back to work for the night, Sam and I went home to wait some more.

By then, the television selection was all Ike, all the time. I had missed previews of Sarah Palin’s interview on ABC News Thursday night because of Ike news, and catching the full interview broadcast on Friday night was even more hopeless. This was a storm in which technology quickly blurred the line between helpful and hysteria-inducing: One TV station’s Web site allowed me to punch in my zip code and learn what wind speed I could expect in my neighborhood, while another suggested I text the station my phone number, and it would text me back if a tornado was approaching my neighborhood.

The rain and wind didn’t start until about eleven o’clock; half an hour later, like a scene out of a disaster movie, one of my neighbor’s daughters banged on our front door, pleading for help. Sam and I dashed two houses down to find her father, Tim, on a ladder, looking poleaxed at his roof: A branch from a sweet gum had crashed through, “just like Michael Jordan sinking a basket,” he said, shaking his head. About four hours later, an oak next door fell through another daughter’s bedroom, leaving the roof and the room open to the elements when it finally started to pour. (She was, thankfully, off at college.) A few blocks away, storm winds lifted up the roof over a neighbor’s kitchen and blew it down the street.

Sam and I slept through that and more in the kitchen with our lanterns, the crank-up radio (RadioShack had come through), and the snoring golden retriever between us. Fear, I soon remembered, felt less like panic and more like numbness. I woke up once to hear a report that Brennan’s restaurant was in flames (fire trucks couldn’t get there because of the storm), another time to see snow on the screen just before the power went out—by then millions of people in Houston and Galveston were in the same boat—and, finally, at about six, to see Sam texting a friend who complained that, OMG, she had lost power while she was flat-ironing her hair. We went back to sleep for a few more hours and then woke for good around eleven, to our world transformed.

The first thing I heard was my neighbor Steve’s generator rumbling at full blast, supplying him with electricity. It wasn’t just me who was covetous; my neighbor Allen suggested his wife and I don short skirts and knock on Steve’s door, then lure him outside so Allen could overpower him and take control of his property. (Lord of the Flies came early to our neighborhood.) The streets were carpeted with leaves and broken tree limbs—Sam and I could not get out the back door because so many had fallen on the porch. The most-industrious neighbors were already out clearing the storm sewers to stop flooding. A light drizzle was still falling, and the air was eerily, unseasonably cool.

We would soon learn that in some areas outside Houston, the destruction had been absolute. Galveston was fighting for its life, and the low-lying communities of Kemah, Seabrook, Bacliff, San Leon, and La Porte were decimated by flooding. But at that point, ignorant of these other, far harsher realities, the damage to Houston seemed tremendous. Like just about everyone else in the neighborhood, Sam and I went out to have a look. White Oak Bayou near our house looked menacingly bloated, and the fallen trees had worked like aerial buzz saws: Porches were severed from houses, roofs had caved in, power lines dangled only a few feet above the street. Good neighbor Steve suggested Sam and I walk west, not east, because a tree had fallen on a gas meter in the latter direction and the poison was now leaking steadily into the air. “We could blow at any moment,” he said.

No power meant no Internet, TV, or cordless phone. (“Don’t we have a better-looking one?” Sam had asked when I pulled my antediluvian phone—the one with a cord—from under the bed.) It was hard to believe that the rest of the world was going on as before—“Can’t you just use the Wi-Fi at a Starbucks?” a friend living elsewhere wondered—when for us, time had nearly stopped. As many would later note, there was time to contemplate, time to read a book, and time to chat with friends and family, which was a wonderful thing for, maybe, the first few hours after the storm. The rumor that power would not be restored for a minimum of three weeks, however, soon became a major topic of conversation on the street. “Perhaps they are just managing expectations,” my neighbor Linda suggested. I hoped she was right: I was starting to tremble from e-mail withdrawal, while Sam, unaware that school would not be starting for more than a week, began to worry about his homework. “My Beowulf essay is stuck in the computer!” he cried.

In the late afternoon we decided to ignore official requests that we stay off the roads and set off for more sightseeing and to accept a dinner invitation from a friend who had moved in with her parents during the storm. (“They have power!” she explained.) The streets were virtually empty of cars but full of debris, and the rare stores that were open were mostly operating without electricity, selling goods that didn’t require refrigeration. In Montrose, the lines of people waiting to buy anything looked like a scene from The Grapes of Wrath crossed with a scene from Blade Runner. Every once in a while we hit an intersection with power—as opposed to an intersection with a traffic light swaying like a noose from a loose wire—which meant that an adjacent restaurant might be open too. The few that were lucky enough to be functioning, even those with historically horrible food, had small mobs clamoring to get in.

We were lucky too. In the middle of dinner my husband called to say that a neighbor two blocks away had reported that her lights were on. We beat a hasty retreat through ink-black streets, past somber silhouettes of high-rise condos and shadowy human forms, anxious to get home before the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew went into effect. Police cars, their lights flashing, sealed off some downtown streets. “It looks like the apocalypse,” Sam said.

Our street was dark when we turned onto it, but a few blocks ahead, we spied a rosy glow that grew brighter as we approached. It was true. Our block was radiant with everything the twenty-first century had to offer: lights, air-conditioning, TV, Facebook. At the time, I didn’t feel inordinately blessed; I figured everyone would have power by noon the next day.

I was wrong. As the workweek began, on September 15, about 80 percent of the population of Harris County was without. Having power, I soon saw, was not only a convenience but a metaphorical exercise, giving me great insights into how the rich and, well, powerful view the rest of us. While most people were forced to use coolers as refrigerators and burn untold amounts of gasoline in vain attempts to find ice, I was annoyed that more restaurants weren’t open. Oh, right—they didn’t have power. We had access to hot showers and air-conditioning—a safe, cool night’s sleep—why did everyone else look so tatty? Poor things—they didn’t have power. Maybe, I thought, I should offer our house to a few friends and share our power—but not too many of course, because then our power might be diminished. Secretly, I began to fear that something might happen, and our power might be switched off again. Then where would we be? Powerless, just like everyone else.

To assuage my guilt, I went down the street on Monday to volunteer at my local POD (point of distribution, in FEMA-speak), where I handed out ice, water, and food, courtesy of the U.S. government. It was the storm’s biggest cliché that this city of individualists pulled together during such a troubled time, but it did, just as it had in the aftermath of Katrina. When it was reported that the sommelier at Brennan’s, James Koonce, and his four-year-old daughter, Katharine, had been badly burned in the restaurant’s fire, fundraising events sprouted as soon as other restaurateurs could open their doors. Any neighbor with a chain saw seemed ready and willing to loan it out or cut down a damaged tree (that is, if the roving bands of truck-driving chain saw entrepreneurs didn’t get there first; this was, after all, Houston). And, at the POD, I saw the whole of my neighborhood—soccer moms, gangbangers, retired oil-company workers, Sam’s best friends from elementary school now grown into tall young men—helping to distribute water, ice, and MREs, the same packaged, self-heating, ready-to-eat meals now being served in Baghdad, from chicken with salsa to vegetarian manicotti.

My neighbor Dave was nominally in charge of civilian volunteers one day, having taken a civil defense course during a period when he was laid off from work. He wore an interesting uniform that included a yellow vest, yellow gimme cap, and authoritative reflector sunglasses. People in customized “I helped too” T-shirts arrived from the mayor’s office. As the days wore on, similarly garbed workers appeared, representing institutions ranging from Exxon to Lakewood Church. (“Is Reverend Osteen here?” one of the women accepting an MRE asked hopefully.) Using orange cones in a church parking lot, we set up a makeshift drive-through, with rumbling refrigeration trucks in the middle, along with seven-foot-tall stacks of ice bags and twelve-packs of bottled water. Before we opened for business, at 9 a.m., car lines and people lines stretched for blocks in two directions: Land Rovers and junkers, babies and the elderly, even a handlebar-mustached veteran on a motorcycle, who balanced an ice bag and water bottles on his lap as he sped off. The scene was both heartening and frightening, the former because anyone could see government working right there on the micro level and frightening because most of us now have a collective memory of other modern disasters—9/11, Katrina—that underscored the feeling that Ike would not be the last, natural or otherwise.

Over the next few weeks, the city came back to life gradually, which meant that immediate danger passed and massive inconvenience set in. Crews were still searching for bodies down along the coast, but in Houston the talk was of which businesses were open. Kroger! Central Market! Society hairstylist Cerón’s salon! The news passed via word of mouth, in exuberant tones. The ingenuity that is so much a part of life here resumed: Some people started filching ice from the POD and selling it for $6 a bag a block away; owners of houses with power strung extension cords to those who didn’t. A neighbor whose best friend worked for a phone company invited him to come over to watch a football game—provided he bring his command center RV with the (functioning) big-screen TV. People surreptitiously used plugs at Target to charge their cell phones. There was a lot of drinking, most of it friendly, maybe because there was a lot of boredom. My house was taken over by teenagers who lacked power at home; they read David Sedaris out loud to one another and, on “hurrication” for an average of ten school days, ate a breathtaking amount. There was something very twentieth century about it all—we watched network TV (no cable, even if you had power) and read the Chronicle. The newspaper, beset by budget cuts and layoffs, outdid itself with storm news and survival tips; the only thing people were happier to see than their paper was a CenterPoint Energy truck. When one came around, you could hear cheers from blocks away.

I knew we were getting back to normal when our big-city irascibility returned. Local pols used Ike to advance themselves, claiming credit or assigning blame. A woman in West Houston posted a yard sign declaring “Hot Housewife seeks Lineman, 13 days without,” while a power-starved if history-challenged resident of my neighborhood compared CenterPoint to Hitler, Osama, and Enron (in that order) on a large banner on his fence. The financial crisis on Wall Street was accompanied here by the predictable plaint that Houston’s problems were being ignored.

Well, they were. Houston was wounded, not vanquished. We knew the difference between what had happened to us and what had happened on the coast. The worst-hit here lost a few weeks of normal life; those in Ike’s direct path lost their homes, jobs, and maybe, when the death toll is finalized, even their loved ones. We went back to work, accepted invitations to rescheduled events, made kids do their makeup homework, and planted new trees that would never replace the ones that were lost. I added my packages of Ike MREs to the Alicia stockpile of canned limas. I put the flashlights, lanterns, and crank radio someplace I will soon forget. I will probably buy a $50 five-day cooler and probably not buy a $3,500 generator, which will be a mistake. I know I’ll regret it when the next one hits.

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