“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