Apres le deluge, the mosquitoes. In the wake of Tropical Storm Allison, they are as fat, lazy, and insatiable as guests at a Roman orgy, so engorged with blood they can scarcely be bothered to fly. Clothes and deep-woods bug spray are useless against the swarms. The briefest trip outside—to check the mail, say, or walk the dog—seems a singular opportunity to court encephalitis or dengue fever. In fact, the sound most often heard in flood-drenched neighborhoods these days is slap, slap, slap; thanks to the storm, we’re all spotted with tiny, bloody bug corpses. And we’ve been forced into a situation no Houstonian is comfortable with: looking backward. The mosquitoes, coupled with the trash piled eight feet high outside some homes, the flooded roadways, and the powerless skyscrapers all serve as incontestable reminders that Houston, before it became a great urban center, was a muggy, uninhabitable swamp. Driving down Interstate 10 just a few days after the water had receded, I thought the worst of myself and my beloved city: “If we have rolling blackouts this summer,” I told myself, “I’m out of here—and so is everybody else.”
There may or may not be many locals who recall pre-Kathy Whitmire Houston, when the place was famous as The City That Doesn’t Work. In those days potholes, insects, and flooding were considered the price of living in an entrepreneurial, quintessentially adolescent city; they were the price you paid for finding your fortune in Houston. But over the years, Houston grew up—roads were paved, bugs were sprayed, and elegant skyscrapers were built, along with state-of-the art concert halls and ever bigger and better air-conditioned sports facilities. Houston could guarantee a comfort level that never before seemed to matter, and people took it pretty seriously.
Allison brought all that to an end overnight. It was as though an invading army attacked the city at its weakest spots. The Medical Center, the arts district, the architecturally significant skyscrapers, the courthouses—all were in shambles, and Houston looked like no place anyone wanted to be. The story that seemed to haunt the populace was not about the homeless man who drowned in White Oak Bayou or the nonswimmers who had to be saved by National Guardsmen, who rappelled to their rescue down freeway sound barriers, but about the devoted employee who, working late in the Bank of America Center, had drowned in an elevator while trying to get to her car in the underground parking garage. The city mourned for the lab rats that died in the Medical Center’s basement and for the musical scores drenched in the bowels of Jones Hall. What really scared Houstonians, ultimately, was the idea that the flood could stop the city’s cherished progress in its tracks and wash Houston back into the past.
Marooned in our neighborhood with news that the storm might turn around and hit Houston again, my family went to the grocery store for supplies. A couple in their thirties were sitting at a concrete table outside. Boated out of their home in a comfortable neighborhood called Timbergrove, they’d crammed a few belongings into small gym bags. The woman was weeping. Her husband, covered with mud, was pounding alternately on his PalmPilot and cell phone. “I’m calling my mom to come and pick us up,” he said, sounding like a child lost in a shopping mall.
Like the rest of us, he would have a long wait for relief. Immediately following the storm, the media offered round-the-clock comfort in the form of stories of heroic rescue, stories of locals pulling together in a time of crisis, and particularly soothing to Houstonians, stories about the millions of dollars that had been raised to help flood victims. Ten or so days later, downtown buildings were surrounded by high-tech pumps, and NASA was promising innovative techniques to resuscitate water-damaged documents. There were lots of cool flood sales. I stumbled into one at a wilderness equipment store, where people were eagerly stocking up on tents, ropes, and lanterns. “Thanks,” I thought, “but no thanks.”