You can take the toll of a Texas summer in statistics, in numbers dry as your lawn, in cold data to huddle around like an open fridge door. But for me, the most reliable barometer of its brutality lies in watching as the local weathercasters turn downright defeated. When the summer months begin, somewhere around Easter, they deliver the bad news with a conspiratorial twinkle, one that says we all knew this was coming. They’ll keep up the jocular tone through June and July, noting each triple-digit high like a doctor who’s just removed a nasty growth, marveling at its size with an almost tawdry delight.
But somewhere around August, that cheeriness begins to ebb. The dull repetition of heat and humidity settles on their faces like its own high-pressure system. Then September drags on, as they bitterly note the coming and going of “meteorological fall.” They grow weary of the psychological burden of having to trundle out night after night, surrounded by red and purple bands, to snuff out any glimmer of hope. They’re tired of the other anchors theatrically groaning, of viewers venting to them on the streets and on their Facebook pages. They’re sick of being the bad guy. Their forecasts develop a tone of despair, shot through with barely concealed defensiveness. What do you expect?! they silently scream. Where do you think you live, anyway?
Their anguish has been dragged out much longer than normal this year, as we wrap up the hottest, most miserable September that our history can recall. Did you want those statistics now? Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Del Rio, Houston, Tyler, and more all shattered September heat records, some with average temperatures 3 to 5 degrees above their previous benchmarks. Dallas also had its driest September ever, with barely a trace of rain to ease its average daily highs of 95—a full 10 degrees hotter than last year. Thanks to Tropical Storm Imelda, Houston actually had its wettest September, but the rains and devastating floods only brought an added layer of mugginess to the misery. Austin racked up nineteen days of triple-digit temps in September, the most ever. Last year had just one. Even that legendary summer of 2011, which still narrowly holds the record for Austin’s hottest, had only fourteen of those 100-degree days come September. That month was also, on average, 4 degrees cooler. My favorite local weatherman, Fox 7’s Scott Fisher, has repeatedly called this “living through weather history,” a phrase he typically delivers with a grimace that conveys how truly blessed we are.
Like a lot of Austinites who survived that 2011 summer, I have vivid, sweaty recollections that I will gladly lapse into at the slightest crack of a beer, although my reasons are likely more personal than most. That was also the summer that I finally decided to leave Texas, after having spent some 32 of them here without complaint. Or rather, without the expectations that my complaints meant a damn. Like all Texans, I weathered the weather with a sort of wry stoicism and gallows humor, having never really known any different. Nor was I willing to give up my home, just because it occasionally seemed like some cruel God was trying to smoke me out.
But that summer, after nearly a month of consecutive triple-digit days, after drought-fueled wildfires ravaged a friend’s Bastrop home, after the ground supporting the main water line in our front yard crumbled to dust, I’d finally had enough. I was presented with an opportunity to go work in Chicago, so we took it. My wife and I sold our house (and punted on the water line). We bid farewell to all the friends we hardly saw anyway, because it was always too hot to go out. And we left, secure in the bragging rights that we had survived the worst of Austin’s summers, which I thought maybe I could lord over my hardy Midwesterner friends who got a tad too swaggering about their winters.
We lasted through seven of those, finally reaching another breaking point this past February after a string of negative-forty-degree days. While contemplating moving back to Austin, we were hyper-conscious of the fact that we were choosing to be hot. Not just for ourselves but our young daughters, who had never known a world outside of Chicago—these sweet, winter-born innocents whose favorite movie was Frozen, and who absolutely loved the snow. We knew we would be giving all that up. We’d be abandoning, too, those gorgeously breezy months between May and September, when I would go strolling around Lake Michigan, obnoxiously ahhhhh-ing like I was in an ad for allergy medicine. We were very deliberately going back to the endless summer that barreled directly into a barren winter. We agonized over how our kids might never forgive us, once they figured it out.
We couldn’t help but do so, because our Chicago friends reminded us at every opportunity. Usually it was the first thing out of their mouths when we told them we were moving back. Ugh, it’s so hot there! Are you sure? I would sometimes unpack my rather morbid reasoning for them—how I’d decided I’d much rather die of heat stroke than keel over shoveling snow. But mostly, my wife and I would assure everyone that we’d be fine, that we’d grown up in it, that being hot was our “natural state.” Besides, we’d tell them, we’d already lived through the hottest summer in Austin history! How much worse could it get?
Of course, these days, that question rings a bit more . . . apocalyptic than it used to. Texas summers have always been merciless, this is true. Our Septembers, too, have been hotter than we care to admit, even as we delude ourselves with pumpkin patches and “fall wardrobes.” As Mimi Swartz recently reminded us, “September is probably the hottest month of the year, meteorologically and psychologically,” stalwartly offering no quarter from the heat, and cutting all the deeper for the June, July, and August we’ve already suffered through. But September 2019 weighs uniquely on the mind, and not just for the records it’s broken, or for the addled sludge it’s created there.
In fact, it’s difficult to look at this string of sweltering days that now reliably stretch further and further into fall and not think of those headlines warning of rising temperatures and ocean levels, of raging wildfires and looming mass extinctions. Similarly, it would require some serious force of will to listen to climate change activists like Greta Thunberg, raising alarms in the middle of the hottest September ever, and not entertain the notion that she may be on to something. We’ve been dancing around this question of whether these things are an aberration or an omen for decades now. Twenty years ago, in the wake of one particularly scorching summer in 1998, Texas Monthly’s Gregory Curtis wrote skeptically of the prophecies of Al Gore, saying he drew comfort from the fact that Texans had seen long, ferocious summers before and had always toughed them out. But today, as the data bends increasingly toward those once-anomalous extremes becoming the new normal, one begins to wonder whether we’ve just become the proverbial frogs in boiling water here, ribbiting folksy aphorisms until we’re all thoroughly cooked. “How much worse could it really get?” now feels less like a question of comfort than of our ultimate survival.
And when it came to my moving back here, it was a gamble. I knew we were risking it all on the hope that all those scientists and assorted doomsayers were wrong—that worsening droughts and coastal floods probably won’t cause food shortages, destroy entire towns, and displace millions, or that the oppressive heat won’t turn us all into violent loons. Or maybe we’re betting that some more self-evident crisis will come along—something that we can all agree, regardless of politics, feels more urgent than an unusually hot September—and it will finally break through our ideological divides and spur us toward a more lasting solution. But either way, by recommitting to Texas in 2019, I’m pinning my hopes on the idea that, one way or another, these trends will reverse, so my daughters won’t have to give up their dreams of being fairy ballerinas to become water scavengers in a mosquito-ravaged wasteland. Because given how they reacted to their first taste of Texas summer—collapsing to the ground inside the airport parking garage and moaning, “Too hot!”—I doubt they could hack it.
Granted, that was four long, hot months ago. After this baptism by fire, my kids can now barely remember a time when it wasn’t summer—just like real Texans. Over the years they, too, will become better acclimated to its extremes, more used to the idea that “fall” is mostly a theoretical concept. They’ll learn, as their mother and father did before them, how to spend their days scurrying from air-conditioned room to room, avoiding the sun until the distant promise of a cold front finally peeks over the horizon—trying not to worry too much about those 100-degree Thanksgivings, but learning to shrug them off as “Texas weather for ya.” And someday, when their AI weather-bots bloop out sad-faced emojis to mark yet another blistering, never-ending heat wave, they, too, can smirk, Where do you think you live, anyway?