I need more than two hands to count the number of hurricanes I have lived through, starting with Carla, in 1961, whose wrath reached all the way to my inland hometown of San Antonio. Carla was a category 5 hurricane but weakened to a category 4 just before making landfall, around Port O’Connor; by the time it got to my family’s one-story cinder block house, on Coventry Lane, we didn’t suffer much more than blinking lights and buckets of rain. I was six at the time, and the whole experience—the most intense hurricane to hit the Texas coast in the twentieth century—seemed more like an adventure than any kind of catastrophe or portent, because in those days no one saw Carla as anything but a really bad storm. “Climate change” would not enter the lexicon for another couple of decades.
Our blasé attitude held up for the next fifty or so years—through Beulah (1967), Candy (1968), Celia (1970), and, after I settled in Houston, Tropical Storms Amelia and Claudette (1978 and ’79, respectively), Hurricanes Allen (1980) and Alicia (1983), and Tropical Storm Allison (2001). When my mother demanded that my son and I flee Houston and incoming Hurricane Rita in 2005—soon after Katrina had devastated New Orleans—I obliged, happy to have the ten or so hours to be with my then-fourteen-year-old child and our panting golden retriever, especially after we exited the sun-scorched, gridlocked I-10 for some beautiful Texas back roads. (My husband, a newspaperman, had to stay behind.) My happy memories of Hurricane Ike, in 2008, involved a house full of giddy teenagers let out from school for what seemed like an indefinite period. Unlike many Houstonians, we lost power for only a day or so, and with a gas stove we managed to serve coffee to less fortunate neighbors.
There’s a pattern here, of course: I had no fear. I undertook the usual rituals—stocking up on bottled water, criss-crossing the windows with masking tape, replacing acid-eaten batteries in camping lanterns—in good humor because dodging hurricanes was part of the price everyone paid for living on or near the Gulf. When the storms ended, we strolled to nearby freeway overpasses to take pictures of the high water and the guys patrolling the streets in bass boats. During the Memorial Day Flood of 2015, my husband and I couldn’t make it home from the grocery store because swiftly rising water made the streets impassable. We tried to wait out the storm by going to a nearby movie theater for the late show of Mad Max: Fury Road but ended up spending the night on the top floor of the adjacent parking garage. Driving home the next morning, I spied so many abandoned and overturned cars that I felt like I was still in the movie.
Even so, I didn’t get it, “it” being the notion that good-humored adaptation had its limits. That was the lesson of Hurricane Harvey, in 2017. There had been a lot of media warnings in the days before of an approaching monster storm, but we shrugged them off. They happened all the time.
The storm arrived on August 26, but the rain started the morning before and then seemed as if it would never stop. For four days it kept falling, furiously drumming on the tin roof over our back room, a once comforting rhythm now laced with menace. The storm had stalled over Houston and beyond, covering an area that stretched all the way to the Louisiana border and to coastal towns as far south as Rockport. About forty inches of rain fell in Harris County—more than soggy Seattle gets in a typical year. We huddled inside, the TV tuned to the Weather Channel, the news becoming grimmer with every passing hour: the roofs of cars and trucks barely visible above the water on the freeways, suburban intersections where the tops of street signs poked through a raging current, people wading through water with their toddlers and pets in their arms.
Through more informal channels we heard from a friend who saw his family swept away. My 89-year-old father’s caregiver couldn’t reach her husband for several anguished hours, and when she finally did, he refused to budge from his home, sitting with his shotgun at the ready. Most frightening of all was news that two aged reservoirs were in danger of failing, which would send a torrent of water speeding from far west Houston into the densest areas of town. Our home sat directly in the flood’s predicted path, but then the Army Corps of Engineers started letting the water out in a “controlled release,” flooding the reservoirs’ surrounding neighborhoods and sparing those farther east. I breathed a sigh of relief, but it was hard to feel grateful that we had been given a reprieve when others were losing everything.
As the hours passed, it became clear that the wind wasn’t as dangerous as the rain, and the rain had become more dangerous because there was no place for it to go. Paved exurbs now dotted the once porous flood plains, and mitigation plans were (and still are) stalled on Houston planners’ drawing boards. The weakness of the city’s passion for “less government” and ever more growth had finally been exposed in the direst of circumstances: more than 300,000 houses and apartments were damaged or destroyed. Property damage was estimated at about $200 billion. Surely change would come now.
Once the storm passed, my husband and I did the usual thing: we got in our car and drove around to gawk at the damage. I’d never seen anything like it—entire neighborhoods with mountains of trash piled in the front yards, tables and chairs with amputated legs, family heirlooms reduced to rubble. Parts of downtown were impassable, with the normally sedate Buffalo Bayou churning like a mini Mississippi.
Our performing arts centers—the Alley Theatre, the Wortham Theater Center, and Jones Hall—would be shuttered for the next few months for repairs, and the jails, the criminal courthouse, and a brand-new court annex, situated underground, weren’t fully functional for years. That some Houston builders still bury their electrical equipment after decades of floods and storm-induced power outages seems beyond comprehension. “The generators are always in the basement” has become my son’s mantra, a maxim he applies whenever he hears of a disaster exacerbated by human boneheadedness.
In the immediate wake of the storm, the typical period of self-
congratulation followed, as Harvey shifted from a disaster film to a feel-good story: “The amount of volunteers that came out of the woodwork was absolutely insane,” noted one poster on YouTube, who went by the name BigBitch. “My buddy’s house flooded, and I kid you not, a massive group of Jehovah’s Witnesses just came up and started stripping drywall, flooring, hauling garbage, etc. . . . Within three hours, they finished the demolition and just packed up and moved on to the next house.” Nextdoor, often a source of neighborhood strife, became an invaluable resource, providing hyperlocal information about open grocery stores and flooded intersections. The hashtag of the moment was #HoustonStrong; we had pulled ourselves back from the brink once more.
The predictable finger-pointing and lawsuits followed in due course. Governor Greg Abbott and then land commissioner George P. Bush held up federal disaster funds out of spite while the underserved remained so years later, living in Harvey-damaged homes with holes in their roofs. (Some are still living in Ike-damaged homes with holes in their roofs.) Meanwhile, sea levels along the Gulf Coast continue to rise at an alarming rate, and the land continues to sink, because the aquifers have been overpumped. A local writer has posted “Build the Ike Dike” on Twitter so often that it’s become a meme. And though the effort to build a massive storm-surge barrier in Galveston Bay has recently received support from the state and federal governments, no one has yet coughed up any real money for it. For now it seems like a pipe dream, beyond the capability of a region once known for its entrepreneurial spirit and relentless determination.
I, for one, have lost my faith. Soon after Harvey, I persuaded my husband to invest five hard-earned figures in a generator that tests itself every Wednesday, starting up with a reassuring roar while we drink our morning coffee. It’s in the backyard, on the west side of our house. We don’t have a basement, but if we did, we’d never dream of putting it there.
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Time It Wouldn’t Stop Raining.” Subscribe today.