In recent years, whenever Houston floods, I think of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the famous Swiss psychiatrist who outlined the five stages of grief experienced by the dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That may sound a little grim to you, but when you are focused on climate change and its attendant extreme weather events, a certain amount of grimness is allowed, given the state of denial that we live in, literally and psychically. This notion struck me again yesterday, when the rain from Imelda—what may be a thousand-year flood for some parts of Southeast Texas—came pelting down on us here in Houston, bringing the city once again to a standstill. Just like during Tropical Storm Allison (2001), Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), Hurricane Ike (2008), the Memorial Day Flood (2015), the Tax Day Flood (2016), and, of course, Hurricane Harvey in 2017. That’s not to mention all the severe unnamed storms that also wreaked havoc on Houston in between. What struck me most of all yesterday is how we—ok, I—have fallen into a predictable pattern as I’ve adapted to the increasingly extreme weather here.
Denial is the stage most Houstonians, including me, live with most days, but particularly days when the weather turns bad. (This kind of denial led my husband John and me to try to make it home from the grocery store during the Memorial Day Flood. We ended up sleeping in the parking garage of the movie theater where we parked and saw Mad Max: Fury Road, blithely failing to draw any irony from our situation.) In fact, I had just been complaining to John about the lack of rain and its effect on a relatively young and struggling magnolia tree in our backyard. In a recent adaptation, I now have two weather apps on my phone—a friend just recommended Dark Sky in the conspiratorial tones of someone telling me about a great sale at Neiman Marcus, but I was way ahead of her. Still, I hadn’t been checking my apps until the rain actually started to fall. Then I looked at Dark Sky and saw a pattern of undulating blue waves stretching forward into the next 24 hours.
Kübler-Ross has written that the five stages do not always come in order, so I would say I skipped over Anger and moved on to Bargaining. As the sky turned black and school and business closings started turning up on my email—no yoga for the perpetually rattled today!—the mayor and the county judge Lina Hidalgo (Hidalgo in English and Spanish) started telling people to shelter in place. But I couldn’t: I was supposed to talk to a group of about fifty people across town at lunchtime. I checked my NextDoor site—as usual, my neighbors had started posting which streets were flooding and which were still passable. I could probably make it to I-10, and then maybe still have time to make the meeting. So now I was faced with a genuine issue of mortality: Should I cancel and risk disappointing a group of people waiting on me or get in the car and risk my life? What would be the most fair?
I used to scoff at friends who cancelled dinners when the rain started falling, but ever since my husband lost his Acura after trying to get through a flooded underpass, I have dropped the phrase “It’s only a little rain” from my lexicon. Finally, after several emails, my host graciously let me off the hook: “Flash flood here but ok,” she emailed. “If you want to cancel we can entertain ourselves. Don’t want you hurt.”
The Anger came when, after being cooped up in the house all morning and into the afternoon, John and I decided to make a break for a late lunch to a place no more than two miles away that would not require traveling through any streets that usually flooded. (We checked the best route on Waze, another weather-induced habit.) We got there fine—“Ummm, why are you in your car?” a friend texted—but it took us 45 minutes to get home because the freeway was underwater and all the cars were diverting to the surface streets in our neighborhood.
I know I’m not alone in feeling the gods—or, more accurately, our ceaseless carbon emissions—are punishing us a bit too much. Alejandro De Almaida, a Houston father quoted in the Chronicle summed up the feeling in the city this way: “We shouldn’t be used to this. Harvey was the 500-year flood, so we weren’t expecting this after two years.”
And then there was Acceptance. This came when the rain stopped around 6 p.m., and John and I fell into the now time-honored ritual of walking the dogs to our nearby bayou to survey the damage. This post-storm period is my neighborhood’s version of a hurricane party: we ooh and ahh over how high the water is—since our bayou is lined with concrete, it always looks so much prettier when it’s full of water. We watch cars drive into flooded intersections. We reminisce about previous storms and worry that the gas pumps half under water at the nearby convenience store may be rendered useless. “It’s good to see you,” we say cheerfully to the people we only see once in a while, usually after a heavy rain.
The most novel post-storm event this time around was the appearance of an enormous city of Houston military-style truck that would be better served saving people in Syria. It was clear that Mayor Turner was speaking the truth when he said that we had many more trucks to pull people out of the water. Thank you, Hurricane Harvey.
Depression had been creeping in and out of my consciousness all day. First it crept in while I watched the local weather, which always has a hypnotic effect. There’s now a soporific sameness to it all. With more frequent storms, it’s déjà vu all over again: Again, the underpasses with only the tops of cars, trucks, or buses visible. People wading in water up to their knees, thighs, or waists, some wearing good-natured smiles, others wearing the harried been-there-done-that expressions. I got a message on Facebook, inviting me to join the Tropical Storm Imelda Flooding Group. Matt Lanza, a meteorologist with Space City Weather who, along with Eric Berger, have been doing essential work keeping Greater Houston informed on our extreme weather events, captured the feeling in a Twitter thread on Thursday night:
Processing this whole event and a few thoughts in the immediate aftermath. I feel soul-crushed. For us in Houston (and the Golden Triangle), the last 4-5 years have been a never ending hell for so many people. It's cruel. It's depressing. It's weather, and sometimes it sucks.
— Matt Lanza (@mattlanza) September 20, 2019
But by this morning, the freeways were bustling, and the sun was peaking tentatively behind the clouds. Denial? All I can say is it ain’t no river in Egypt.