Businesses shuttered. People trapped in their homes. Normal life grinding to a halt. Neighbors helping neighbors, knowing that help may not be coming.
To Houstonians like me, this is all starting to feel very familiar. In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey dumped 1.2 trillion gallons of water on Harris County over the course of just four days, turning highways into rivers, parks into lakes, and downtown skyscrapers into moated citadels surrounded by fetid brown slurry. Around 300,000 homes and an equivalent number of cars were damaged or destroyed, with property damage pegged at $200 billion. Amazingly, only 36 people died.
Those of us lucky enough to survive Harvey with our homes intact were forced to shelter in place for a week or more as record levels of water backed up in the Addicks and Barker reservoirs slowly drained. Some of us had electricity; others were in the dark, without air-conditioning in 90-degree heat. People who lost their homes moved in with friends or relatives, or, if the damage was apparently superficial, tried to stay in place—at least until the mold started growing in the sticky southeast Texas climate. Local television stations stopped airing commercials for several days to provide around-the-clock coverage of the unfolding catastrophe. It felt like the end of the world.
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“There [was] no separating good water from bad,” recalled Houston essayist Lacy M. Johnson, who had to evacuate her west Houston home with her family. “No separating water that might be drinkable from water that drowned a father, a police officer, the bat colony, a family of six, a factory, a Superfund site, the power station, the pretty woman who lived on the first floor of the apartment building.”
We got through it—together. Anyone who owned a boat, canoe, kayak, or anything else that floated was out in the floodwater, rescuing people. Restaurant owners converted their kitchens into food prep assembly lines where small armies of volunteers churned out hundreds of thousands of meals; at its peak, one such kitchen was producing 1,800 sandwiches an hour. Other volunteers picked up the food and shuttled it to emergency shelters and churches. Impromptu construction crews fanned out through neighborhoods, going house to house, ripping out soggy drywall and rotten floorboards from the homes of total strangers.
We’re going to need that same spirit to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. As public life shuts down, we’re being thrown back on our own resources. Just as with Harvey, the government’s response has been slow, haphazard, and unreliable. It’s up to us to save ourselves—and our neighbors. Fortunately, we’ve been here before. Few American cities outside of Puerto Rico have been tested as thoroughly as Houston over the past decade. Harvey was simply the last and largest of three consecutive “five-hundred-year” floods we endured in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Hunkering down has become a way of life for us.
As bad as this outbreak is—and it’s very, very bad—everyday life, for the moment, isn’t as challenging for most Houstonians as it was during Harvey. We haven’t lost electricity or water, and there’s no reason to think we will. People are self-isolating in their own homes, surrounded by their creature comforts. Even if we have to shelter in place, as San Francisco is doing, the vast majority of us are going to be okay. All things being equal, I’d rather be stuck at home for three months with air-conditioning at this time of year than be marooned for a week without it. Hundreds of thousands may lose their jobs, but with evictions indefinitely suspended hopefully nobody will lose their home.
We’re all relying on muscle memory developed during Harvey to help us through these difficult times. The most important lesson may be the power of neighborliness. In a pandemic, as in a hurricane, everyone has to pitch in; everyone has a role to play. There were only two types of Houstonians after Harvey, wet ones and dry ones, and the dry ones, almost without exception, helped out the wet ones. With the coronavirus, the young and healthy are looking after the old and infirm. Like in other cities, some restaurants are giving away excess food from their pantries before it spoils. Volunteers are helping the Houston Food Bank distribute meals to newly out-of-work families. But you don’t have to be employed at a restaurant or hospital to do your part—these days, just staying home and watching Netflix can be a heroic act.
During Harvey, leadership didn’t come from the expected people or places. Joel Osteen initially refused to open Lakewood Church to flood victims. Governor Greg Abbott spent the crisis second-guessing Houston’s disaster response plan and then refused to tap the state’s $10 billion “rainy day” fund to help us recover from the biggest rain event in American history. Tilman Fertitta was in Los Angeles shooting an episode of his CNBC reality show when Harvey struck. Rather than flying back to help out his thousands of employees, he elected to stay in L.A. and finish the episode. (Last week it was announced that employees at Fertitta’s Post Oak Hotel in the Galleria area would have their benefits cut because of COVID-19; after a tsunami of bad press, Fertitta was forced to backtrack.)
Instead, the real Harvey heroes were the ordinary Houstonians who, confronted with the worst natural disaster in the city’s history, simply rolled up their sleeves and did what needed doing. Likewise, I suspect the real heroes of the COVID-19 outbreak won’t be politicians or businesspeople or religious figures but the anonymous nurses, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, pharmacists, sanitation workers, and other personnel essential to keep the city functioning.
About a week after Harvey, when the water was still high but steadily going down, I took a run through the predominantly Hispanic Northside neighborhood near my home. The streets were still slick with mud left behind by the floodwater; I slipped at one point and went sprawling on the asphalt, skinning my knee and elbow. It was the farthest I had ventured from my house since the hurricane, and I expected the worst—flooded homes, traumatized residents, general chaos. Instead, everyone was out on their porches, gossiping with their neighbors. Kids played in the streets as their parents watched. People were walking their dogs or pushing their babies in strollers. The community was holding together.
I get the same feeling these days. Sitting outside on my second-floor deck, I chat with my neighbors across the fence line while keeping the requisite six feet of distance. Everyone is spending a lot of time outdoors, enjoying the good weather. I wave to the joggers and cyclists who pass by. In the afternoon, my landlord does yard work. At night, the couple who lives behind me grills steaks on their patio. Around six o’clock every evening I crack open a Lone Star, cue up a Spotify playlist, and settle into a plastic Adirondack chair to watch the sunset. With my windows and door open, much of the neighborhood can hear my music. Sometimes they make requests (Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty are popular); sometimes they ask me to turn down the volume.
Boom or bust, feast or famine, flood or drought—as Mimi Swartz has observed, life in Houston has a certain cyclical quality. We always seem to squander the good times, leaving us unprepared when things take their inevitable turn. Our economy, like that of Texas as a whole, is not ready for a virus- and oil-glut-induced recession. But our people are.