“You’re not George Clooney and crew hanging on to a wildly flailing pole in The Perfect Storm; you’re more Vladimir and Estragon, and instead of mouthing absurdist dialogue while you’re Waiting for Godot, you’re mumbling absurdist dialogue while you’re Waiting for the Goddamn Rain to Stop”
—Richard Connelly, writing in the Houston Press, on the destruction of his house during Tropical Storm Allison, in 2001.
Sometime around ten o’clock last night, my wife, Kelly, and I stopped enjoying the sound of the sheeting rain lashing against the windows and roof of our Houston Heights–area home. The constant rumble of thunder and the strobe-light constancy of the lightning had gone on for far too long by then, and my eighteen-year-old son, John Henry, was far across Houston, delivering pizzas to the good people of Bellaire. (I had told him two days previously that on rainy nights, especially rainy nights when the Rockets were playing a do-or-die Western Conference Finals game, he could expect mad tips. I also reiterated to him some key points of flash flood driving safety: don’t drive through water whose depth you don’t know, “turn around, don’t drown,” etc.)
Also around this time, some of the updates in my Facebook feed were more than a little alarming, especially one by my buddy, publicist Dutch Small. Sometime around eleven at night, Small posted this:
Wow. So, I just got flash flooded. As i was driving a safe street, the flood rose so quickly that my car was overtaken. I am sitting in my driver seat with water over my knees trying to decide if I am more safe sitting in a 2k lb machine or wading into the unknown. Anyone with experience w this dilemma?”
When I spoke to Smalls today, he told me, “I posted this to Facebook because I’d never been presented with this kind of situation before, and I am apparently very naive when it comes to threats. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know it was an emergency, because I wasn’t paying attention to the weather.”
But on social media last night, just as I was about to offer my advice to him (climb onto the roof and call 911), I had a more immediate real-life concern: our house started taking on water in the master bedroom, the master bathroom, and the dining room.
Our house stands atop what in Houston passes for a hill, but sadly, the apex of said eminence appears to be our backyard, and given that our bedroom, master bath, and dining room are a later addition to the original house, and a few inches below that first structure—and that water always flows downhill, ever to the sea—we had a bit of a problem.
I forgot about Small and turned to my first concern: John Henry. I texted him around eleven and learned that he was safe but stuck with about a dozen others under the Interstate 610 bridge about ten miles from home. (He would be stuck there for close to twelve hours. He finally arrived home about nine this morning, chipper over his adventure but eager for the Whataburger taquitos I had bought for him and for his bed.)
Assured that he was safe, I spent the next five hours digging an improvised channel with my bare hands and building a little dam out of the pea-gravel path lining one side of our yard before moving on to mopping up water in our soaked rooms with our worst towels, already-wet floor mats, old clothes, and yes, even mops, two of which we bought that very night. (I bought the first, which Kelly correctly deemed unsuited to the job at hand.) Twice, a toad tried to hop/swim into our back door to escape his deluged habitat. There was load after load of laundry to do as we tried to save the clothes, rugs, and mats on the floors of our house. We cursed the previous owners of the place for building the addition too low; we cursed ourselves for landscaping our backyard with a gravel path and stone patio (one semipermeable, the other non-permeable); we cursed the gods for unleashing this deluge upon us.
As the night wore on, we continued watching the weather radar, which stubbornly showed the same loop continuing for hours more to come—red, orange, and even purple rain bands welling up and wallowing over Houston at leisure, filling our creeks, ditches, and bayous to the brim, in no rush at all to move off to any other area. At a certain point, I went down to the Hidden Lake Condos, down at the bottom of our hill, and saw that White Oak Bayou was perilously close to overtopping both the levees and the TC Jester Bridge. It felt like Tropical Storm Allison all over again.
Small moved to Houston in 1993, but he had missed Allison. And Hurricane Ike. He just happened to be out of town both times. He’d grown up in Indiana, and so he missed all those lessons we natives learn about driving in floodwaters (lessons even many natives choose to ignore).
And stranded in his partially submerged Mercedes C320 in floodwaters near the Memorial exit of Loop 610, he had no idea that he was in real and immediate danger of death, even though by then the water in his car was over his knees and rising fast. His most immediate concerns, as of that moment late last night, were not about his life, or even about his car, but about how long it would take for AAA to get him out of this jam, and what annoyed him still more, a fresh pack of cigarettes had just fallen victim to the deluge, soaked in his console.
As he posted at the time: “I actually can’t leave my car. There really are strong currents. I am next to the bayou. Def not safe in the water. Right now all I care about is how my brand new pack of cigarettes is ruined.”
And then, slowly, it started to dawn on him that he was in deep, deep trouble. When he tried to open his car door, he couldn’t, because of the current. And then he realized that the electric windows did not work either.
“Oh. Note to all concerned: Windows do Stop working. If ever in a water emergency, open early,” he posted.
Small clambered out of the sunroof of his Mercedes and waited on top. By that time, he later told me, it was starting to rock back and forth, and he was starting to realize that 911 was a better alternative than AAA.
Just then, rescue came. “Suddenly, by grace of I don’t know what deity to thank, a tow truck comes by,” he said. “And he tows my car and takes me to my friend’s house. What I am taking from this is, thank God I am safe and thank God it worked out, but I’m thinking about my kid. I don’t know if my daughter would have known how to deal with that situation. I was not prepared. The thing I am taking away from this is, I need to be a whole lot less naive about the things that really do actually happen to people. Just because it hasn’t happened to me doesn’t mean it isn’t gonna happen.”
Finally the rain ended. Godot arrived, the waters receded from our yards and streets, and oozed into the swollen bayous, which strained to deliver them to the muddy Gulf.
But Small, who spent part of last night rejoicing merrily after his near-brush with calamity, is not laughing today. “I did not realize at that moment [last night] that I had just come out of a potentially life-threatening situation. I didn’t get it. At least not until this morning when I started seeing news coverage that people died in their cars.” He’s right to be cowed by nature. At least three are reported dead and three more are missing in Houston, with the search for more bodies still ongoing. “Those poor people, they just did not know what to do. I did not know what to do in the same way. I was sitting there making jokes on Facebook, not grasping the severity of the situation I was in, and by grace of God—and I am an atheist—a tow-truck that I did not call just happened to drive past me. At the perfect moment, because that water was not done rising. I’ve spent this whole morning being grateful as hell.”
Indeed, he should be. You hear again and again how most of the Houstonians who drown in these storms do so in their cars.
Small was ignorant of that fact, right up until the moment he almost became another statistic. “In short: life-threatening situations don’t seem life threatening when they are happening,” he explained on Facebook today.
And even though he believes his Mercedes is a total loss—“And I really liked that car a lot too,” he said—he’s not too concerned.
“Whatever, I am alive.”
(Photos: Cody Duty/Houston Chronicle via AP, Dean Davis via Facebook.)