On Hurricanes and Homecomings

 My cousins and me after clearing out our grandparent's house after Hurricane Ike swept through town. 

My cousins and me after clearing out our grandparent's house after Hurricane Ike swept through town. 

I flew home to Houston the Friday evening as the beginnings of Hurricane Harvey began to sprinkle about the city. I’d been on week-long vacation to Disney World while the first murmurings of a tropical storm started circulating the news circuits that I follow. Since the majority of these end up forming and dissipating over water I didn’t bother worrying until my parents called me that Wednesday to ask if my flight home was still going to happen. It was then that I realized that this storm was going to be far worse than expected.

 

Suddenly I’m spending every evening on the phone with Southwest Airlines trying to make sure that they were aware that a Hurricane was definitely going to impact my return flight, with them assuring me that it would not. It turns out they were correct and the flight staff that took us home, landed the few souls brave enough to return to Houston safely just in time for us to get pummeled by the rain that followed. Though we did land, the last 30 minutes of the flight were anything but pleasant. At one point as we flew through a particularly rough thundercloud, I quite dramatically drafted a note to my loved ones as I was certain that I wouldn’t be surviving the trip home. To my credit, it is awfully frightening when the only thing you see out of your window are flashes of lightning as the plane lurches to and fro on the long descent to the ground.

 

From there we still were unsure of what was the reality to come. There didn’t seem to be a clear consensus of where Houston lay on the path that Harvey was to take. Some said to prepare for some rain, none seemed to believe that there would be the level of devastation that actually occurred. Saturday morning brought in a haze of gray clouds coming in but the rain was sporadic at best which only served to increase the level of dread around the house. There wasn’t much more that we could prepare for as my dad had already filled up different jugs with water. We had flashlights and lanterns at the ready, ever hopeful that they would not be used. It even cleared to a degree at one point enough that I was able to grab a last minute Chick-fil-a dinner for my mom and me before the rain began.

 

And then it started.

 

From that point on it was nothing but rain. Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Four days of constant, neverending rain. The rainfall far exceeded all estimates causing Harvey to be the wettest tropical storm since record-keeping began, with some places receiving up to 51 inches of rain. Every night I looked out my window to see a street transformed, one continuous sheet of water, only to dissolve in the morning sun. When I thought that was bad I would turn on the news and be reminded that Rockport was virtually erased from the state, that parts of Houston were not going to recover anytime soon, and that some families were probably losing all of their personal belongings. There was just so much footage of destruction being shown of the countless number of water rescues. All were made by brave men and women who were helping save the citizens of Houston, from professionals like the National Guard to volunteer organizations like the Cajun Navy. It was heartbreaking to see so many people in need of assistance but equally heartwarming to see the support we received so early on in the timeline of this disaster. At the same time, it got to a point where I had to turn off the tv because I just couldn’t look at the sheer amount of destruction that occurred in the city. It was no better online, with posts of false information like that the City of Houston was shutting off the water lines as they were contaminated. (Spent a good 20 minutes filling up my tub.) There were some positive things, like the Mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner saying that the city’s shelters would accept anyone regardless of their citizenship status. The ability to spread news quickly is paramount to survival during disaster situations, however, it is whether or not you choose to spread the right information that decides its effectiveness.  It was important to let our non-citizen brothers and sisters know that there would be a safe place for them from the storm, no questions asked. On the other hand, the spread of false information to provoke fear and outcry breeds distrust between officials and the public consuming the news. (Leave the FAKE NEWS to Trump.) So by Sunday afternoon, I was down to reading a book and wondering if I had a job to return to once the week started. When I compared that to those having to wade through water to find a safe place to spend the night I realized that I wasn’t suffering much.

 

Now here is the part where I sound like an asshole. Other people’s pain so inundated me that I was forced to turn off the television and unplug from social media to stop watching their suffering. I think it’s a telling sign of this generation. I don’t like acknowledging it, but we’re growing up in a time where we get to choose what we do and do not see. You can filter out pain and suffering with a click of a button. However, with major events, it becomes a little harder to do so because the echo chamber grows much larger in times of tragedy. I didn’t want to see the posts of people who lost their homes and cars to feet of water. I didn’t want to see the countless pets and strays left behind. I didn’t want to see a nursing home community with water up to their hips. It sucks. Those images stay in the public conscience because they hurt to look at. They make you curl up in a ball  and hide from the literal storm above you because you can no longer take it anymore. Unfortunately, Houston won’t be able to hide from the consequences of this storm. In a matter of days, we became a city changed. Like iron forged in the fire to become steel, we have the opportunity to rebuild and re-forge our identity as a city. In the weeks following Harvey, I’ve seen communities rebuilding at an incredible pace. I’ve seen the lines of volunteers outnumber those staying at shelters two to one in some instances and piles of donations that stretch entire warehouses. I count myself one of the fortunate few who was able to help out using my position in the food industry to gather donations from large corporations to donate to community shelters, not because I know how it feels to be down on my luck, but rather because it is what we must do. We’re #HOUSTONSTRONG for a reason. We pick up those around us and help them move on and get back on their feet. To do any less is to disrespect our neighbors and ourselves.

 

Full disclosure: I haven’t always been a proud Houstonian. Though born and raised here, I never really felt a strong connection to my hometown growing up here. Due to a whole slew of identity issues in my adolescence that never seemed to quite align themselves with the views of my peers,  I grew to resent the city that made me, well… me. At 18 I made my parents cry when I told them that the college I had decided on was 1000 miles away in Chicago. I didn’t tell them until later that I hadn’t even applied to any of the Texas public universities. In my head, I had to get out of what I thought was a backward place with no room to grow. You might be thinking that Houston is a major city with a diverse population and tolerant of pretty much everything under the sun. Now, almost ten years removed from that young high school graduate I would agree with you. At the time though, was a different story. But when you base your whole viewpoint of a 2+million population city on the kids who bullied you in school you develop a skewed sense of reality. It didn’t help that while in Chicago I grew to join in an elitist practice of putting down my home state and city, summing it up as a secessionist hick-land full of the intellectually subdued. Yeah… I was that guy and it wasn’t easy to be around me on holiday breaks from school as my family can attest to. Thankfully I’d like to think I’ve grown up and matured some, both personally and in my view of where I’m from. Moving back home after graduation will do that to ya. It has been in these last few years post-graduation that I’ve really come to appreciate Houston. We may be a large city, but our charm comes in small packages. For me, Houston is home. It’s where my family lives, and though they annoy me at every turn, life just wouldn’t be the same without them. Houston is my favorite coffee shop with the baristas who don’t need to take my order to make what I want. Houston is the drive to work every morning along too many side streets, for the sake of avoiding traffic while listening to my favorite playlists. Houston is where I attended my first pride parade. Houston is where I grew into my faith. Houston is where it was possible to be a gay, Catholic, Hispanic man and not suffer any consequences because of that.

 

Say it with me.

Houston is home.

Houston is home.

Houston is home.

It is safe to say that I’ve truly fallen in love with my hometown which is why these last few weeks have been so hard to take in stride. Our city is at its breaking point, but we haven’t broken yet. The water will recede. The roads will be rebuilt. The wreckage of old homes will be thrown out and replaced with new memories, those of our healing, our strength, and our love. You never fully recover from a natural disaster of this magnitude. I learned that from helping out on build sites in New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina.  But you can’t let that change the way you live your life either. Finances will be tight and tensions will be high, but to give up on yourself or on those helping restart our city accomplishes nothing.  With Harvey barely in the rearview mirror and new systems popping up all over coastlines around the world we have to put our brave face on and move forward because nothing was ever gained from mulling over the past. It is our time to show the nation that we are more than the place that provides their gas and oil. We’re more than our sports teams. We’re the most diverse city in the whole of the United States of America and that is something that we can say proudly. We are a city with a willing spirit ready to spring back into action. To reference my favorite piece of graffiti, it is time to, “Be Someone.” It is time to be a volunteer. It is time to be an innovator. Be someone kind. Be someone courageous. Be someone political. Be someone proud, of themselves and of their city.

 

Houston is home.

Let’s rebuild together.