In early September of 2008, I was sitting in my house with my suitcase wide open and making executive decisions on what to pack based on this one question I asked over and over again in my mind: "if I come back to absolutely nothing, what is really important to me enough to save." Amazingly that eliminated a lot of things. Suddenly my favorite blanket, or my dvd collection, or the vintage tea cups I'd spent 4 weekends looking for didn't matter at all; they were just junk. What I did end up packing up were my two diplomas, my yearbooks filled with my favorite memories, and all of the families most ancient photo albums with one and only photos of various relatives saved I knew from my parents stories, from various harrowing situations. I remember walking around the house and literally saying goodbye to everything and taking what may have been the last photos I would ever have of the house and then walking over to my good friends and neighbors who were sheltering in place, and letting them know my emergency contact info, and if something happened to the house to let the authories know if they could, that no one would be in it. We were of course all thinking and talking about Hurricane Katrina and houses cleared of bodies and marked with bright orange spray painted X's not three years past. It's a million years later, and even writing this now, I still manage to get choked up about those last few days. Now, with my car packed up, I paused in the driveway for one last mental photo of the the beautiful street, and the magnoila trees, and wondering if the stray tabby cat who took naps under my window every day at the same time would be okay. I'd left it some food, before I'd left, but I hadn't seen him.
Growing up in Hurricane country, you don't really fear them. When hurricane season starts, most people do little to no preperation. Every other week there is another hurricane and most hit nearby islands, or Florida, or go around to Mexico sparing the majority of the Gulf. Most of us have an unspoken hurricane ranking system ourselves. Category 1, you try to call out for work even though you know that storm isn't going to do anything. Cat 2, you usually have an excuse due to flooding to stay home and most do and call up their friends and throw a party. Cat 3, you worry a little, but not much. No one leaves unless you're in a low lying area prone to flooding, and you usually just make sure everything is charged up, maybe you've got some sand bags for the water, call out of work, stand in the street taking crazy pictures of the sky and the storm clouds, and then have a party. Cat 4 is probably when people start to worry and pack up and go. That's when the grocery stores and hardware stores get rushed. As soon as the cases of water are piled 3 rows deep on the ailse, they're gone. Anything that can be eaten cold, is gone. The news is no longer breaking in, but becomes a permanent fixture only interupted by the mayor and various comissioners warning people the end of days is coming and to make sure pets and old people in particular are secure and safe. By Cat 5, there is full on panic. Traffic is a swamp of stalled cars and pissed off drivers. One of the scariest things you'll hear is that by x time today, all emergency services will be suspended. There will be no police, no emergency medical, no one on the streets. You are on your own until the safety of our officers and emergency mobile crews is safe and essentially if you haven't left town by a certain time, there is no point and to try to be in a place without glass away from windows. This is about the time you're in a bathroom tub or bedroom closet huddled together with your pets, your grandparents, your kids, your loved ones trying to stay calm and not die.
It was a week after the storm hit. The mayor indicated that people should very cautiously begin to head back into the city according to alphabetical order or zip code or something of that nature to prevent an influx all at once. Try to wrap your head around 1.5 million people having fled this one storm and now trying to return to what may have been nothing. The photos of nearby Galveston Island were already absolutely devastating. The one shot that stood out in everyone's mind was the first pictured image here with the one lone house left standing where hundreds of others had once been. The freeways were under water, parts of the city were on fire, long buried caskets, made their way to the surface, water had flooded the iconic Strand, stray pets were roaming what was left of the streets, pieces of houses and boats caking the shore lines. They showed plenty of ariel shots of downtown Houston which was now cordoned off completely due to glass and debris from the downtown skyscrapers crashing down to the street level. Some of the billion dollar medical labs had been flooded, all of the underground areas of the University had been flooded and power was out for nearly 100% of the city. I'd stopped at a Wal-mart along with pratically my entire town to pick up a ton of cleaning supplies, and food I could eat cold for how long I didn't know. I bought enough for 3 weeks worth along with boots and a shovel, and trashbags and bleach, I had no clue. I knew that my area had been spared from complete destruction from a few blips on the news, but I couldn't get enough info to know what that meant except that most likely my house was still standing in some capcity. By hour 2 of the drive, I was in traffic. This wasn't really traffic, it was get out of your car and have a picnic on the side of the road for 2 hours, traffic. I turned off the car to save gas. It was absolutely sweltering but every single gas station had a closed sign on it, or out of gas, or keep driving sign, some more humerous than others. Officially for what should have been a 4 hour drive, it took, nearly eight and half to get back.
When I began to finally near the city, my heart started racing. Old ancient trees had been completely smashed flat into the earth. Billboards were loose hanging shards of paper and metal, the rooves of restaurants here and there were torn off and there was debris every where. I'm sure street sweepers had to have come in at some point before I got there, but it could hardly contain all the debris, dirt, limbs, trash, and pieces of things, I wasn't quite sure where from. There were no working street lights, so it was stop and go all the way in and no one, and i mean, no one was out of the streets save for a few passing cars. Never in my life, even at 3 am in the morning had I ever seen the city like this. Dead. Silent. Devoid of life. It was incredibly quiet. I can't even really explain the shock of it to my system to not hear something humming or making noise or buzzing on by. There was nothing. I pulled up to my street corner, took a deep breath, and rounded it to find the house completely intact. I mean when people ask you to describe a happiest day of yoru life, this was one of the highest on the list for me. A few of my neighbors had major roof damage and all of our houses were piles of trees and debris, but for the most part everyone was okay. Further out, a lot of people weren't so lucky. I got a hold of my neighbor who had told me what it was like when the storm actually hit and that the next day, her son had inspected the house and the only damage he would find aside from the roof was one window cover torn off. Talk about amazing. Even more amazing was that it only took 2 more days after that to get full power considering that just 3 blocks of us it took that section nearly a month and a half to get power restored and I had some friends who didn't get power for 3 months which was more of the common story you'd hear.
The full recovery, if you can even claim that took years after that, but about a week later, I finally was able to find gas coasting on literal fumes waiting in a long gas line. Then a week after that the grocery stores opened up again near me. They had no cold items as all had to be thrown out due to health and safety concerns. That first trip back there was so eerie. No one really spoke. The devastation on people's faces was obvious. People hadn't shaved, or put on make-up, or done their hair. Most came in in sweats or pj's and hooking themselves into any plug that would work to make harried phone calls. The lights were still not working so everything was slow going, but with little traffic, it didn't matter much. Every conversation was about the storm and how people were doing and recovering. Kids, freed from the bonds of electricity began to come out and play again with neighbors they'd never met. Neighbors, the same thing. After living next door to each other for years, they were forced to actually meet, and work together to restore their neighborhoods. There was no rich. There was no poor. There was no race. There was no gender. People really helped each other because they had to, needed to, felt it right in their hearts to do so. Blood banks had so many donations that they had to toss some of the blood. Local shelters were flooded by food and clothing and volunteers many who were transplants from Hurricane Katrina now paying it forward. When we finally had a big enough staff at work to open the building up, we just basically told people to come on in and charge up their phones and then have a hot meal, something many hadn't had for days or weeks. There was such a beautiful harmony where people didn't fight or shoot people or create drama. It wasn't allowed. It was about surviving and truly helping out your neighbor.
Of course, the power eventually came back for everyone, daily block BBQ's b/c of the lack of electricity were no longer needed, gas became readily available, neighborhood kids chucked their bikes in their garages and went indoors back to their X-boxes, those things that divide us, divided us just like they'd done before the storm again. All the connection and love that we'd created over the months time, just seemed to float back up and out into the universe as if it had never existed in the first place. I don't think however, anyone can forget the power giving that did happen during those days. People opening up their houses to strangers, cooking food for people they didn't know, caring for those who's first names they didn't even know. I don't miss what that time did to the city and the smell of Pop Tarts to this day makes me want to gag, but I do miss the feeling of true community. I am extremely fortunate to have survived this storm very much in tact and that no lives that I knew, were lost as so many had been in Katrina. I was very fortunate to have a home with very little damage, when I know so many did come back to nothing.