(Originally published August 30, 2018)
As a new southeastern Texas resident, I wasn’t here for Ike or Rita. Up until Harvey, I’ve never been affected by a hurricane. In Oklahoma, my old hometown, Tornado Alley, I grew up with the sounds of each spring – our storm season. Darkening clouds and sirens and tornado watches versus warnings and fifteen minutes to get underground until the storm passed. As children, we regularly did tornado drills in the halls of our schools, on the floor, facing the wall, bent down with our hands on the backs of our necks to mimic a tornado hitting the building as if our little hands would protect our necks from falling debris.
Before I moved south in 2015, my friends asked me, “Aren’t you scared of hurricanes?” Confidently at the time, because that is what I believed, I replied, “No way. You get a week’s notice it’s coming. I can always come north to visit until it passes. Here we get like fifteen minutes!”
That was before my first experience with “the storm”. With Harvey. That confidence failed as I watched, stunned, as the water rose toward my home in Orange, Texas, keeping my family stranded and keeping help from reaching us. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and suddenly I longed for a time with just a fifteen- minute warning, because at least back then we could run underground, and because the short warning also meant a short duration.
See, if they don’t strike you directly – and I was lucky, because one never did – tornadoes are temporary. You go underground and you emerge and go on until the next one, and then usually, by late summer, you didn’t have to worry about it again until the following spring.
Hurricanes on the other hand, have no such short duration. As we saw with Harvey, it can move in, as it did with Houston, then move back out to the Gulf, where it rebuilds strength before moving back to land again, hitting another area – this time, southeast Texas. And if you survive the hurricane itself, the aftermath can last for years.
On August 29, 2017, I’d been sent home early from my job “across the border”, in Sulphur, Louisiana. My employer was worried about Harvey and us having to drive in the beginning deluge. Rain had already started and hadn’t let up. I was fine with being sent home early; my husband – born and raised in Orange – said at worst, the driveway might flood, as our Little Cypress neighborhood backed up to a bayou, and the foot of our drive would flood with the slightest rain. But he’d been through Rita and Ike with their hurricane-force winds, and we were in a 500-year flood plain in our house on 6-inch piers, so at the worst it was going to be an inconvenience, and at the best I could piddle around the house until it passed.
And so it rained. And continued to rain when we went to bed that night, a type of precipitation that obscured your vision if you tried to look through it. As expected the driveway flooded, but my experience was that the water would drain off the following day and I’d be back at work. About 10:00 that night, we heard a loud boom in the distance, and the power went out. Still, I wasn’t afraid. “It was just a transformer,” my husband said. I set my phone alarm for work the next morning.
However, the next morning the rain hadn’t let up. Taking one glance down the driveway, I knew I wasn’t going to work that day. Instead of water up the foot of the driveway, it was a quarter of the way up now, and the power was still out. I still believed it would drain off once the rain stopped.
But without power, we didn’t know what was going on. I tried to call work to explain that due to this “inconvenience”, I would not be in, but there was no service on my AT&T phone. I used my husband’s Verizon phone to post on Facebook that I would not be in. Then, respectively we sat in our vehicles with the radio on to hear what was happening.
That was when I became alarmed. Houston, 1 ½ hours north of us, was underwater, and that same system was now stationed, unmoving, over Orange, the rain unrelenting. I learned on Facebook that my brother in Mauriceville, ten miles away, was stranded with his wife and two children and his home was taking on water, but I was helpless to do anything. According to the radio, everyone was calling 9-1-1 for help but the calls wouldn’t go through. Already, no one in our area was accessible without boats. We couldn’t get out of our driveway, now submerged halfway -especially not in my car and neither in my husband’s truck.
Soon the water was all the way up the driveway, and about an inch over the tires of my mother-in-law’s car – which was parked next to the house. Now I was panicking. Stuck, with no water, no food, and no way for anyone to get to us. The only sound was the rain – no cars, traffic, or other noise – until I heard what was, to me, an unfamiliar sound – boats in the neighboring streets. In the actual streets.
Unknown to me at the time, people in Orange who had boats were taking it upon themselves to go house to house to rescue people. With no emergency crews able to get to us and no government to assist, other residents were the ones rescuing and checking on people. At one point we saw a boat go by ON OUR STREET….. but I kept thinking, the waters would recede, and I was terrified to get into a boat, leave my home and go…where?
All of our news was coming strictly from a small radio station in town, and from Facebook, as story after story unfolded of people stranded in their homes. I found out what was going on due to Facebook groups – individuals who were updating the rest of us without television or regular phone service – concerned citizens in Orange and surrounding areas who had created pages, even pages in Louisiana.
I broke down crying when the waters started coming up even higher, obscuring our front yard and the driveway until all we saw was a lake surrounding us on all sides. Earlier I had taken items out of the fridge and put into ice chests so we’d have food. Without power, our well didn’t work, but we were able to take bucket-fulls of water from the well for the flushing of toilets. We used what little bottled water we had to brush our teeth. We cooked food in pots and pans on a makeshift fire in our grill.
As our home sat on small piers, the main house wasn’t yet taking on water. But the back part, the add on, level to the ground was beginning to flood. We waded in rubber boots and could do nothing but wait, still hearing no other sounds (sirens, people), but the rain and boat motors somewhere in the distance. At some point, for lack of anything else to do, my husband and I waded into our street – the depth of the water was now to my thighs. A neighbor we’d never met before greeted us – he’d called 9-1-1 over 12 hours ago to rescue his family by boat, and they were still waiting.
In my entire life and through all the things I’d been through to that point, I had never felt so helpless. We had no power, no way to communicate to the outside world, no way to get out or to get help to us. All the weather forecasts I’d paid such close attention to earlier in the week, had not predicted such a rain, and we had not been prepared, neither with food, water nor sandbags. Again, a house on piers, on a hill, and in no floodplain had given us a false sense of confidence. We waited and listened to the radio as if technology had taken a step several decades backwards. The water was freely coming into the back portion of the house now, and there was absolutely nothing we could do. We were in a 500- year flood plain and apparently this was a 500- year flood.
Then, around the afternoon of August 30, 24 hours after it’d started, the rain stopped. Just as the water had begun to cover the tires of our cars, and accumulating to a depth of over an inch in our living room, the sun came out and the rain stopped. We held our breath and waited. The radio station said the system had begun finally to move out. We were running out of food and ironically water. We were still stranded. But at least the water had stopped coming down.
Later that day, through a shared trail between our homes, my husband was able to wade to a neighbor’s home, which also set on a small hill. It would turn out that only our home (save the small add – on) and that neighbor’s home were the only homes in our neighborhood to not be submerged by a foot or more of water. Our neighbor lent us a generator that we used periodically to power fans to cool us off. Together we pieced together what was going on. There was no governmental help, no official help. It had so far just been neighbors with boats checking on other neighbors. Anyone who’d gotten out by that point had done so with the help of another neighbor and then later, a group I would come to respect immensely- The Cajun Navy out of Louisiana – a group of citizens who made it their job, on their own, to rescue people in distress. I would remember that group’s name to this day.
On Thursday August 31st, we awoke to a changed world. Now on day three with no power or air conditioning in the brutal south Texas heat, and still trapped in our home with no communication to the outside world other than the radio, no food, no water, my husband set about trying to find help. Our road was still unpassable. But there might be a trail cleared enough to get a truck through. Now there was more noise outside; in addition to the drone of motorboats, helicopters became a constant sight overhead. It was like being in a warzone.
It turned out that one street in our neighborhood was passable by pick up. My other brother and sister- in-law lived in Vinton, Louisiana and once AT&T began to work again, I called them. Starting off the conversation calm, I soon became hysterical, realizing how desperate I was to get out from all of this. I had been stuck in my home for three days without power or any communication to the outside world, not knowing if we would eventually drown. I desperately had to get out.
My sister-in-law, Lauren, bless her, fought her way to me. Interstate 10 was flooded going west past Orange toward Vidor and Beaumont, so Louisiana, east, was the only direction we could go. By now there were checkpoints and the powers that be were not letting just anyone into the town of Orange, and she almost didn’t get in. And once she got in, we weren’t sure we were getting out. There were going to be more checkpoints along I-10 going into Louisiana.
Two blocks away from my home, I waded out, taking a zig-zag of trails to meet her on a slight hill where the water had drained enough to allow a pickup to get through. In my bag were my most prized possessions, items I had hastily packed– taking what I couldn’t live without, leaving behind what may not be there when I got back – either due to thieves or to the aftermath of Harvey. Meeting her in the parking lot of Little Cypress Baptist Church I tearfully said good- bye to my husband, who, as an employee for the City of Orange, had to stay behind as an essential employee during disasters. I felt like a refugee in a foreign country, all the prized possessions I could fit in one bag, with no idea of where I was going or what I would come back to.
In my sister-in-law’s truck, leaving my neighborhood, I saw just how bad was everywhere in Orange. Several streets were impassible; we took roundabout ways to get out. Landmarks were obscured by water, unrecognizable. Stunned people were everywhere, at convenience stores that had no power, grabbing everything, leaving the shelves bare. As we drove out of Orange I saw boats instead of cars on the city streets.
Once in Vinton, separated from my husband, I sat about trying to get updates. I couldn’t get the Texas news channels in Louisiana, so I relied upon Facebook again. My husband had been taken by a big dump truck to his office in the city to try and get things back online.
When Lauren first got me out of Orange, our first stop was at the Sonic in Vinton. Immediately next to that Sonic was a church, and several people outside of it. The sign read “If you need help, come in here”. Only a day or so outside of Harvey and our neighbors in Louisiana had marshalled food and drink and shelter for the Orange victims. But it didn’t stop there.
Everywhere I looked there were food banks and volunteers for Harvey victims. At the grocery store, if you mentioned you were from Orange you got extra help, and a “God Bless You.” I had never seen such empathy before. It suddenly occurred to me that a distance of only twenty miles could be the difference between disaster and normalcy during a hurricane.
Days later, as soon as the water receded enough, we went back to retrieve my car, which I’d hopefully left high and dry on a portion of the property. At the I-10 Toomey-Starks exit, the last exit on the Louisiana side, we waited in a single-file line to be let through, the police checking IDs to make certain people actually had business there. It was still dangerous in Orange, as many places were still underwater and power lines were down. I didn’t know if the water had risen more in my absence, or if I could even get into my neighborhood.
What should have been a twenty-minute trip took an hour. I began to notice that most the vehicles behind us were trucks hauling boats – everything from two-man bass boats to larger airboats. It dawned on me that these were Louisianans, heading into Texas. Every truck had cases of bottled water in their beds – our neighbors one state over, heading into floodwaters and the unknown – and of their own accord – to rescue people. Those vehicles were waved in before anyone else – hundreds numbering above the official rescue vehicles we could see going in the same direction. It was the first glimmer of hope that I’d felt since all of this had begun, and it amazed me and strengthened me, giving me the resolve to face whatever was waiting for me at my home in Orange.
Days later, back in Vinton, as we were still without power and any services in Orange, I thought I could get home again. Entergy was fixing the power and slowly things were coming back online. But then the Sabine river – the border between Texas and Louisiana – had now flooded the interstate. Now I was trapped in Louisiana, with my husband back home.
For several more days I waited on news, this time of what the Sabine was doing. Never in my life, had my life been dictated by water, as it was now. It was on every side of me. Water had kept me trapped in Texas, and now it was keeping me in Louisiana. Like I said, tornados came and went. The water, in one form or another, stayed where it wanted to, forcing you to do what it wanted.
During my stay in Louisiana – and I’d lived there for two years prior to moving to Texas – I learned a lot about how they cared for their neighbor, Texas, to the west.
About a week after I’d left for Louisiana, we were given the word that it was safe to go back to Orange. Loaded down this time with water and canned goods, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, just in case. My car was so loaded down that it sat a few inches lower than usual, but I didn’t know what was waiting for me in Texas. Like something out of a movie, I headed onto I-10 back into Texas, into another roadblock that checked my ID . Like a scene from a disaster movie, most of the exits were still flooded off the highway, water covering up portions of I-10. I’d spoken to my husband and we were to meet at the only open exit.
My palms sweated as I searched for the exit; at this point I was still new to Texas, especially from this direction. I met him at a truck stop that had just been reopened since the flood, and it was the first time I’d seen him in a week. Separated by only a few miles, yet many feet of water, it was like something out of a movie I wanted no part in.
He was exhausted from sleeping atop his desk at his office in downtown Orange, and we were weary from being separated, and from not knowing what was going on. When I saw his city truck pull into the drive of the truck stop, I had barely put my car in park before getting out and flinging myself into his arms. This had been the scariest, most helpless feeling of my life. I clung to him like a life raft.
The trip back home was surreal, and life would continue to be surreal for weeks, months. We were no where near an ocean but it was as if one had taken over Orange. Destruction was everywhere. Now there was the National Guard, and the Red Cross, and Army tanks and stations and tents throughout the town. I had only ever seen these things on television, and here I was living it. I realized very early on how lucky I was despite everything. We still had a home. There were, and would be, so many, many more who’d lost everything and a year later were still rebuilding.
In my mind, to this day, our only saving grace, was the generosity of others. Neighbors and even strangers helped our community before any formal help arrived. People helped people. Church groups, the Cajun Navy, were there to rescue and then to provide meals. I’ve never seen anything like it. When you are in a moment of devastation with nowhere to turn, it seems is the kindness of strangers that sets you back along the path of rebuilding.
***NOTE – Looking back, I’d only been in Orange for a month. This was one of my first articles. KOGT was the radio station that kept us informed, and kept us hopeful. I will miss them.