Millions of people in the Houston area will never again think of water, or rain, in the way they did a little less than a week ago. No, Houston is not the only place to have experienced the horrors of a flood, but it is a place that has seen too much water in the past several years. The Tax Day Flood. The Memorial Day Flood. Now Harvey. Who in Houston will want to name their child Harvey after this? Water, necessary for life though it may be, means something else now.
Thirty dead so far … each a giant loss to their loved ones. That number will most assuredly rise, and each time it does, a part of humanity will fade away. I am thankful that so few lives have thus far been lost, but one lost in this way is one too many. An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 residences in the Houston area are flooded, deserted out of necessity. We’ve all seen the heartbreaking — yet life-affirming — scenes of stranger rescuing stranger, a hand extended from a boat floating on what a few days earlier was dry land. Rescuers from New York and Louisiana and Mississippi and, yes, Houston, all here on a mission of mercy. I lived in New York City when the Twin Towers fell, and the spontaneous outpouring of grief, coupled with determined action to save, nurture, heal, and recover, was a process I thought I’d never again witness. It was, more to the point, something I hoped never to have to see again. But life, as a wise man said, is something that happens to you while you’re making other plans.
Plans. Plans have changed. For everyone now in Houston, for the residents of this sprawling place and temporary visitors on their missions of mercy. A friend of mine, a high school classmate whom I’ve seen once since 1982, is here. She’s with the Red Cross. She’s on her mission, all the way from Hawaii, where she lives. Another classmate has spent the past six days driving around the region helping others, first by boarding up doors and windows before Harvey hit, then by offering the stranded rides to safety. Members of the Houston culinary world — and what a special world it is — have been busy cooking around the clock, using whatever they had in their walk-ins and kitchens to feed people in need. That’s not to mention the local police and fire personnel, the EMT professionals, the doctors and nurses and animal shelter personnel … the list goes on and on, all helping those in need. The heart swells.
There are so many in need, and that need will persist for a long while. This is not, as we know now, your average storm followed by flood conditions. This is epic, in the most profound sense of that word. Rain falling steadily for days, enough to fill more than 30,000 Empire State Buildings. Where Harvey came ashore, in Rockport, Texas, hundreds of buildings demolished by the hurricane’s Category 4 winds. Then, the swirling, maddening, deadly, and slow progress of the system. As if it had a mind, it hovered over the Houston area, slowing to a crawl, unloading its fury. Its fury was water.
Yes, water’s meaning has changed for millions after Harvey, and so has the meaning of Houston. Those who live here, and many others across the nation, will never again think of Houston in the way they once did. Things have changed, forever, many for the worse. Lives shattered, families torn apart, beloved pets lost, lying lifeless or looking for their owners, homes in which children were raised ruined by water … all losses that speak with awful profundity of life’s vicissitudes.
But then. But then … there’s the better, the inexplicable and miraculous better. The magnificent power and fury of the human heart and spirit to act, to do something, to help, to soothe. That’s what Houston is showing the world now, as NYC did after 9/11. It’s Mattress Mack. It’s Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. It’s Ronnie Killen donating $50,000 to help, feeding thousands for free. It’s the individuals risking their lives to save the others. It’s all of us, and we’ll never be the same.
No, the same is gone. Instead, we’ll be better. We’ll have to be, all of us — politicians, spiritual leaders, you, me, everyone — because the work to be done is monumental.