The woman stands on the street in front of her home, in the Braeswood section of Houston, pieces of her life stacked haphazardly on the lawn, edging out over the curb. Battered sections of walls, mattresses, a cat’s scratching post, bedspreads and pillows and other items I did not immediately recognize. We had just emerged from a home across the way, a house that, though it stood on a piece of land comfortably above street level, had flooded on Sunday during Harvey’s onslaught. Its owners had been forced to retreat to their attic, saw in hand; they were, they told us, planning to cut a hole in the roof and signal for rescue.
“We went to bed the night before thinking we would be OK; we had never flooded here, this house had never flooded” the husband says. “It was around midnight, and the water was flowing in the street, but we were dry, no water in our house. We set the alarm for 4 a.m., just to make sure, and still, OK.” Then, his wife says, 6 a.m arrived; she got out of bed and saw the water flowing across the kitchen floor. “Harvey was waiting us out; he waited everyone out.”
This woman had nearly died during Hurricane Ike. “I was driving and went through some water that was too high; I jumped out of the car and tried to walk, but the current was strong,” she recounts. “The water was up to my waist, and I grabbed a street sign. A man was wading toward me, no shirt, struggling. He reached for me, and we walked together, me first, grabbing onto something, pulling him, then he would do the same.”
We were on the couple’s back patio. The home’s swimming pool was half empty, the water in it turned green with algae. “I could not find any of my shoes,” the woman tells us. “I guess they all floated away. They gave me these,” she says, nodding toward the brown canvas loafers on her feet. “They” are the people whose nearby home she and her husband were taken to in the boat that had ferried them away from their flooded home. “I need to find them and thank them. They fed us.”
Back on the street, the couple’s neighbor surveys the pile, shaking her head. “It’s hard,” she says, lowering her gaze.
The photographs below were taken by my friend Michael Pitzen in the Braeswood neighborhood. House after house ruined, the remnants of life piled high.
Earlier that day, I had spent several hours working at Reef, a restaurant in Houston. It had been transformed into a staging area for relief efforts, and its owners, Bryan and Jennifer Caswell, had opened it to World Central Kitchen, a charitable organization founded by José Andrés. The large space, currently under renovation, was full of activity; a line of volunteers assembled sandwiches, others unloaded boxes of produce from a truck parked outside. The bar area was overflowing with items destined for the displaced and those who saved them; energy bars were stacked next to bags of avocados, sport drinks shared a table with tortillas.
I took some packages of beef brisket to the kitchen and put them in a sink to thaw, then carried two large trash bags of lettuce to the dining room. There, three of us assembled salads for 500 people in Beaumont. Every 15 minutes or so, someone would walk in off the street to volunteer. One of the newcomers joined our brigade, and we continued.
The brisket had thawed, so I cut it from the bags and arranged it in four baking pans. An oven had been set up on Reef’s front patio, and I slid the pans into it. The meat, along with the salad, would feed the group in Beaumont.
Walking back into the dining room, I saw Felix Flores on the sandwich line. Flores owns Black Hill Ranch, on which he raises a variety of pigs. The ranch had flooded, and a large number of the animals there had drowned, piglets and sows. Flores and his teen-age son, a day or two after surveying the damage at the ranch, were at Reef to help, father and son spreading mayonnaise on pieces of white bread, stacking slices of meat on top of sandwich after sandwich, each a little offering of hope.