When we started packing our bags on Wednesday, August 23rd, Harvey had just been upgraded from a tropical depression to a tropical storm and was barely on our personal radar. We were Austinites, gearing up for a Canadian Rockies vacation. Our flights were booked to depart from Houston on Tuesday and we would first spend a weekend with family in the city before flying out.
By the time we were in the car on Thursday, the storm had evolved into category 1 “Hurricane Harvey.” But we left anyway—after all, it was heading south of us to Corpus Christi; Houston would be fine.
That Friday the television stayed on The Weather Channel. The map of the Gulf of Mexico was constantly visible, showing a red circle on repeat, spiraling over and over, growing. It was upgraded to a category 2. Then a category 3. The day ended with a category 4 hurricane heading inland.
On Saturday we watched that category 4 hurricane destroy one of our favorite spots in Texas. We got married on that beach in Port Aransas—the one that was no longer even recognizable. But we still had hope—Houston would be fine. We would fly out on Tuesday.
After a few scattered showers, we woke up on Sunday to more rain. But that day the rain didn’t stop. It kept raining. Hours and hours went by, the television began showing floods in Houston. Family and friends started evacuating. The creek behind the house was rising. The power was off and on. A generator kept the fridge running and we had plenty of food. We spent a lot of time playing card games, sometimes near a window for light. And it was still raining.
Our focus was on having enough gas for the generator, checking on family caught in shelters, and silently wondering what items we would move to the second floor if the water creeped much higher. Our vacation moved to the back of my mind—a running thought with dollar symbols and a mocking tone reminding me I was sitting through this hurricane in a city I didn’t even call my own.
Flights were cancelled and soon the entire airport surrendered and shut down. On Monday we called the airline and our tickets were refunded. Deposits and vacation days we simply counted lost—small, compared to the losses all around us.
Tuesday (the day we were supposed to fly out) came and went. Neighbors down the street were evacuating their houses. Levees were released for fear of breaking, lakes were overflowing. Areas we thought were safe, like our temporary spot in Kingwood, were no longer strongholds. One mile down the road the grocery store was turned into a dirty swimming pool, several feet deep.
A week after we originally packed our bags, we headed back home to Austin. At this point we miserably admitted we had driven to Houston simply to visit the hurricane. Our family asked if we would rebook our trip and be back soon, but it was hard to think straight. I was spoiled and frustrated about the trip, tired of entertaining a baby indoors all week, and ready to be home. I wasn’t sure I wanted to try it all again in mere weeks.
However, it wasn’t long before we got our courage and mojo back and rebooked the trip. It turned out to be very different than what we originally planned, but we vacationed and our lives went on mostly uninterrupted. I felt like a more seasoned traveler, especially when my dad asked me to write about what it was like to experience a natural disaster as a traveler. It turned out to be a nearly impossible request though—no matter how I type it, I can’t shake the fact that my experience mattered so little in it all.
The stories worth telling are those of residents who hopped into canoes and pulled neighbors from flooding houses; of journalists who stopped broadcasts to help others; of women who nearly gave birth in a flood; of rescuers who risked their lives; of towns destroyed and futures uncertain; of people who lost their entire homes, their cars, their livelihoods to the flood. No, my story is hardly worth telling at all.
I experienced only a small side effect of the storm. I’m a small offshoot, an outsider to a city, with an insider’s view of an event that affected so many. Perhaps it’s a good thing we drove to Houston, where the millions around me gave me perspective—and more importantly, showed me how often I lack it.