Who knows how soon the Bayou City can get back on its feet, or if all the weary residents who fled will ever return? I know this much: Houston won’t be the same again for years, maybe never.
What happened here had all the markings of something apocalyptic, a grim reminder of human frailty and how vulnerable our cities are to withstanding Mother Nature’s harshest blows.
A 1-in-1,000-years flood turned the nation’s fourth-most populous city into an eerie ghost town, a treacherous archipelago navigable mostly by boats, dump trucks and other mechanical beasts powerful enough to plow through raging floodwaters.
By the time I got here, three days after Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast, the city was reeling. Rescue operations were in full swing. Tens of thousands of residents were still trying to get out or find refuge. Thousands of dazed and displaced souls moved about like zombies, standing in long lines for shelter or slumping in rescue posts on the edge of downtown.
Before the week was over, Harvey, which had “weakened” into a tropical storm, was marching east and wreaking havoc on small towns in its path from southeast Texas to Louisiana and beyond. Poor Beaumont took a beating, Port Arthur was pummeled and other coastal cities were overwhelmed.
Still, Harvey’s life-threatening grip on Houston remains, testing the will of a city and its people.
“Texas,” declared Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long, “has never seen an event like this.”
No, certainly not in my lifetime. And, hopefully, never again.
But what we have seen before is the indomitable spirit that it will take to lift Houston and the other devastated cities back on their feet. That was on full display as we saw countless brave volunteers and emergency workers risking their lives to save others in Harvey’s wake.
Here’s what else I saw: Men and women in private boats from East Texas and Louisiana patrolling floodwaters to rescue people. A throng of people on a freeway overpass helping emergency workers pluck several people from raging waters below. A mother and daughter rushing to put up a blockade in front of a flooded street that had become a river of trouble.
I talked to rescue workers, including police officers, who’d had little or no sleep for days. And I encountered one person after another who’d rushed back into Houston, despite the lurking dangers, to help with the relief effort.
I also marveled at how Vic Parker, a Red Cross volunteer from Delaware, came in and took charge of the city’s biggest evacuation center and shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown.
Parker, 55, a retired sales and marketing manager, had just left Canada, where she’d been assisting with a Red Cross wildfire relief effort, when she answered the call for help in Houston.
I asked her why she chose to come here, where danger was all around.
“My pay-it-forward," she said. “Any one of us could be in this position.”
Each morning, she arrives around 7 and doesn’t go back to her nearby hotel to rest until late at night, 12 to 14 hours later.
“This is where I’m needed,” said Parker, stopping frequently to field questions from other volunteers or give a nod to a displaced resident. “This is a bridge to help people return to their normal lives.”
Day by day, more volunteers flocked to relief centers from across the city, state and country, while those stranded here for days finally were able to start leaving by week’s end.
That is the incongruous beauty of tragedy: It tends to bring out the best in us.
It also makes our differences less important as we stand together, rallying for the same cause.
“That water doesn’t care how rich or poor you are,” Houston police Lt. Jack Harvey said. “It doesn’t care if you’re black or white, Christian or Muslim . or what your sexual orientation might be.”
I met Lt. Harvey the first night I arrived. He’d had hardly any sleep for three days.
“I’ve got a nap here and there,” he said. “But no one has had much time to sleep. There are still too many people in danger.”
On this night, he was stationed at a bus transit center where dozens of mostly poor residents plucked from flooded apartments were delivered in tarp-covered dump trucks. Then, they waited for buses to take them to the convention center or another makeshift shelter.
Shortly before midnight, I asked Lt. Harvey how long he would be there.
“As long as I’m needed,” he said.
That is the grit that’s keeping the city grounded.
“All we got is each other,” said Bobby Glenn, 63, a retired janitor who spent most of the week helping neighbors pull wet carpet and furniture out of their homes.
Glenn moved to Houston when he was a small child and has lived for decades in Kashmere Gardens, a historically black neighborhood near downtown. He stayed in his house with his two brothers because, quite frankly, he thought it was as safe as anyplace else.
He lucked out. His home sustained water damage, but he never feared for his life.
“We’ve had storms come through here before, but I’ve never seen this much water since I’ve been in Houston,” he said. “I came out OK.”
Asked if he and his neighbors plan to stay put, he shot back: “I don’t think nobody’s going to leave Houston. If they leave, where they gonna go?”
I’ve come to believe the old adage: Adversity doesn’t make character. It reveals it.
I saw a city, crippled by crisis, refusing to give up. I saw America at its best, standing together.
“We just have to fix up, patch up and move on,” said Glenn. “That’s all we can do.”
Hopefully, that will be enough.
James Ragland is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News.