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The Will of the Water

Scenes From Hurricane Harvey

DAVID BUTOW/REDUX

ISSUE:  Fall 2018


For three days and three nights, the rain falls in sheets, in swirls. It falls in gentle showers and falls sideways and is dumped like a bucket all at once. Tornados spin overhead as thunder and lightning rattle the walls and the roof, and families gather in their closets, squeeze together in the bathtub, pull mattresses over their heads.

The bayous fill, and the water runs into the streets; the streets fill, and the water fills the highways and the underpasses. The water swallows cars and trucks and entire families of people. It swallows fathers and mothers and babies. The water turns the highway into an ocean; the white peaks of waves crest and crash against the sides of buildings. People wade out of their houses, through the water, toward one another and dry land. They climb to the second floor, and then the third; they scramble to their roofs and wave white T-shirts or towels toward the rescue they believe will come. Cages like open coffins descend from helicopters, and people climb into them, one at a time or as an inseparable group. A mother clings to her children as they ascend from the water toward safety. She never lets them go.

My husband and I watch the rescues on the news. There aren’t enough helicopters for everyone who needs saving, aren’t enough high-water vehicles, or boats, or flashlights, or meals, or warm beds. We watch the water rising in our own neighborhood, filling the streets up to our ankles, our knees, up to our waists. We are trapped here, on the little island of our address. We occupy ourselves and the children in the ways we can: we eat, we drink, we play board games and curl together in the bed. My husband and I take turns going outside to check the water, watch it rise. When we wake on the fourth day of rain, it is still rising.

We hear that a shelter has opened up the road from us and that supplies there are low. We gather a large backpack full of clothing and towels and blankets, and my husband leaves, trudging through the floodwater, to deliver it. On the way home, he sees an emergency crew attempting a deep-water rescue at one house on a street where all the houses are underwater. He calls two of our neighbors, who pull a canoe from the garage, and the three of them begin knocking on doors. They find people in houses with water up to their waists, people sheltering on the second floor of their houses, people who refuse to come downstairs because they are afraid of being electrocuted by their own submerged appliances. My husband and our neighbors kick down fences and garage doors to find the breaker boxes and cut power to the houses. They rescue elderly couples, a woman with more dogs than teeth, people who are in denial about the state of their homes. The hardest thing for so many, he tells me when he returns, wet and exhausted, is leaving, letting all the things they have held so tightly go.

While he is out rescuing these neighbors, I am at home with the children. They are bored of playing games, of being indoors and watching the rain. They want to move and squeal and run. I want them to stay very still, to enter a kind of quiet stasis until the storm passes. I search for news, read the weather forecast, imagine worst-case scenarios while they stand on the back of the couches and dive headfirst into deep pools of pillows.

I have just put on yet another animated movie when there is a break in the rain. The river in the street subsides a little, and the children come outside to splash at the water’s edge. The woman who lives three doors down from us has a son, I learn, about the same age as my son. We make plans for them to play another time, when we aren’t all so focused on staying dry. Another neighbor approaches to tell us that the dam just west of our neighborhood is full to capacity already and that the Army Corps of Engineers has announced it will be releasing water from the reservoir in order to avoid “catastrophic failure.” There is a long silence in which we all try to process the meaning of those words. The rain begins falling again, and I shoo my children back inside. 

There are two dams, I learn. One, Addicks Reservoir, which is north of the interstate, began overflowing early this morning. Officials are calling this an “uncontrolled release.” This has never happened before, not since construction on that reservoir was completed in 1948. The dam nearer to us, Barker Reservoir, still has a few feet to go before it spills over. With more rain ahead, that might happen, but the thing that will keep me up all night is a paralyzing terror that the dams will fail, and all of west Houston will drown in a quiet tsunami while we sleep. When my husband returns late in the evening, he showers and we scramble around trying to put together emergency bags in case we have to climb onto the roof and wait for our own rescue. We eat dinner. The children lie down for sleep on an air mattress we’ve put on the floor of our bedroom: The mattress will float, I tell myself, so that I, too, can close my eyes for even a moment to sleep.


On the morning of the fifth day, the water is higher still—it’s over the sidewalks now—and it isn’t clear like rainwater anymore. The water is brown—dirt brown, shit brown, the color of sand or silt or maybe beef stew. And it smells like one might expect fetid floodwater to smell—like sewage, like contagion.

Officials are saying that we should leave our homes if there is water in the house because the water is a danger—leave if we cannot come and go with ease, that our homes will be monitored, that if we return in a few weeks, we will find everything in one piece. And if we stay? I don’t even want to imagine the wretched surprises this water will have in store for our bodies when the evidence of it recedes.

In a press conference, a spokesperson from the corps admits it has never before released water from the dam while it is still raining, and also that it has very little information about how exactly this will have an impact on communities downstream. It calls for voluntary evacuations to the west of the dam, in the county neighboring ours, and for mandatory evacuations along the Brazos River to our south. The corps warns us to stay out of the water, which is infested with all manner of disease—E. coli and Staphylococcus at the very least—but also snakes, alligators, and live downed electrical wires, which have claimed the lives of three volunteer rescuers so far. And yet there is no way to stay out of the water, to come or go without entering and submerging up to one’s knees, or waist, or neck.

For the second day in a row, my husband and our neighbors paddle away in the canoe, heading to another neighborhood where people are calling out their windows for rescue. Our children are still sleeping—later and more deeply than at any time of non-disaster—and there is little I can think to do.

I discover that decades ago, the two reservoirs were built far outside what were then considered the city limits in order to protect the city itself—the business district downtown, the ship channel, and the refineries and network of pipelines that form the heart of the nation’s oil industry—from the comparatively minor floods that happen in Houston nearly every single time we have a good rain. The reservoirs are normally bone dry; but in the event of rain, they store the water and then release it slowly over a period of many days. But Harvey is not like a regular storm, not even like a very unusual storm. It is not like anything Texas has ever seen. Over the past several days, some places in Houston have seen up to fifty-one inches of rain. If we were in Colorado and this had been a snowstorm, we would be sitting under 750 inches of snow; if you are, like me, slow to calculate, that’s roughly sixty-two-and-a-half feet. There isn’t a city in the world designed to handle that.

The reservoirs are now completely full—overflowing, in fact—and the engineers are releasing the water as fast as they can in order to save the city: the dam, the infrastructure, the businesses downtown, the ship channel, all of the millions of people who live here. And in order to save these other very important parts of the city, they will be flooding a less important part of the city—my neighborhood and others—“for the near foreseeable future.” My neighbors and I have joked that we should rename ourselves the Venice of the West.

All of this is to say that I don’t resent the water. Flooding is almost a way of life in this city: The water comes, it floods us, it recedes. Not every disaster is an injustice. I don’t even entirely resent that they’re flooding my neighborhood on purpose. I understand the concept of sacrifice, why some people might be asked to give up something that benefits the group. We do this every day without thinking: We give up a seat on the bus, a place in the checkout line, our time and talents, and sometimes our lives or money.

A friend posts a photo of the line of cars waiting to drop off donations at the Convention Center in the dry part of town, hundreds long. Heroes appear everywhere: teenagers in canoes rescuing homeless veterans, beer brewers out in their giant trucks plucking people off roofs, volunteers arriving at their neighbors’ doors with supplies, clothes, helping hands. People are very good at showing up for one another in times of desperate need. What we are less good at is maintaining that kind of deep, abiding empathy on the scale that will give us any hope of surviving the next storm like this: like how to care for one another equally.


Elsewhere in the world, people argue about whether Game of Thrones has lost its mojo, their favorite kind of shoes. I don’t begrudge anyone this normalcy. I don’t begrudge anyone who is safe, and well fed, and warm. Life goes on, here and elsewhere, despite tragedy, despite disaster, despite devastating loss. Most people I know who are trying to salvage their belongings, or their homes, or their families do not have time or energy to pay attention to what is happening in the rest of the city—or in the country, or the rest of the world—where people go about their days, posting photos of their good hair, and their Labor Day–weekend getaways, and, as ever, their favorite cat memes. No doubt these people have already started feeling the effects of what is known as compassion fatigue, which resembles suffering, I suppose—a deficit of emotional energy to expend on other people, their problems, their needs.

Here, there seems to be almost no end to the need. The city of Beaumont, to our east along the coast, is an island in the floodwaters—no way in or out—and they have no clean water to drink. Before the hurricane, this whole region was home to some of this country’s most dangerously contaminated EPA Superfund sites, and those sites are still here, except now they’re underwater. It’s all mixed together: the water in the dump sites, and in the factories, and in our homes. There’s no separating good water from bad. No separating water that might be drinkable from water that drowned a father, a police officer, the bat colony, a family of six, a factory, a Superfund site, the power station, the pretty woman who lived on the first floor of the apartment building. Over the past few days, a chemical plant near the ship channel has been exploding. That’s in the water, too. Officials have told us to stay inside, to stand well back, to avoid breathing the air if possible—and for those who are closest to the ship channel, to close the windows and turn off the air-conditioning. We’re all trapped in a state of suspended grief.

On social media, I have seen some spirited debate about whether Texas might have deserved this, as if this catastrophe is some kind of climate karma for having hosted the oil industry all these years, or that the hurricane was delivered to us as cosmic retribution for our state having once elected two compassionless senators who voted against aid for Hurricane Sandy, or that maybe this is God’s way of punishing us for having elected the country’s first lesbian mayor. 

Who is to say what each of us deserves? My children deserve to be fed, I think, and cared for; our neighbors deserve food, supplies, power, and relief. There are literally thousands of people around Houston who deserve rescue, and the monumental task of coordinating the efforts of getting to all of them nearly boggles the mind. Perhaps you have seen the photo of elderly folks in a nursing home, waist deep in water, waiting for rescue. Boats are on their way from everywhere in the country—some as far away as Minnesota, I’ve seen. They’re using an app to coordinate, and they’ve been criticized for this, because, well, according to the criticism, to assume that people are able to download an app or that seniors have smartphones is completely inexcusable. The perfect has always been the enemy of the good.

I have seen so many crazy things the last few days. People from far afield are so gleeful to criticize how we are feeling and processing and talking about what is going on here. People I’ve never met have mocked me on social media, mocked friends and strangers who show their support. I do not understand this impulse. What makes a person rejoice in the misfortune of another? To find pleasure in another person’s pain?


My husband returns from a day of rescuing neighbors just as I learn that our own neighbors have lost power. They arrive, soaking wet, and we join together our meager provisions, have dinner, watch movies, play a trivia game.  Another neighbor crosses the flooded street to join us.

He tells us stories about the people he rescued today. The youngest of these, who is twenty-five and in a wheelchair, didn’t want to leave his house. My friend told him about a camp where he volunteers, where young people are often at the end of their lives. “You haven’t been there yet,” my friend told this young man, and somehow the idea that there might be something else, some as-yet-unimagined possible future, convinced the young man to let my friend carry him to the boat, to safety, to warm towels and diligent care. These two men, strangers, held each other in their arms, and both found their own comfort in that. This friend has told me he actually knows no strangers, and this was no exception. Today he met two volunteers from out of town, and the three of them went out on an airboat and pulled around 120 new friends out of the flood and hauled them to dry land.

It’s been decades since I claimed any manner of religious practice, but as I remember it, a blessing is what we say before a meal, or when a child is born, or has become a particularly zealous way to sign an e-mail in what translates to “have a nice day.” The idea is somewhat synonymous with grace. In Judaism, a blessing is a slightly different idea, often called a mitzvah—a word that also carries the weight of a commandment—and the focus is less on words than it is on deeds. The point being, in both cases, that you’re not supposed to get paid, or to expect to be repaid, even in karma points, for everything you do. You can let some of it be a blessing. And if there is one thing I have learned in my thirty-nine short years on this Earth, it is that anyone who can afford to give a blessing is wealthy beyond measure. My friend isn’t rich, but right now he’s the wealthiest man I know.

He’s wealthier even than the man who came to Texas today, the one who stood on the bumper of a firetruck for a photograph and said, “What a great crowd!” Our neighbors to the south, in Mexico, have offered to send us aid, even as this man demands they pay to put up a wall between them and us, that we close our border to them and all of their needs. Today he placed supplies into the trunks of cars. He met with elected officials in a dry, air-conditioned building, took a few selfies with evacuees, and kissed their babies before he got back on his plane without even getting his shoes wet. Has he ever risked anything to help a stranger in need? I suspect he has not, because there’s an idea he has been circulating for some time now—and every decision he makes is part of it—that America is a small boat and there just aren’t enough seats. But even as he chooses to peddle that cruel vision of the world, everyone at my table in Houston is choosing another. Here, we’ll make room in the boat and we’ll row together for shore.

I don’t believe in the god of any organized religion, but I do believe in grace. What kind of blessings can each of us afford to give? No doubt more than we actually do. I fully admit that I am no saint in this regard: I don’t have a deep reservoir of patience for my children couch-diving in my living room, or for fools who peddle lies and division and hate. But probably there are people on my street, or in this neighborhood, or elsewhere in this city, friends I haven’t met yet, who desperately need a little grace. My family may yet lose our house to the water rising all around us, but for now, we have power, and warm water, and clean sheets. That’s far more than we need.


Elsewhere in Houston, where the water has already receded, a friend helped to gut a house in a subdivision where every home has a water line to the second floor—the soggy, molding guts puked onto the curbs as far as the eye could see. Across the street from where my friend was working, a neighbor said that he had to float his baby out in the cooler. It wasn’t even the first time he’d done this. This is only one neighborhood in a metro area of nearly 7 million, where it is still unclear what percentage of people have lost their homes. I’ve heard a third of the people. I’ve heard more than 100,000 homes. Or 300,000 homes. It will take time to get a reliable accounting. It is not entirely clear how many homes are still underwater, and by the time we know, there likely won’t be anything left of them.

There is no way to help them all. So instead, we help who we can. One friend does laundry. Another coordinates teams of volunteers. One of my daughter’s friends from school left her home as the floodwaters rose, left even without shoes. I’ve been calling, sending e-mails and text messages for days to find a furnished apartment where they can stay. One Realtor I spoke to has been trying to place families that have been displaced, working day and night, sleeping on an air mattress in her office because she, too, lost everything. She is still wearing the clothes she wore to evacuate. 

At least once a day, I have a good cry. An ugly cry; a shoulder-shaking, whole-body cry. Sometimes it comes while I am standing in the kitchen. Sometimes, like tonight, it comes when I finish putting the children to bed on the air mattress, when I realize that the ways I need them are so different, though no less acute, from how they need me.

We say our goodbyes to the friend who crosses the river back to his own home, and we all settle down to sleep, to the extent that sleep is possible. We all have our minds on the water. It is underneath us, around us, running past our every thought, every gesture, saturating every word we say. We are all so weary, but I stay awake all night anyway, checking the gauge levels at various points along the bayou, looking out the window, searching for news. Is the water rising or falling? Is the dam leaking or holding strong? Will we live, or will we drown?


Today is the sixth day; I think. When the sun came up this morning, I found a wide rushing river outside my home: three feet deep and thirty feet across. My neighbor was standing there, crying too. She and I shouted softly to each other over the flooded street: “At least it isn’t hot,” I offered. “At least the water is moving,” she returned. Now, hours later, there is blue sky, barely a cloud, neighbors picking their way over dry land to walk their dogs. It could be the first spring weekend, or the first autumn one, with so many people bustling about. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard helicopters pass overhead; airboats can be heard shuttling people around. A giant military convoy plane keeps circling.

While I am drinking my coffee and watching airboats fly up and down the street, a group of rescue officers approach on foot. One tells me about a house that had waist-high water at the door. He knocked, rang the doorbell. Someone answered, also standing in waist-high water. As they were talking, a mother duck and her ducklings jumped from the stairs into the water and floated through the living room out the door. Our favorite neighbors have left a pork shoulder to smoke in the driveway all day while they are out pulling heirlooms from a flooded house. At the end of the day, they’ll have an enormous party. A pontoon boat will cruise around on one of the most flooded streets in our neighborhood: at least six people on board, drinking, smoking maybe more than cigarettes. Who will stop them? Each of us, in our desperation, is following our natural human inclination: toward the future, toward joy.

My husband comes outside to share bad news: The corps, in its meticulously calculated wisdom, has decided overnight that it will open the floodgates at the overspilling reservoirs even more. There will be an additional one to three feet of water, it says, but people who have not already flooded likely will still not flood, not unless the water is already close to the house. How close is “close”? Inches? Feet? Inside, I watch government officials say murkily reassuring things in press conferences: Everything is fine; we have everything under control; all y’all will be okay.

We hear from neighbors that water is rising quickly at the back of the neighborhood, where people have woken to find themselves stranded, water chest-deep and rising in their houses; their voices can be heard outside calling for help. My husband and our neighbors once again drag the canoe from the garage and row toward them.

The National Guard passes with a flatbed full of evacuees; SWAT teams trudge upriver in their giant canoes. One neighbor looks overhead and says, “I think we’re on the news.” I ask one guardsman passing through to tell me what he knows: “You’re gonna get more water tonight,” he says, “but we don’t know how much. We’re taking people out who want to go; we won’t be here after dark when the water really starts rising.” Another neighbor hears from a state trooper, “maybe two more feet.” When my husband returns, we talk it over. He says, “What I’ve been telling people who need to leave their houses is that it’s never a mistake to leave, but it might be a mistake to stay.”

It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do: to choose what belongings in my house I cannot live without, to figure out which of those things I value enough to carry through waist-high water on my back. And then: How to explain to my children how to place value on their most precious things? To explain that we are leaving, that we don’t know when we will return, that they can bring along only what their tiny bodies can carry.

We pack our things. We trudge through water filthy with sewage up to our knees and very slowly make it to the end of the street, where we leave our flooded neighborhood and enter a military zone: army trucks lined with uniformed soldiers in the back, airboats surrounded by emergency responders lifting people onto stretchers, EMTs, volunteers lining the entire street. The sight of them brings the reality of the situation down in all its force. A man approaches us as we emerge from the water and offers to walk with us, to carry our bags as far as we need to go.

We walk past fire trucks, ambulances, past volunteers offering us water and something to eat. I feel so visible passing them with tears streaming down my cheeks. One man—I don’t know him—approaches me and holds me in his arms. “We will rebuild it,” he says, “and it will be even better next time. Next time, we can make it even more beautiful.”

Eventually we make our way to the parking lot where we are supposed to meet the person my husband has arranged to pick us up, but that person can’t reach us, we learn, because of the water on every street between us and him. Just as my husband dials the phone to call someone else for help, a woman approaches and asks whether we have a ride, where we are going. “Halfway across the city,” I tell her, “as far from the bayou as we can go.” She offers to drive us. It takes nearly an hour to reach our destination, in the care of this stranger. I never even get her last name.


Cornel West has said that “justice is what love looks like in public.” But love is not the conclusion of a risk assessment. The lesser factor in a calculation. We cannot love our fellow humans in the abstract. Already there is another hurricane forming somewhere in the Gulf or in the ocean; it is heading our way, maybe. Or it is headed elsewhere: to Florida, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico. That storm, like this one, will ravage neighborhoods without regard for inequalities of status. But love will ask us to reckon with those inequalities once the storm reveals them.

Water destroys what it touches: carves canyons out of deserts, swallows people, ice, whole cities and continents. It also destroys the trivial things we spend our lives worshipping: our houses, our streets, our pride, our temples to bigotry and greed. I have heard now a story of a man who escaped his flooding neighborhood, only to row back in his kayak to save one more person or one more thing and capsized in the current. He was missing all night, and in the morning, he was found holding on to a tree. A teenager was swept away in the current of the bayou and caught the grate of a bridge and held on there until rescuers found her in the morning. An infant was taken from her mother by the current and the current offered that brand-new life back to the churning sea. But water also washes, gives life, makes new. The water has destroyed this city—there are no two ways about it—but the outpouring of love I have witnessed here among neighbors and strangers, arriving from all over the world, is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. 

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