Story of Houston through Harvey: Strangers Who Chose To Care

What I learned in Houston in the last few days is worth a lifetime.

Many years ago, when I first moved to Houston, I bought a car. My friends at work looked at my newly minted car and shared with a smile, “This is Texas, we buy trucks?”

 I did not fully comprehend it then. Now I know why.

The city started flooding last weekend. Water rose at astonishing speed. 9 trillion gallons – twice the volume of Great Lakes lunged through this area. Electricity was the saving grace. TV with bunny antennas became my fixture. I was glued with one eye on the TV and another outside my window - gauging the water levels on both counts.

 I saw vast swathes of flat lands of Houston converted into a Venice. That was the background. In the foreground I saw Houston TV channel newscasters handle storm coverage with sensitivity and dignity.

Between them and the water, those big trucks showed up in full force with boats in tow. Those owners – bless their souls – appeared on their own free will to ferry folks out. Near the high grounds at the cusp of newly formed waterways, good Samaritans dropped gallons of fuel cans – unprompted. During all this, the news crews often let go of their microphones to help people to safety.

The next night, it hit closer home. The water from the skies sprinted with Usain Bolt intensity.  My wife and I made contingency plans. We mentally mapped our way to high ground from home. We packed a bag pack. And mentally prepared our young girls. They understood.

While packing, what hit me was the essence of essentialism – written by Greg McKeown. What matters could be filled in a small section of a bag pack! Never paused in life to think about it – I was doing it. Life has a way of doling out ah ha moments.

At first light, I ventured out to gauge the water level and to unclog water drains –if any. The rain had slightly ebbed. The street was flooded as far as I could see. The water crested over most of the driveway. I looked up – there was atleast one person in front of every other home - assessing the same. Neighbors were waving- checking if the families are doing good, are roofs and backyards holding up – in that order.

They say, in big cities – proximity blurs human connectivity and makes you anonymous. All I experienced that morning was the rustic, small town feel. 

Half way around the world, my mom who lives in India rarely asks me for anything. This time she elicited, “text me every few hours that you are all safe.” At the very moment she teased out a commitment, I realized my biggest boon – my kids were right next to me. I wanted to be nowhere else.  I implicitly understood my mom’s predicament. I gladly obliged and signed off every text with my name.

Text and calls poured from friends, families and well-wishers. Ranged from enquires of well being to open invitations to stay with them. Heartwarming would be a good word but a mild one. I was truly moved. That gave me a boost – belief in humanity can do wonders to us.

The icing was a text from Europe from an unknown number. I texted back – “may I know whose number it is?”  When I saw the name – I smiled. It was my ex-boss. His thoughtfulness brought me immense joy. Rarely professional and personal relationships cross across decades. That moment was a keeper.

Narrative for the world. 

Victors shape the narratives after world events. World outside may second-guess in hindsight. With pictures of water as high as stop signs on streets - should Houston have evacuated ahead? From the inside, the narrative is different. Lessons from the past were applied. People willingly left their homes when there is room for their pets. And shelters embraced the real paradigm.

In all those hours of local TV watching, I gleaned some simple yet profound details - useful for extreme events

  1. One man was rescued on camera from a marooning car- I watched it through the city traffic camera. It was spotty black and white image in the night light. But one thing was crystal clear. His car wipes were swaying like clockwork. That distinguished his car from all the abandoned cars on the roadways.
  2. Message that blared through was loud and clear. Attic is a bad place to shelter during floods. Something that is against conventional instinct to go higher up when water is rising. The goal is to find a way to the roof or a window on a higher floor.
  3. When you are visible to the outside world, white window drapes or clothes are great signals that you need help.
  4. When you feel the urge to help –sitting afar, resharing SOS messages on social media may make you feel good and useful. The blind forward without judging the timing of the messages could send private first responders on outdated boat rescues.
  5. Newscasters asked at every shelter – “what do you need?” The organizers asked for volunteers, diapers and plus size t-shirts and many more. The support from first responders poured in the background. I learned a few things about the mountains of outpouring support – sorting the items into different bags, knotting shoe pairs together, naming the bags – those small, extra acts go a long way.
  6. When I saw Houstonians cherish the dry clothes and a warm meal at the shelters– I smiled. Houston got the basics right.

Back to my narrative.

On the 4th morning, my family was low on food – I trekked to the local grocery store, Kroger. I wrote about my pre-Harvey experience here. The store opened at 9, I was there at 8.20 and the line was meandering into the drizzling open. They opened before 9 and started dripping people in. And a veteran employee shared in a booming voice, “we let people in when people leave, hope you are all ok. We forewarn you –we are out of bread, low on milk but high on the item that matters – beer.” And chuckles emanated from the crowd. A chuckle flooded my face – my first one in a while. 

Beyond the people, there are many small yet massive details I am thankful for. The stellar flood drainage system, the clean water supply, unlimited data plan from AT&T for the days during the storm and the ever dependable rabbit ear TV antennas. Missing cable and internet were minor blips. Who cares? I am tethering away from my mobile to reach you!

 In all this, I had one tinge of regret. Many had power, many had their cell phones. The tribal knowledge through social media was great. What Houstonians needed was timely synthesized information. The biggest aggregator of information and extended brain for many of us– ever reliable Google search – had generic search return for Houston and Harvey.

This black swan event – some say this is one in 800 to 1000 year event – made me learn an important truth – live traffic on google maps is useful, live watermaps – priceless.

Bonding it all together

 “Houston we have a problem” was a signature line from skies above this space city. When nature chose to mess with this city, what shone was the big Texan heart and resilience. 

What will always bubble up from the ground is the story of newscasters, responders and the surge of the human spirit. A showcase of what is truly important - animated people around you and maybe, just maybe an inanimate bag pack for identity and memories. It would be a story of getting the basics right on what warms a heart– helping hands, hugs, dry clothes and a hot meal.

A toast to the giving spirit. Everything is big in Texas - I have internalized the tomatoes, and potatoes. The last few days showcased the largest of all - the big, helpful heart shared in a down to earth manner - without embellishments.

Many narratives will be etched when the story of this epic flood (vellum in tamil) is written. 

The singular story that will triumph all –it is not strength in numbers; it is the strength in knowing that you are not alone when it matters.

 That edifice will bond all the stories together – in the decades to come.

From Houston, An incredibly lucky guy,

Karthik Rajan.

P.S. Major good links to contribute in one place (scroll to he bottom).

If you know anyone in Texas - share this link with Friends and Family for future bookmark & to help today- https://www.texasrescuemap.com

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