“Bayou City Breakdown” (by Susan Perry Benson)

Susan Perry Benson debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in July 2013. A native Houstonian and a frequent contributor to the Houston Chronicle and Texas Magazine, she had already moved to North Carolina by the time she turned her pen to fiction, but she continues to have close ties to Houston. In this post she shares some thoughts about Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall near Houston on August 25, 2017. EQMM salutes all of those who have weathered this season’s hurricanes and are bravely rebuilding their cities and towns. And we thank Susan for letting us see the catastrophe from the perspective of someone to whom it is deeply personal. The author’s next story for EQMM will appear in our March/April 2018 issue.—Janet Hutchings

I’d been on a celestial high from viewing the solar eclipse earlier in the week, plummeting back to earth when I saw that Hurricane Harvey had been upgraded to a Category 4, with landfall expected somewhere around Corpus Christi, Texas. It wasn’t until the next morning, as I sat in front of the TV screen with my first cup of coffee, that the horror set in. Harvey, after making landfall in Rockport, had moved farther east, siphoning copious amounts of water from the Gulf and dumping it on Houston until the city of my raising looked as alien to me as a scene from Waterworld. With Buffalo Bayou on a bull rise, the skyline looked like a modern-day Atlantis.

Houston is called the Bayou City for a reason, and in his bestseller, Blood and Money, the late Thomas Thompson said it so well: “There was no real reason for Houston even to exist. Of all the major cities in the world, Houston held the slimmest natural promise. She sat fifty miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, on a relentlessly flat swamp, threaded by muddy bayous on whose banks sunned water moccasins.” But grow and prosper she did, thanks to oil and a ship channel dredged from Buffalo Bayou to Galveston Bay to form the Port of Houston. Add to that list air conditioning to stave off the steamy subtropical heat and you have a city that knew no boundaries. In a city that’s never had any zoning restrictions, growth isn’t a doctrine, it’s a proverb.

I’d haunted all the neighborhoods now under water. And the list kept growing as I watched the news feeds: A family stranded at a grocery store in Meyerland. Anybody have a boat? . . . A pregnant evacuee scheduled for a C-section wondering if her home would still be there . . . a young man electrocuted in Bear Creek while trying to rescue his sister’s cat.

Houston’s network of bayous flood with alarming regularity any time a tropical storm barrels through, but what cosmic algorithm dumps thirty-three trillion gallons of water on a metro the size of New Jersey? This used to be my town, and I felt like every sad song I’ve ever heard, on the edge of my proverbial seat as I checked social media; phoning, texting and emailing family and friends. My cousin, Pam was fine. She lives in the Heights, the highest elevation in the city, hence the name. Cousin Lauran marked herself safe on Facebook. My two nephews were okay. My brother in LaGrange, about two hours west of town, said he’d received twenty-six inches of rain by late Saturday. The ranch house sits on a big hill, and though people along the Colorado River were being urged to evacuate, he said he wasn’t worried. My aunt Peggy in Pearland, at the age of eighty-eight, was taking a wait-and-see attitude, saying the neighbors looked after her. By Sunday, I had not heard from my friend, Kay. After two days of texting and phoning mutual friends, I imagined the worst.

Despite taking on some water, Murder by the Book, which more aptly could have been called “murder by the brook,” managed to stay open over that fateful weekend, offering free coffee, charging stations and a shelter to those in need; a prime example of how Houstonians pitch in during a crisis.

One hurricane always brings memories of those past, Hurricane Carla, a category 5, my first experience in 1961. While our neighbors were fleeing to shelters, I questioned my father’s judgement about riding it out in our house; the eye destined for the heart of Houston. But that was a long time ago, and we came through it fine, more of an adventure than a disaster. Twenty-some-odd years later, I rode out Hurricane Alicia with my cocker spaniel for company, the winds battering the house with a deafening roar as Blondie paced and whined throughout that long ordeal, water lapping at my doorstep before it ended. Never again!!

I’d since moved to North Carolina when a tropical storm called Allison wreaked havoc in Houston, dropping forty inches of rain and taking close to forty lives. My editor at the Houston Chronicle made it through by the skin of his teeth, taking refuge in a hospital at the Texas Medical Center on his way home from work.

In August of 2005, my brother and I rented a charter boat for my dad’s eighty-fifth birthday. Dad had long since retired from Amoco, the better part of his life spent positioning offshore rigs in the Gulf. Fishing had been one of his favorite pastimes, and as we motored some thirty miles out, heading for the snapper banks, the water felt unusually warm, almost hot to the touch, the perfect fuel for another high-seas hell-broth we call a hurricane. Weeks later, Katrina plowed into New Orleans, Rita heading for Houston on the heels of that disaster, inciting a mass exodus and the worst traffic jam Houston has ever known.

I’d about forgotten what day it was when my phone chirped with a long text from Kay: A tornado just missed the house but tore down all her banana trees. Lucky break! Kay and her husband planned to spend the night with a neighbor as rising water threatened the house. They were busy setting the furniture up on bricks. I took pause wondering if bricks would be enough, a hare’s breath behind them wondering how they’d manage that massive entertainment center.

By Labor Day weekend, Houston had received fifty inches of rain and the death toll had reached fifty; one soul for every inch of water. The Harris County Morgue had run out of room for the bodies, and at some point Mayor Sylvester Turner, a man I admire hugely, said, and I quote: “People won’t evaluate us on how we started, but on how we ended this.”

Through it all, I kept seeing the parallels to my writing life.    I sit down to write a story with no more than an idea, letting the story and the characters take shape, writing blindly for the most part as they lead the way, no idea how it might end, and sometimes they end badly. People ask on occasion where my ideas come from. I have to laugh a little because there are more ideas out there than I’ll ever have time to pursue. Three scenes from Harvey I can’t seem to shake, scenes that I might use in the future are as follows: 1) A school of exotic fish swimming in the lobby of the Omni Hotel. 2) A woman on the Buffalo Bayou Bridge scooping up bats with a fish net; Mexican free-tails flushed from their roost below. 3) A blond-headed woman standing beside her splintered mobile home after riding out the storm in Rockport. When she told a reporter she thought she was going to die, he asked her why she didn’t evacuate. “We didn’t have the money,” she replied in disdain. I’ve been there: Single mom. Stony broke. No car. But I always had family to fall back on. I wondered what would become of her. Would FEMA make her life whole again, or would desperate times lead to desperate measures?

Although the sun had come out over Labor Day, nineteen Texas rivers were still at flood stage, and three hundred roads were still under water. Both the Colorado and Brazos Rivers were out of their banks, forcing mandatory evacuations in LaGrange and Richmond respectively. I sent a text to my brother. Riveted to the news he replied. Be safe! I wrote.

As I watched evacuees slogging through a living stew of snakes, fire ants, alligators and E. coli, I learned that first responders can’t force you from your home if you choose to stay. I’ve never been in that situation, but can only imagine how awful it must feel to leave all your worldly possessions behind. You can’t push the river, and you can only push a story so far. What may start out with loads of promise could also hit a brick wall halfway in. Again and again, you will be tested. And sometimes you just have to walk away.

Some four weeks later, while all eyes were on Irma, bodies are still turning up. A senior with dementia who strayed from home was found in a sandpit many miles away. Two seniors in west Houston near the Barker Reservoir drowned in their homes, their deaths blamed on a dam release that came in the middle of the night while the city slept. Apparently the Corps of Engineers advised city officials that the controlled release would not cause anything more than street flooding, and both entities have been mum about a possible communication breakdown. Those who did manage to flee said they had no warning. Already, lawsuits are flying faster than a flock of wild geese to a rice field.

During a recent city-council meeting tempers flared over clean-up efforts. It seems that Mayor Turner had a dustup with a councilman who’d complained about the slow pace of debris removal in his district. Harvey took no prisoners and showed no favorites, flooding modest homes as well as upscale neighborhoods. A Disaster Distress Helpline has been set up, along with free counseling for those feeling overwhelmed in the aftermath. Houston is still an open wound, and the healing process will be ongoing, a roman a clef in the making, a story that shows no sign of ending any time soon.

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