As geoscientists, we know well the power of water. We harness energy from it. It nourishes our crops. It fuels civilizations. We use its flow to connect goods and services across the planet. It brings our planet life. These days, it’s the holy grail in the search for life beyond our planet.
But water has a dark side that geoscientists also know well. Its force can carve canyons and topple dams. It makes volcanoes explosive. It lubricates landslides. It swells rivers and floods homes. Within it, disease festers.
It’s one thing to know about the power of water. It’s another thing to see it firsthand.
Friday, 25 August
Hurricane Harvey just made landfall near Corpus Christi as a category 4 storm, and I think to myself, This is it, my first hurricane.
We have 30 gallons of water in bottles, plus one of those 100-gallon bags that you fill in your tub so that you have some water for washing and for manually flushing toilets. We have canned food that we can heat on our gas stove if the power goes out as well as fresh food and ready-to-eat meals in the freezer in the more likely scenario that power stays on and we’re stranded in our house due to high waters. We’re loaded with milk, eggs, bread, peanut butter, snacks.
The grocery store was a madhouse. No parking, long lines. Bare shelves in the soup aisles. There’s nothing like an impending storm to cause people to make a run on instant ramen, of all things.
I get a text from a friend. Her daughter’s birthday party, originally scheduled for tomorrow, is canceled. But she’s throwing an impromptu gathering today. Can we come?
I buckle my 2-year-old in her car seat, and we drive through the drizzle to another house in the neighborhood. I know this may be the last time my daughter gets out of the house for a while—forecasters say that the rain may last days, maybe even the whole week. Over birthday cake, the adults touch base. Did your house flood during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001? The 2015 Memorial Day floods? The 2016 “Tax Day” floods? Did you try to evacuate during Rita, in 2005? Do you need anything? Are you ready?
But I have bigger things on my mind than the delay of the school year. My 5-year-old son is in Seattle without us, visiting my parents and my sister’s family. His flight is on Sunday, the day when forecasts anticipate the heaviest rains.
Saturday, 26 August
Morning skies are overcast, with occasional drizzle. The waiting game has begun.
In my neighborhood in northwestern Houston, heavy rains can turn the streets into retention ponds in a flash. It’s the funnel effect. We’re positioned high enough relative to waterways that these floods typically subside quickly, assuming that drains are clear. The previous owners disclosed that our house took on some water during Tropical Storm Allison, but conversations with a neighbor who’s lived here since the neighborhood was built revealed that our cul-de-sac’s flooding was due to a blocked drain. So my neighbors and my husband are out, clearing twigs, gathering debris.
My son’s flight back home is canceled. He was to fly back with my mother; my father scrambles to book them another flight. Forecasts have told us to brace for 3 feet of rain tonight and tomorrow. Friends and relatives call and text to tell us to stay safe.
Three feet of rain. During the Memorial Day storm of 2015, rain pounded, and the street flashed into a lake with water sloshing above our doorstep. One more inch, and water would have lapped into the house.
I sit by the bay window with my daughter. She doesn’t know what’s going on. She points and singsongs, “It’s raining, it’s pouring.” The rain from Harvey, which has slowed into a tropical storm, starts to pound. It’s now midafternoon, but it looks like dusk. So far, the street is draining.
My husband puts our daughter to bed after a hasty dinner. The white noise of the storm somehow lulls her to sleep. But for me, I can hear winds swirl and the drumbeat staccato of rain. We’re monitoring our street with the lights off. Lightning strobes continuously, thunder growls with each flash. The entrance to our cul-de-sac pools and water creeps inward. Within minutes, the road is a lake.
Sunday, 27 August
It’s now past midnight, and the waters are still rising. My front lawn is totally submerged. You wouldn’t know that grass grows there.
As lightning flashes, I see shimmering waves pulse across the lake and interundulating ripples of concentric waves from rain. The waves are now lapping at the flowerbeds abutting my house.
I keep checking every half hour for waters to recede. Finally, they do. It’s 3:00 in the morning, and I need to sleep.
I wake up at 7:30 a.m. and the waters are even higher than they were just a few hours prior. I check my phone. The parents of Friday night’s birthday girl are out in a kayak, clearing storm drains and checking in on neighbors. Rain falls steadily, but luckily, waters start to recede. Gradually our road comes back into view. The first wave of the storm has passed.
But my relief leaves a bitter taste. Matter cannot be created or destroyed. Water flows downhill. The lakes and rivers of our neighborhood’s streets have all drained somewhere else. Houston’s nickname is Bayou City—channels, some with concrete beds, weave through the city to join our main waterway, Buffalo Bayou. As channel feeds into channel, how are downstream bayous faring?
I check social media, and it’s bad. It’s beyond bad. My little street’s lake became one of many tributaries to mighty rivers flowing down major roads, rushing into homes and offices, completely submerging cars as the city’s bayous overflowed.
Videos and photos are streaming from low-lying areas of an already low-lying region. Houses downstream from us are taking on water, fast.
The National Weather Service has just issued a tornado warning. Neighbors post about hunkering in their bathtubs. Our bathtub has a bag with 100 gallons of water in it, so all we can do is watch the skies. And the skies deliver more rain.
As the day stretches on, the Facebook posts keep coming. A friend, along with the rest of her family—four people, five pets—abandoned their house in low-lying Meyerland, a neighborhood in southwestern Houston. They waded through high waters, towing their pets on a pool float. A neighbor lent them a canoe, and they paddled to my cousin’s house, one of few in the neighborhood that managed to stay dry. It took them four trips to get everyone to high ground.
All day long, it’s so dark that my daughter can’t tell whether it’s nap time or bedtime.
When we do put her to bed for the night, we’re on edge. Harvey, round 2, is coming, and satellite radar shows that a band of red will track right over our house for the next few hours. There’s nothing to do but wait. A nerve-racking, nail-biting wait.
We catalog valuables and move them deeper into the house—if water comes in, it will be from under the front door. In that case, it’s likely that the water will pool near the entrance. As we stack our possessions on tables and beds, we think, What’s irreplaceable? Photo albums, a few favorite toys. The rest is just stuff, after all. We have flood insurance.
We can’t hear anything now but the pounding of rain, like a waterfall emptying from the sky. The street flashes again into a lake. Our backyard becomes a reservoir; our driveway becomes a spillway connecting that reservoir to the street. Across our cul-de-sac, water gushes down driveways, feeding the lake, submerging grass, eventually submerging much of the driveway itself.
I check my doorstep; the welcome mat is submerged. Another 2 inches, and water will be in the house. I look across the lake—there’s now nothing between my house and my neighbor’s house across the street but water. The wind skates along the surface, pushing waves closer. And it’s still raining.
Monday, 28 August
It’s now well past midnight. I can see through the rain that the lake now has flow, which means it’s draining. We’ve reached our high-water mark without water entering the house.
I’m crashing fast from this adrenaline high. Relief makes me tired, and I sleep for a few hours.
When I wake up, it’s still raining, but not in the torrents of before. Our street is damp and dotted with puddles, but I can see the road. Soon, kids in full rain gear venture out to play basketball, tag, anything to shake off cabin fever.
If my son were here, he’d be out playing too. But the mayor has announced that both of the city’s airports are closed until Thursday. I want my little boy back, but I have to be realistic. The airfields are needed for planes bringing humanitarian aid. Plus, submerged roads mean that even if he did land, he’d be stuck at the airport. He’s now booked on a flight back home on Thursday. He won’t miss school, though. It’s been canceled for the rest of the week.
I pull on my rain jacket to check up on my immediate neighbors. A couple next door are expecting their first child any day now, and the father-to-be is building an emergency plan. Do I know any labor and delivery nurses in the area? I tell him that I’ll put a call out within our neighborhood’s mom’s group.
The family on the corner found a leak in their roof. Another neighbor reports a pool of water at their front door and some rogue water inside closets. Still more talk about leaks from their chimney. On a nearby street, a tree has fallen, thankfully, into the road.
I take stock. All in all, we’re okay. But for many elsewhere in the city, harrowing ordeals unfold. News reports show residents on roofs, waiting to be rescued. Others wade in the water or get picked up by boats. Rescuers funnel people by the truckload to downtown’s convention center, which has been turned into a shelter. The death toll in southeastern Texas has risen to nine.
My husband takes our daughter for a cautious drive down to the nearest bayou. The roads are clear, but every so often he encounters an abandoned car midroad, out of place like a glacial erratic. Helicopters whir overhead almost every half hour.
Tuesday, 29 August
A little more than a week ago, I stood in my front yard with eclipse glasses whooping at a partially shadowed Sun. This time I’m whooping at a different shadow: mine.
After 4 days of darkness, the Sun’s weak rays bring hope. The rain has finally stopped. Around me, my neighbors venture out in a parody of Groundhog Day.
We have the local news on as often as we can, and our phones are at the ready. We check headlines, check Facebook. BBVA Compass Stadium, home of Houston’s professional soccer team, has just opened up as a drop-off point for donations. The mayor also just announced a curfew, so we need to move fast. What do we have, what can we mobilize right now? What areas have flooded, what roads remain closed? Can we even chart a path there?
We pack our SUV full of diapers, wipes, feminine hygiene products, soaps, gently used kids’ clothing, maternity clothes, books and toys for kids. We drive to the stadium on empty roads, trusting them to be clear, prepared to backtrack if they’re not.
I’ve always joked to my husband that the flat city of Houston engineers its hills via anastomosing highway overpasses. They’re flung across the city, at heights and angles that seek to compensate for the ground’s lack of elevation. And I see that I’m not the only one who noticed. Overpass after overpass reveals city buses parked caravan style, parking in perhaps the only places where they were guaranteed to not take on water. Behind us, the Sun sets.
We reach the stadium at dusk, joining a line of cars, and I run in with a bag of bedding. I’m not alone. Fifty or so others run alongside me.
Inside, I hear shouts giving directions from 100 or so more volunteers: diapers in the back, baby clothes a bit just before that. Bottled water behind me.
As we run back and forth to our cars, I imagine us in an aerial view, where our movements take on the orderly chaos of worker ants. We swarm and interweave, laden with supplies that we’ve scavenged to help the colony.
Wednesday, 30 August
My son’s flight is canceled, again.
He has been watching the news, and he keeps asking whether our house is under water. We’ve sent him pictures of our house, we show him it’s fine, but still he asks. My sister has offered to take him with her family on a camping trip to the Olympic Mountains, and I think he’ll find this a welcome distraction.
Across the neighborhood, families are consolidating their kids so that others can volunteer. Many have opened up their guestrooms and are doing laundry for friends and friends of friends. Facebook notices pop up with requests for clothes, diapers, toys, food. With nearly 35,000 people in shelters across southeastern Texas, needs are great. A shelter here needs formula, a shelter there needs bedding. A shelter up the street needs volunteers to sort donations. More people are needed to muck out houses.
While I stay at home with our daughter, my husband heads south to haul out debris and pull out floorboards from a house that took on about 3 feet of water. He piles the soggy remnants of a family’s life on the side of the road. The debris will sit there, waiting for whenever city trucks can haul it away.
Thursday, 31 August
I find someone to watch my daughter for the day, and my husband and I drive south. A community center near a flooded neighborhood has a list of houses that need help.
One assignment is a ranch-style house right off Brays Bayou on the front line of the flood. This house would have seen water before anyone else behind it. We see a buckled garage door with a car trapped behind it—as the structure flooded, the car floated. It rammed into the door as floodwaters receded.
We meet the owner and his three renters—a mother with two adult daughters who had just moved into the property in June. The house began taking in water on Sunday night, one of the daughters told me. Before she knew it, she was waist deep, “and I’m a tall girl,” she said. As water poured in, her main thought was how to get her mom onto the roof of the house. A few minutes later, the Houston Police Department’s dive team rescued them. The water was so high, they had to climb a ladder to get inside the boat.
I’m in the kitchen, salvaging what I can, emptying water from drawers and pots, drying dishes so that they can be stored somewhere for later cleaning. When I’m done, I join my husband, who’s on drywall duty. As he cuts and pries drywall off the house’s frame, I remove the sodden insulation. We stock it in a wheelbarrow and haul it to the curb, load after load.
Over time, a small pile of things the family can keep grows as we open drawers and save what’s dry. I ask the renters whether we need to be photographing anything we’re discarding. One of the daughters says yes, but she’s not sure it will matter. She had added hurricane insurance to her renter’s insurance, but the agent says that it doesn’t cover floods, even floods during a hurricane.
Another assignment is a woman who needs some heavy furniture moved out of the house and piled on the curb. She explains that they tried to get two couches out, but they just wouldn’t fit through the door. Can we help?
We turn one couch upside down, and I’m not quite prepared for the splat it makes as cushions hit the floor. The couch sits on pegs that are blocking its passage. Water gushes out as we pry them off. It takes some doing, but we slide both couches out the door.
My instinct is to not let the discarded pegs scratch the floors, but then I realize the floors are going too.
I move to a TV stand she just photographed. I open the bottom drawer and it’s full of water. I dump the water in the backyard gutter and add the drawer to her ever-growing debris pile. I move to the toy room and start bagging—wooden train sets, stuffed animals. All soaked beyond salvation.
We finish bagging and hauling, and we’re ready to head out. Does the family need anything else?
I look for the woman to ask, and I find her outside in the backyard. Except for the high-water mark on her garage, about 3 feet above the ground, it’s the one place that still looks normal. She’s crying, and I’ve interrupted her. She wipes her eyes and thanks us as I make our good-byes.
As we drive off, I notice that every house on the road has its own pile of debris, save for one. Right next to the family we just helped stands a house on 4-foot stilts. The curb in front of it is clear.
Saturday, 2 September
At a local shelter for flood victims, I clear space for more donations, split big boxes of powdered detergent into ziplock bags, and help flood victims find what they need.
One woman asks for clothes, particularly something she can wear to church. I sort through plus-sized women’s clothes searching for 2XLs and 3XLs. We have mountains of clothes but slim pickings for her, and she walks away with nothing.
I take a moment to think. This woman lost everything. Who’s cleaning up her neighborhood or the neighborhoods of anyone coming here to pick up supplies? Those seeking help here are, for the most part, people of color with little to no safety net.
And I realize that’s a drawback to our social media–driven disaster cleanup response. We’re helping where help is needed, using an app, using Twitter and Facebook. But who’s using an app to drop pins requesting help in some of the poorer neighborhoods?
Ironically, I turn back to Facebook for help. I find that I’m the only one asking these questions. A friend of a friend gives me a website where I can sign up to help muck out houses in Fifth Ward, historically one of Houston’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. I sign my husband and myself up for a shift on Labor Day.
Sunday, 3 September
“Acts of God.” “Mother Nature’s fury.” These terms have value when they discuss hazard—the strength of the winds at landfall, the unprecedented amount of rain dumped on southeast Texas. Fifty inches fell in some places over the course of the storm. I’ve seen graphics that show the total water unleashed in terms of a volume above ground, I’ve read comparisons that give the amount of rainfall as one sixth the volume of Lake Erie.
But I’m trained as a geoscientist, and I know that more is needed to turn an event into a disaster. That something extra is risk.
Risk is where the population interfaces with the hazard. Behaviors and our built environment can exacerbate or lessen that risk. If the culvert that drained my cul-de-sac’s lake on Sunday had clogged, the risk of water spilling into our house would have increased. Scale that up to the bayou level, and the same risks of clogged channels hold. The width of the channel itself can influence risk—a narrow channel creates a tighter funnel with more water behind it. Add more water, and that narrow channel will overflow.
When upstream prairies and marshland are converted into buildings and roads without taking into account how deluges will flow, risk increases downstream. Like water sluicing off my driveway just 1 week ago, so too did water slickened by a concrete bed spill into the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, currently beyond flood stages. The reservoirs, in eastern Houston, hold back waters from spilling into the rest of the city.
Controlled outflows into Houston’s bayous from these reservoirs are at the highest volumes allowable. This make sense—city water managers, wary of any future storm that may trigger levee breaches, need to drain the reservoirs into the bayous as fast as they can.
But that’s creating a suite of other problems. It turns out that the high-volume outflows needed to quickly drain the reservoirs are more than what downstream channels can handle. So water just downstream of the reservoirs is overflowing the banks of the bayou, spilling into people’s houses. Yesterday the city issued a mandatory evacuation order for all residents within a certain zone.
Such is the case for my neighbor’s in-laws, who live in the downstream shadow of Barker Reservoir. A glance at a map shows that Buffalo Bayou runs behind their property. But the ongoing high-volume controlled releases of the reservoir mean that Buffalo Bayou, in effect, now runs through their house. Up to 4 feet of water still stands in their first floor. Officials have told them that they can expect flooding until mid-September.
And here’s another crazy tidbit. Many people upstream of the reservoirs are flooding too. That’s because—and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this—they live below the reservoirs’ maximum pool level, something that they’ve just figured out now that their houses are flooded.
Homeowners on both sides of the reservoir had no clue of the risks they faced prior to the flood. But isn’t this something that they ought to have known?
I get it: The city has to make tough choices in times of crisis. But how did we get here?
Monday, 4 September
My husband and I arrive at the office buildings of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, a nonprofit working to revitalize the neighborhood. We’re prepared with tools, masks, and gloves. Within moments, staff groups us into teams and hands out addresses and assignments.
Public health risks, from black mold, from disease borne in stagnant water—those are the highest priorities right now, they explain. But hoarding born of poverty will also be an issue, and they tell us to do our best at helping people part with waterlogged belongings.
At our assigned home, I immediately see why the area flooded. In my cul-de-sac, houses perch higher than the street—during flash floods, the street becomes a lake. This section of the city has opposite conditions. The road’s elevation lies slightly above the houses. So when their nearby bayou flash flooded, houses found themselves in the center of lakes.
The roof of the tiny, ranch-style home is sagging and crumpled. There’s a hole in the living room ceiling through which you can see the sky.
The homeowner asks us to call her Granny. As some of us start hauling out soggy furniture, I ask Granny what she wants to keep. She looks me in the eye and says that all of it needs to go. Some things are dry, I tell her. She repeats: All of it needs to go.
My mask doesn’t filter out the waves of stench, fetid and damp, that hit us as we open doors and closets to assess damage. I see patches of mold setting in on the drywall throughout the house, at chair height. The insulation behind it must be completely saturated. A watermark shows that the house took on at least 3 feet.
Granny’s children take us aside and instruct us to put aside things that we may deem valuable. They plan to help her sort through them as we work. Prescriptions, medical equipment, jewelry, that sort of thing. Granny is now living with one of her daughters, and reality slowly starts to settle in for me. She can’t keep her stuff because she has no place to put it, no means to clean it.
This house was probably teetering on the edge of livability before the storm struck. Now that it has, the house needs to be demolished. Granny may not be ready to hear this yet, and it’s not my place to tell her. So we do what she asks because it will be useful later on. Everything needs to go.
It’s backbreaking, heartbreaking work, taking everything—every last thing—out of a house, bagging it, and dumping it on the curb. Shoes, blankets, furniture, carpet, TVs, dishes—all trash now. I find a soaked photo album under a bed and take it to Granny. Ink from the photos stains her fingers as she looks through it. She closes it and hands it back to me. Everything needs to go.
We finish gutting the house. As we leave, I see pickers going through the massive debris pile we left behind.
Tuesday, 5 September
All across my Facebook feed this past week has been a meme with these words: “Drysplain: Explaining how Houston should have been evacuated during Hurricane Harvey while having little to no knowledge of the complexities of evacuating 6.5 million people within a span of 2 days, typically a non-Houstonian who did not experience the evacuation during Hurricane Rita.”
I’m frustrated because the meme is too simple. Of course, the entire city should not have been evacuated.
I think of the mother and two daughters we met near Brays Bayou. They live within 300 feet of the bayou’s bank. Why were they not evacuated earlier? Fifty inches of rain were anticipated to stream down a huge chunk of the city to their doorstep. The risk of catastrophic flooding for them was high.
And yet they were told by the city to hunker down, as we all were. But when you’re contemplating how to get your mom on the roof, you don’t need a smug meme. You need answers. Your house, on the basis of its proximity to the bayou alone, faced a high risk of flooding. Need you have been there to witness water rushing into your house?
Sixty people are dead from this storm. Could targeted evacuations—maybe all those living in ranch-style houses within a given contour surrounding a bayou—have lessened the risk of mortality? Could targeted evacuations even happen without causing the widespread panic that led to clogged roads during Rita’s evacuation debacle? Or do we leave people facing the greatest risk in place to make life or death choices during a time of crisis with the hope that they’ll act coolly and logically?
Wednesday, 6 September
My son is finally home. It feels good to hold him, just to hold him close.
I help put him to bed, and I think of what tomorrow will bring, the conversations I’ll need to have with him. What do I say?
How do I tell him that his daddy and I, with our geoscience degrees and jargon-filled theses, now wonder what all those years of study were for if we’re not answering questions that can help save lives? And that even if science does have answers, the flow of information to policy makers and to people on the ground is far from watertight?
I’ll start with the basics. I’ll tell him that water brings life. But it also has a dark side.
—Mohi Kumar (@scimohi), Scientific Content Editor