The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I evacuated New Orleans for Katrina. And Houston for Harvey. It never gets easier.

Malachia Medrano, 2, was among the Hurricane Harvey evacuees who sought shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Jennifer Waldo writes that the waiting and uncertainty are among the worst parts of an evacuation. (LM Otero/Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

Walking into Target in Austin, I checked the list of things I needed: clothes for the kids, flip flops for me, sunscreen, toilet paper. I’d only packed three days of outfits when we left Houston under mandatory evacuation after Hurricane Harvey flooded our neighborhood. Maybe it was hope, maybe it was denial, but 12 years earlier, I’d packed similarly when evacuating New Orleans ahead of Katrina, assuming it would be a short trip.

One might think that, being a hurricane veteran, I’d be better prepared for dealing with Harvey and its aftermath. Knowing what can happen, though, can be paralyzing. You don’t want to go through it all again. Leaving your life behind. Waiting and the worrying. What if I have to start all over? Again. There’s nothing that can prepare you for recovering from a Katrina or a Harvey or an Irma.

Harvey’s rains had been pummeling Houston for two days when we got word of the evacuation order affecting our neighborhood, in the suburb of Sugar Land, on the night of Aug. 27. I thought about the levee across the street from our house, a system that keeps the Brazos River at bay. Would the river rise as projected and flood the neighborhood? Even if it didn’t, would the levees hold? How could I trust them, knowing all too well that levees can fail?

As people did throughout Houston, I surveyed the house, trying to decide what to save. Back in New Orleans, we had lived in a second-floor apartment that luckily didn’t flood (we hadn’t even thought that it could). They were projecting nine feet of flooding in my current neighborhood, though, so I moved all my writing, videos and film equipment upstairs. My husband brought his comic book collection. I made sure to bring up my daughter’s shoes, because she loves them so much. By then, it was after midnight and we were exhausted, so we left everything else in place — the books, the furniture, everything in the kitchen. I didn’t turn off the main breaker (a flood safety precaution), because I was preoccupied by the thought of losing the three gallons of fresh milk in the refrigerator that I’d bought when stocking up (and in a blind panic) ahead of the storm.

I learned from Katrina that you should evacuate as soon as possible. It’s not just the storm and floods you have to contend with, but the crush of people trying to evacuate on the same roads at the same time. In 2005, we’d been out shopping for a highchair for our 4-month-old when my husband’s co-worker called to warn of the oncoming storm. Katrina hadn’t been projected as a Category 5 yet, so we were able to book a hotel in Houston, no problem. We left New Orleans that night, three days before the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast.

Now, things were more complicated in a way that made it hard to follow my own advice. I’m divorced and remarried. Shared custody schedules meant that when we first heard the evacuation warning, my kids were with my ex-husband downtown (to the east) and my stepkids were with their mother elsewhere in Sugar Land (and making plans to evacuate to the west). They were safe and dry, but I wanted to be with them. I understood why some people stay and hope for the best.

Another big difference from 2005: social media. Facebook was the best resource for information about which routes through and out of Houston were passable, where to get gas, where to buy bread. I couldn’t load the traffic Web pages and map apps fast enough to figure out where to go, and nothing was accurate. Instead, I relied on updates from evacuating friends and neighbors. We managed to navigate around roadblocks to get my kids Monday morning, but when we tried to head west to get my stepkids, the flooding had gotten worse. Rivers flowed instead of streets; fish swam against the asphalt. Just being on the road, we risked getting stranded. The drive to Austin normally takes two and a half hours; we finally made it in six, with all the reroutes and creative driving.

But social media can also exacerbate anxiety during a disaster. In the subsequent days that we spent huddled in my brother’s two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Austin, we were glued to our phones checking news, river gauges and posts from people in our neighborhood who had ignored the mandatory evacuation. A photo of the intersection of State Highway 99 and U.S. Route 90 near our house, with water sitting just a foot or so below the traffic lights, took my breath away, and I felt certain of the devastation to come. What turned out to be false reports of people shooting at the Cajun Navy, or worries about looters, fed into the hysteria. My husband tried to keep us all busy. We went to the nearby natural springs, where there was no cell reception.

I worried about our family and friends — and the house. We couldn’t stay with my brother indefinitely. Would we end up in a FEMA hotel, like in 2005? What would I do about work? What would the kids do about school? I strained against the uncertainty and worried what kind of city we’d be returning to when we got back to Houston.

After Katrina, the waiting went on and on. We lived for months in temporary housing in Houston with donated pots and pans and rented furniture. I hated it. It’s exhausting to live without your own things in a strange place, pretending to be normal. There are so many things you need to buy, because you don’t have anything, and yet you don’t want to spend lots of money, because you might need it to get your home back in order. Every decision becomes stressful.

I don’t know whether we would have moved back. The Shell Corp., where my husband worked, made the decision for us, transferring him to the Houston office. So, when we were finally allowed back into New Orleans, around Thanksgiving, we packed up our things and returned to Texas.

And here I was, 12 years later, living through it once more. In the wake of Harvey, the fate of my house and neighborhood depended on the Brazos River. It was supposed to crest Aug. 28, but that estimate was pushed back and then pushed back again. More waiting. As the days went on, the news from our neighborhood improved. The rain stopped. The floodwaters began to drain. When the river finally crested Sept. 1, it wasn’t nearly as bad as predicted when we were told to evacuate.

This time around, thankfully, I was able to return within a week instead of three months. On the highway, we saw pickup trucks and U-Hauls carrying bottled water, presumably as part of the Harvey relief effort. When we got to our neighborhood, we saw it was still ringed by a bright orange plastic “tiger dam” erected as a barricade against floods. I looked for signs of how high the water had risen. Debris marked the waterline on roads and buildings. Grass was dead in patches where water had been sitting.

It looked like the water had made it halfway up our driveway, but not as far as my husband’s car or the house. Somehow, we hadn’t lost power — none of the clocks were flashing. The milk in the refrigerator was still good.

For much of Houston, though, and for the communities in Hurricane Irma’s path, the hard work and the mental anguish has just begun. Sidewalks in neighborhoods all around us are lined with piles of torn-out flooring, drywall, insulation, carpet, furniture. People are coming together to help one another tackle this massive task, but friends without flood insurance don’t know what to do, and many houses still have standing water. At the college where I teach, I expect that some of my students this fall won’t be living in their own homes. As a result of 2017’s monster storms, thousands of displaced people will be forced into this purgatory of recovery.

Recovering from events such as these is a kind of grieving process that takes time. All of us, however affected, must grieve the life we thought we were going to live and find ways to accept this new one we’ve encountered. It’s important to find a routine, to get a break from the stress, but often normal can feel a long way away.