HOUSTON — Strangers embraced, jumping and screaming at the sky in tearful hugs, shedding happy tears from a place that so recently emerged from its greatest grief.
Less than nine weeks ago, the city of Houston hung its head for the tens of thousands who lost their homes to floods and high water brought by four days of record-breaking rain from Hurricane Harvey. On Wednesday night, its people frolicked as World Series champions after their Astros, halfway across the country, beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-1, in Game 7.
For Houston, the Astros' run couldn't have come at a better time.
"It's almost as though somewhere out there the universe is saying, 'Sorry about that,' " said Zannah Sykes, who lost her home to flooding. "Like an apology."
Sykes, a 55-year-old accountant in the oil and gas industry and a former Astros season ticket holder, came to the Game 7 watch party with four others from her flood victim support group — just one of many such groups that have sprouted across Houston since the hurricane.
When Harvey washed three feet of water into her one-story home in northwest Houston, Sykes put her grandmother's jewelry in a bag and waded through the water in the dark to her SUV parked atop a garage. She slept in the vehicle for the next 14 nights, until FEMA rented her the Crowne Plaza hotel room where she now lives, eating mostly cold sandwiches, canned ravioli and frozen White Castle hamburgers.
Money is tight. Harvey also washed her office away so she's been out of work. She hasn't eaten out in weeks, but as the crowd gathers in Minute Maid Park she savored a Chick-fil-A sandwich from her stadium seat.
"It's a wonderful distraction from the source of pain that all of us feel," she said, choking back tears at the memory of her loss. "It's medicinal. It's almost spiritual."
Many others echoed her sentiment. Even those who didn't lose their homes were affected by the losses suffered by their neighbors, families or friends.
"Houston was so devastated," said Susan Welbes, 56, who works in human resources. "People's entire lives are still sitting on the curb waiting for the trash truck to come."
The Astros gave out more than 40,000 free tickets to the watch parties for Games 6 and 7, according to team spokeswoman Dena Propis.
"We chose not to charge because this is something we really wanted to do for our incredible fans," said Propis. "Given everything Houston has been through, we wanted to create a fun, classic baseball atmosphere where all Astros fans could come together and support their team."
A five-run lead in the second inning had the crowd buzzing, a series of high-fives-for-all that grew with each passing inning.
The Astros' march to the World Series has been a process, built on high draft picks from poor seasons and shrewd personnel moves. With young stars such as Jose Altuve (27), Carlos Correa (23), Alex Bregman (23) and George Springer (28), they have the makings of a dynasty. They won 101 games during the regular season, and fans can legitimately wonder if this is just the beginning.
"People have been waiting for this for a long time, sitting through 100-loss seasons," said Sarah Welbes, 22, as she waited in line to enter the park. "And it happened to come right after the worst disaster the city has seen."
That disaster endeared some newcomers to the city. Ashley Lewis, a 27-year-old mental health worker who moved to Houston from Las Vegas in 2013, marveled at the volunteer response as thousands of people from across the region showed up with boats in tow to aid the rescue effort.
"Even during the flood there was a helping vibe in this city," she said. "It made me a fan. I'm a bandwagon fan."
She spent some nights sheltered in NRG Center after Harvey and lived for a week in a hotel.
Like many others, Lewis equated cheering for the Astros to cheering for Houston as a whole, as the city swings from the tragic headlines of a national disaster to glowing headlines of a world champion.
"The Astros have given us something to cheer for," said John Penaloza, a 38-year-old supervisor at a tech company who volunteered ripping out drywall in Harvey's aftermath. "It relieves the stress we have from Harvey."
That stress still lingers for many who, more than two months after the disaster are living in hollowed-out houses or hotels, still without work.
Sykes, yelling and cheering with her flood support friends, said generally she is fearful of what will happen if FEMA decides not to issue another two-week extension of her hotel stay, fearful of where she will spend Thanksgiving and Christmas, fearful of how she will pick up the pieces of her life. But this opportunity to share in the joy of a World Series title is a form of therapy.
She isn't much to stand and shout, Sykes said as the game began — she would probably just sit and watch. But as the innings progressed and the crowd grew more inclined to stay on its feet, Sykes joined them. A smile tugged on her lips as she wrung her hands in anxious hopefulness.
"This win will transcend its value to sports," she said.
Fans poured out of Minute Maid Park chanting "Houston strong," a slogan for the hurricane recovery effort. Brass bands played in the street. People circled up just to jump for joy.
"Who's going to be late for work tomorrow?" bellowed one man's voice from the jam-packed street. The crowd answered with a deafening roar of affirmation.
Then someone struck up another chant of "Houston strong," and the crowd followed along.