Among the many disasters currently befalling America’s fourth largest city, and among the many more to come, there are also tales of exile. My sister, Christian Smith, told me hers Sunday night.
Her plane back to Houston, back to Lianna Garza, the woman she’s loved for eight years now, was diverted to Oklahoma City due to Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent flooding.
Her first thought was to rent a car and drive in to Houston before the flooding got too bad, but an employee at Enterprise foiled her plans, saying: “Oh honey, I’m not renting you a car if you’re driving to Texas.”
The earliest plane she could get into Houston leaves on Wednesday, so now she’s stuck in an OKC hotel with her eyes glued to the TV and her hand glued to the $9 beers they serve at the bar.
Monday afternoon, as weather stations were forecasting upwards of 50 inches of rain yet to fall, I called Lianna, who’s an attorney in Houston, to see what life was like on the ground. She was holed up with her two friends, Taylor Black and Gloria Levander, four dogs (Minnie, Hannah, Jigae, Zubu), a lot of foodstuffs, and an apartment humming with power. For now.
How did you find out about the storm?
Thursday is when it all went down. I had my morning coffee around 6:00 a.m. and read news about the upcoming tropical storm. They said the storm could hit Corpus, said it could turn into a hurricane—but nobody was sure about it. I had a huge day in court, and when I finally got out it was 4:00 p.m. and my phone was full of messages. My boss and I were like: We need to check the news.
As soon as I got home, Harvey was a Category 2 hurricane. By the time I settled myself, it was a Category 3. In a matter of hours, it got really, really bad.
What’d you do?!
I packed up the dogs, the dog food, a week’s worth of clothes, the three bug-out bags that Christian had been secretly preparing over the years…
Hah! You mean the stuff she’s been saving for the downfall of society?
Yes. The bags are full of flashlights, headlamps, extra batteries, knives, those LifeStraws that you let you drink any kind of water. She also stocked a large plastic bin with non-perishable foods—rice, beans, Spam, some tuna, mostly Spam.
Wow, okay, cool.
I packed all that up with six gallons of water and drove over to Gloria and Taylor’s place so we could be together. Nothing really serious happened to us on Friday. In the evening we were playing a board game.
But then Gloria wanted to move her car to a parking lot down the street. While she was gone there was a huge lighting strike and the power blew out. Gloria ran back here in pure panic, saying the lighting almost hit her.
She told me she said a prayer for the first time in 15 years: “I know I talk a lot of shit about you, but can you just please get me home safely?”
So then it was just a matter of turning on all the 120-hour candles that Christian provided, and preparing for the worst.
Holy shit. Wait—why did you decide to stay in town?
The mayor, Sylvester Turner, told everyone in Houston we could stay put. I was trusting him. You can’t do a mandatory evacuation of the fourth largest city in the U.S. People would end up stranded in the road. If you try to leave the city, you don’t know how long it'll take to get out. Other friends told me they sat in a car for 15 hours trying to get out last time they had to flee. Trying to get back into the city is even more an ordeal. I just thought—do I want to do that by myself and two dogs?
And I just sort of trusted that if I needed to get on my roof with an axe, I’d do it.
Why are you taking an axe up to your roof?
If you need to be rescued, they’ve been telling you to take an axe up to the attic, bust through the roof, and wave a colorful blanket or towel and they’ll come get you. They give you a number to call.
But you don’t need to be rescued.
No. After the power went out, we ate a meal in the dark and went to sleep. Saturday morning I called the electricity company and my neighbor, and they both confirmed we had power at our place and it wasn’t flooded. So we packed up and went back to my house.
When we turned on the news, we realized that 70 to 85 percent of Houston was under water.
That night, Saturday night, there were tornado warnings nonstop. Every 10 minutes my phone went off with a tornado warning. Everyone thought it wasn’t going to be bad at all. That was the night everyone went out to watch the [Mayweather and McGregor] fight and got stranded.
What's the flooding like near you?
We live between Buffalo Bayou and Highway 59. Luckily our road isn’t flooded a bit, but Downtown is just underwater. I’m seven minutes from downtown. Meyerland is fifteen minutes from me and it’s underwater. Everywhere around me is underwater, and I’m just thinking it’s just a matter of time. Forecasters keep saying it’s not over, that it's going to go back to the Gulf and return to hit us again. It’s been raining steady for at least the last 12 hours straight.
Are you buckling down for the coming rain?
I don’t think I’ll be leaving my house any time soon. At least not until the end of the week or the weekend. But even then, where am I going to go? Nothing’s going to be there.
Mostly I feel helpless. I’m keeping tabs on people who live around me, I’m donating money, but that’s all I feel like I can really do. I’ve extended my home to friends and family members, and also friends of friends. I don’t mind sheltering people as long as they’re cool.
But it’s one of those things where people are posting rescue requests on Facebook, and if I have friends with family members that are stranded, all I can do is just share that info and hopefully it will get to someone who can do something for them.
Monday morning I heard they’re releasing water from reservoirs that surround you, which might prevent uncontrolled flooding in other neighborhoods at the expense of yours.
I woke up to that news.
The flooding’s gotten a little worse, but our neighborhood has a great drainage system, so we’ve been able to stay dry. I’ve been keeping an eye on the grates to make sure water can flow. If I see any debris I move it out of the way. Hah—there’s a woman who’s jogging outside right now, getting her daily run in.
But honestly, I’m prepared for all our shit to get ruined. There’s no way our place isn’t going to get flooded. Luckily it hasn’t come to that. It’s been a miracle. But it’s also kinda scary because I don’t know what life is going to be like after this.
It’s okay. We got a 1,000-piece puzzle. We watched a couple movies. We caught up on Game of Thrones.
Earlier today we had cabin fever, so we took a trip to the store to pick up some board games and booze. The lines were around the corner. They’re making people wait in the rain. They’re understaffed, and I think they want to prevent looting. The wait looked like it’d be 30 mins to an hour-and-a-half.
I bought a bottle of vodka, a carton of cigarettes, and three cases of Topo Chico.
Do you have firearms?
I do have a firearm just in case someone tries to come and take my puppies and my supplies.
What’s breaking your heart on social media?
There’s been lot of home owners who didn’t even bother to unchain their dogs from trees and poles. Seeing all the animals being carried through the water looking scared is heartbreaking.
And of course it’s sad to hear about the fatalities. There was a woman who had a tree fall on her trailer home. Someone else drowned. Last night or the night before a woman was found floating down the road. Shit’s scary. But watching strangers rescue people has been encouraging. They’re heroes.
What’s been pissing you off on social media?
That Joel Osteen was refusing to open his church doors for use as a shelter! His church is maybe seven minutes from me, and it could fit 16,000 people in it. If my place is not under water, I can’t imagine that his huge ass building isn’t similarly situated. I went on his Facebook to page to see if he was doing anything, and when I was scrolling down his posts I just saw a bunch of prayers.
But mostly people have been very generous. The owner of a nearby furniture gallery opened his entire business as a shelter. People from all over the country are coming in with their own boats and rescuing people. Caiti said she’s coming Thursday as a volunteer firefighter. [Eds note: Caiti is my other sister who lives in Missouri.] She’s bringing a boat, and she might bring Christian.
Really!? Hah! Oh my god, I can totally see that. Caiti drives her truck into Houston, and Christian captains a boat all the way to you, the crew, and the dogs. How is Christian doing with all this, anyway?
I talk to her as often as I can. We’re just trying to keeping each other sane.
Before the storm she'd already been traveling for two weeks! So I haven’t seen her in three weeks now. Going through all of this without my partner in life has been hard.
Update: Christian got a flight into Austin, TX today. She'll try to drive into Houston from there on Friday. My sister, Caiti Repola, and a group of volunteer firefighters from Missouri will leave for Houston on Friday as well.
Meanwhile, if you want to help, the New Yorker's Jia Tolentino has a good thread with a list of places to donate:
Houston is a sprawling, underestimated, bewilderingly huge city with a lot of really vulnerable populations & a scrappy, wonderful heart
— Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino) August 27, 2017