state of emergency
crisis response in texas
|Hannah Smothers||Feb 20|
I was a sophomore in high school when Hurricane Ike hit. It was a Saturday. Our cross country meet got canceled. All night long, friends texted me pictures of branches that had come in through their ceilings and of rain coming in through broken windows. The power flickered and stayed out for 10 days. On Sunday morning it was clear enough to survey the damage. Tree branches filled the swimming pool we had in our yard, the water already going green and murky. The front yard was covered in debris. I traced the flood line of pine needles and twigs up and down our street, only halfway up each lawn.
School was canceled for the week. All our cell phones died. We had one small generator that we used to keep a single oscillating fan going. It was September in Houston and the temperature inside the house topped 85. We took turns in front of the fan. We took cold showers and slept with the windows open, the sound of generators filling our rooms with mechanical white noise. The only reprieve was a cool front that mercifully showed up midweek, proof of God. We kept what we could save from our fridge in a huge cooler that we only opened three times per day. I ate countless sandwiches and bowls of ravioli I boiled on the gas stovetop.
My brother and I tore the sleeves off of all our T-shirts and cleaned yards. Sometime in the middle of the week, two of my friends walked four miles to my house to help us clean out the pool. I still don’t know how they knew. We wandered around like this, showed up unannounced, lifted branches, cleared yards, sweated, helped each other. It was just what you did after a hurricane—you found your way to those who’d come out worse.
The death toll of the past week’s winter storm is already at 47 and climbing. Hurricane Ike killed 86; Harvey killed 107. It’s likely the fatalities from this storm will be higher. The snow outside on the sidewalks is still melting, and tonight is the first in a week that won’t dip below freezing.
Everyone I know—Texan and non—is donating to mutual aid groups around the state right now. A guide to Texas mutual aid groups that my friend Emily made has been shared online by strangers and influencers and celebrities, many of whom have no tie to the state at all. Extant groups in major cities like Houston and Dallas have received tens of thousands of dollars that they then donated portions of to new groups popping up in smaller cities, like San Marcos, that never had them before. It’s been an incredible and heartbreaking thing to see.
It’s also, to Texans, not surprising. As my friend Caitlin Cruz writes in an essay for The New Republic, “The state turned away from us; we turned toward each other… It’s a beautiful thing born of an ugly thing.” That’s how it’s always been. The only difference this time is, after a year of every level of government abandoning its people, mutual aid groups are much more visible and organized. Before, we just had “neighbors” and, in Houston, Mattress Mack. The groups in Texas, filled with people who are themselves stuck without power and safe drinking water, have provided the only help most people have seen all week. The simple demands for heat, water, and food couldn’t be met by those in charge, those who hold both power and contempt, so neighbors turned to neighbors. It’s what we do. It’s what we’ve always done.
I was in seventh grade in 2005, a record-breaking year for hurricanes. Less than a month after Hurricane Katrina rearranged the coastline of Louisiana and my school gained a slew of new students, another category-five hurricane, Hurricane Rita, formed its spiral in the Gulf. Fearing the same level of devastation to the Texas coast that Louisiana experienced, state officials called for a mass evacuation. More than three million people fled their taped- and boarded-up homes.
The first problem was panic. So many people—many of them under mandatory evacuation orders from state and local government—tried to leave that they got stuck on the highways and interstates. By the time Jefferson County—a can-shaped county that stretches from the coast up to Beaumont, just east of Houston—started its mandatory evacuation, the roads were filled up with escaping Houstonians. Traffic for hundreds of miles was at a standstill as the storm steadily worked its way toward land. Local officials issued a confusing change of course; “Stay home if you think you can weather it,” they said, “It’s better than getting stuck on the roads.”
The second problem was the heat wave. Temperatures on the Texas coast’s gridlocked roads ranged between 90 and 118 degrees, due to all the engines running and the heat-trapping nature of concrete. People feared they’d run out of gas before they got anywhere, and accordingly turned their air conditioning off. The Houston Chronicle estimated that 107 people—including a bus full of 23 nursing home evacuees—died while trying to evacuate. Ultimately the storm caused minor damage and was much less severe than weather officials and state leaders anticipated. There was no storm surge in Texas, as feared. Seven people died as a direct result of the storm.
Texas officials knew a week like the one we’ve had—a week in which people died of hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, and fires in their homes and on their streets—could happen. They did nothing in their power to prevent it. There’s no stopping the weather, but there is preparing for it. Or, as it routinely goes in Texas, there’s responding to it after the weather comes through and does its damage. Only after the devastation caused by the evacuation orders for Hurricane Rita did the state reform its evacuation plan, adding more contraflow and designated evacuation lanes.
Surely something will come of the massive failures by ERCOT in Texas this past week. The governor has made the useless gesture of calling for an investigation; a classic pass-the-buck move that Texans have come to expect. Will whatever reform occurs be enough to avoid statewide devastation, which reportedly almost happened, the next time the state finds itself in wide-scale environmental danger?
I was home in Houston when Hurricane Harvey hit. I flew back from New York a few days before; within the few hours of my flight, the tropical storm just outside the Gulf became a hurricane and the bathing suits I packed in my suitcase became useless. It was just me and my mom, shoring up the house. The weather in the days leading up was beautiful, the sun on full wattage, not a cloud in the sky. It seemed impossible that, in a few days, everything we could see out our windows would be underwater. The sky turns green in warning before a tornado but stays perfectly blue before a hurricane. The effect is haunting.
Like we did before Rita and Ike, we kept the TV tuned to the weather report day in and day out. Ted Oberg took his usual station on the Galveston Seawall, the brown water behind him whipping and thrashing, the sky above going that certain shade of black. We filled the car with gas. We bought what food was left at the HEB. We hunkered down. Stubborn residents along the coast who’d gotten stuck in the Rita evacuations stood their ground and newscasters asked them why. The storm tore up the coast, ripped apart their houses, and then, as we all now know, squatted over Houston. The water in my mom’s street swallowed up the bottom half of a car and teased its way up the slope of her lawn. We watched from the windows. The power flickered and died; Ted Oberg’s reassuring face disappeared from the TV.
That was only the beginning. The rainfall in Houston was so significant that local officials made the decision to begin releasing the dams before they failed, a lesson learned over a decade earlier during Tropical Storm Allison, a storm that stalled over Houston and dumped torrential rainfall for nearly a week. In anticipation of the dam’s release, which had previously flooded the part of Houston where we live severely, we dug a trench around the house, moved valuables to the tops of tall tables, and packed up things that truly couldn’t be lost in my mom’s car and left. We navigated the flooded back way to Austin, where the weather was sunny and clear. When we drove back home days later, the flood line was knocking at my mom’s front door, but never passed inside. We were one of a handful of streets in the neighborhood to have avoided floodwater in our homes.
The neighbors piled the insides of their houses in their soggy front laws. Insulation and drywall and furniture was piled high along almost every block. The smell was like rancid potpourri, the odor of everyone’s stuff and the dirty water mingling in the hot September air. Neighbors went around dropping off lemonade and cookies to each other. People lived in the top floors of their houses or with friends who hadn’t flooded. At night, people sat in chairs on their lawn and took a break from looking at their rotting homes. We went on long, hot walks and found people to help. We found our way to each other.