by Juliana Holcombe
Hurricane Harvey Experience
Living in Houston, you are prepared for storms. Hurricane shopping is a comfortable thing to me - the flashlights, the batteries, water and canned food. We have done it countless times in our family, and always feel as prepared as you can be. My family lives on Buffalo Bayou near downtown, so we have experienced trees down, twisters off the water, and no power for weeks on end. What we never thought we had to prepare for was water in our house.
Harvey was in the Gulf and turning, the rain had begun, and we were hunkered and prepared. Tuna and cans of soup filled the kitchen, flashlights in every room ready in case they were needed, and all cell phones charged and gas tanks filled in the cars.
The house where we were has been my parent's home for 45 years. I grew up in this home, and time had basically not touched it. My father's health had been declining, so I decided to stay at the house to help wherever I could. As we settled in for the night, news on and nerves ramping up, we thought we would get some rain and Harvey would move on down the coast. We had no idea what we were preparing to see when the sun rose.
I walked into the master bedroom which looks down onto the Bayou, and saw the look on my Mom's face in fear. "It's never been this high", she said. But being the optimist, I hugged her and comforted her saying it's all going to be OK. Then I looked outside. The bayou which typically sits 50 feet down three levels of ground in our backyard, was a mere three inches from the backdoor of the house. Never in their time or my time in this house had it ever come anywhere close to this level. And it was still raining. And raining. And raining.
Thinking of preparing just in case, I decided we could load up my parents and the animals in my car out front and drive to my apartment around 2 miles away, since I was on the third floor there and we could stay dry. We went out front to load my car, and the water was on the front porch, and two feet into my car. Our home was now an island. At that moment, optimism needed to be replaced with realism, a plan needed to be made to save us from the unknown.
We spoke with our neighborhood patrol who knows my father's recent health decline, and his inability to walk. They said that all the phone lines for 911 were down. There was no way to reach the city for a boat evacuation. They said a few neighbors may have boats, and if they can find someone they will call us and let us know. The water crept closer.
We moved Dad to the highest part of the house, as we are in a split level one story home, so three steps up may have been the difference we needed. Mom and I then began to gather things we may need. All important documents, medicine, clothes for a night or two, passports and wallets, etc. I was walking into the bedroom to grab one more thing when I looked to my right as a wave of water came rushing down. I turned the other way and was met with the carpet raising 3 feet in the air with water underneath it. The water was inside. I never could have imagined what I was seeing.
I began getting things off the floor and placing them on beds and couches - from paintings to rugs to guitars, Mom and I moved quickly and quietly as a team throughout the house, still not realizing the full effect of what was happening, and getting ready to happen.
The water was rising. What was inches within minutes turned to a foot. Then two feet. Then the phone rang. It was the neighborhood patrol saying a neighbor had a boat and was coming to get us. They said it is a small boat, so we could only bring ourselves and a small bag and the pets, two cats and a dog.
Moments later, four policeman were pulling a boat onto what was at one time our front porch. That porch was now a canal to safety. These amazing strangers carried my father to the boat and lowered him in, while the kind neighbor who had risked his life and left his family to help us, held the boat steady.
They loaded our small bags of everything we managed to grab and save, then my Mom and her dog waded through the feet of water to get into the boat. I was last with the cats, we locked the door, and sat in shock as the boat went over our front yard and past my car to get us off of the street. At the end of the street there was a truck waiting for us. I told the policeman where my apartment was if he could get us there, and he responded "your street is not there anymore". We were able to get to a hotel taking in evacuees, where we settled in to our new room for our indefinite stay.
Surely it would be a night then the rain would stop. The first night came and went. The second night gone. After three very long nights of not knowing what we would come home to, we were able to get to our house.
Walking into the front door, everything had changed. The water line was over three feet high. The furniture had changed rooms, shifted positions. While the furniture pieces were the same, the knowing that they were lost set in. Everything below four feet in the house was gone. My great grandparent's furniture. My father's grand piano. Drawers and drawers of memories, pictures, and item's held on to in our 45 years in this house were gone.
You tell yourself, they are just things. You remind yourself "we are safe and will be fine" constantly. And you begin to rebuild. You have no choice but to move forward, when what is behind you is gone. You have to choose to be positive, even though you are letting go of cherished memories. You take pictures, put on your gloves and mask, and begin to throw it all away.
With the help of friends and volunteers, the house was empty in days. Our contractor had begun to demo the walls and remove the floors, and as he did, we all moved everything to the front yard. The pile of belongings in the front yard grew with each day- headboards, mattresses, clothes, shoes, appliances, and furniture. In this pile, sat items my parent's had collected over their 45 years of marriage and travel. In this pile sat furniture passed down through at least three generations that we know of. Looking in this pile, your heart would hurt. If you knew the significance of each piece like my Mom did, your heart would hurt seeing her see them lying there.
A few days after the storm, I was in the front yard and noticed two people in a car that said DPR Art Rescue on the side. They were admiring a piece in the pile of our front yard, the gorgeous intricately carved wood leg and red fabric seat piano bench to my Dad's grand piano. My father, almost 90 years old and at that time in the hospital after the storm, is a musician. He owned a piano and organ store, and was a longtime piano teacher, so this was indeed a special piece to us. It had been soaked in the flood, filled with the water, banged around against walls during the surge of water, and ultimately placed in the pile in the front yard thinking it could not be saved.
I approached the people in the front yard, as they asked if we were going to throw it out. I said we were but if they would like it they could have it. I asked about what they do, and they told me they were with DPR Art Rescue and traveled to Houston to see if they could help. I showed them a few pieces I knew were special to Mom, and they were going to pull an estimate for me. Then my Mom came home.
She asked them about a specific chair that belonged to her Grandmother and maybe reached longer into our family from there. It is a beautiful and special piece, as she can still picture it in her Grandmother's home in Cameron, Texas almost 80 years ago. The team said they would include that in their estimate, we shook hands, and off they went.
Moments later, I received a phone call from April letting me know that they would like to refinish the piano bench for my Dad and the chair for my Mom. The kindness of her heart extended through the phone, and hope that had been lost was quickly restored. The idea that with everything gone and everything having to be replaced, we would still be able to open the front door to see some familiarity was an amazing feeling. April picked up the pieces with a hug and happy tears from us, and off they drove to Chicago.
The renovation continued. The struggles with contractors and insurance and health affected by stress continued, but we kept moving forward. New walls then new floors. New furniture. New home. A few months later, the phone rang, and April was ready to bring part of our old home into our newly repaired home.
She drove the pieces down personally, and delivered them to my parents. My father had his piano bench back in his room where he could see it every day and remember his art, his life, and his legacy. My mother had a piece of her family history back in her home, close to her heart. The pieces were more beautiful than ever. April and her team had reached out about colors and the rooms the pieces they would be in. They were familiar but even more beautiful and special. They were saved. They were home.