I have covered as many as five wars on two continents, but nothing prepared me for when the big story collided with me and my family.
As I write this, the home that I saved my entire career to buy is flooding fast and my wife, Paola, our 12-year-old daughter, Emilie, and I have moved to the second floor with some of our valuables, food, water, and of course our 3-year-old cockapoo, Sweetie, who is now barking frantically out of fear. It’s only a matter of time before our piano is ruined. One of our cars looks completely flooded, and the other is blocked in the garage, so it looks like we will be staying put for a while.
There is nowhere to drive anyway.
My daughter just got an alert on her phone telling us to take shelter for a possible tornado. We are ready to go to an interior closet if necessary.
For the moment, I don’t think we are in any danger, and the three of us are keeping calm, gaining strength from the sturdiness of our neighbors.
We are the lucky ones. As I looked out my window this morning, I saw the local Fire Department arrive to take away pregnant women and others trapped in their homes. My quiet Mildred Street is now a raging river, and the emergency medical workers are using kayaks to transport people to their truck. I can hear honking car horns in the distance, which is adding an eerie staccato backdrop to the driving rain pounding our windows.
I live in a compact, two-story, four-bedroom brick house in a leafy community called Bellaire that is full of medical personnel who work nearby at the Houston Medical Center and other professionals. It’s an area of lovely parks where people typically have young children and dogs, and dog walking is the social glue that keeps people talking and knowing one another. It also has an active email social media platform, which is normally full of advice about where to find a good piano teacher or gardener. Today it is full of messages of struggle and support. Most people are displaying a stiff upper lip. Others seem distraught, especially those with young children. Some are urgently asking for canoes to get out of their homes or to help neighbors do so.
Above all, the messages show that all of our lives are going to be different for a while. Probably a long while.
“We live on Pamellia Drive & the house is now completely flooded,” one neighbor wrote in a typical post Sunday morning, with no end in sight for the rain. “We have animals but we are willing to split up (3 with one person, 3 with the other) in the event that we need to evacuate or can no longer stay here. Any recommendations?”
Another woman wrote, “We have an 18 month old … anyone willing to let us into their 2 story home? Thank you so much.”
Our community is nothing but neighborly, and even people in trouble seem to be thinking of others. When another neighbor’s house filled with a foot of water, her gas chimney suddenly caught fire. Fortunately her son hurried downstairs to turn off the gas knob. She took the time to write, “If you have a gas chimney and are starting to flood please turn your gas off to prevent fire!”
I called one close friend, Angela Watts, early in the morning, and I was amazed how brave she was as she explained that she, her daughter and dog were hunkered down on the second floor after water started pouring into her house. “There’s nothing I can do. I’m upstairs,” she said. “I’m thinking the water will just keep coming in. We have our food upstairs, and water too. We can’t go anywhere.”
I found the conversation upsetting, but 15 minutes later we were in exactly the same situation. Now there is 6 inches of water in our house and at least a foot outside.
I have managed to salvage my Persian rug and hope that hangings and art that I have collected over the years will be safe. Funny how you sometimes think of relatively unimportant things in an emergency, but these things are like the museum pieces of my life. One of our toilets is backed up, but we’ll have to manage since the local sewage system seems to be completely backed up. We expect to lose our power any time.
After initially panicking a bit, the three of us got hold of ourselves and got to work. Paola cooked all our meat, figuring it is going to spoil anyway and we are bound to get hungry. Emilie and I filled garbage bags with our plentiful collection of classical and jazz CDs. I wrapped up a beautiful antique lamp I inherited from my father. Emilie salvaged a few bottles of wine, vermouth and gin, knowing I’m probably going to get thirsty for more than water and juice. We laughed together, as we focused on survival mode. This is a character-building moment for her, and so I need to keep calm and be a good, fatherly example.
We just lost our electricity.
And the weather forecast is for at least two more days of rain. Outside my window, the houses on the street look like sinking ships. And along with taking care of my family, it’s hard not to worry about my ability to continue to cover a story with enormous consequences for the city where I live, for the national economy and perhaps for consideration of climate change.
Around 12:30 p.m. the rain suddenly stopped. But our electricity and hardline telephone are out. We are not sure whether the water is safe to drink from our tap. And I hear that another wave of rain is on the way, and another, and another for the next couple of days. It’s going to be a long week.