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Water water everywhere: My Harvey story

Usually after a big storm I would write some kind of meteorological recap on what just happened. I realize that I am a couple of hurricanes late with a write up on Harvey but I decided to take a different direction with this storm.  I don’t think anyone cares to read about the atmospheric processes which brought such devastation and heartache to our city. Instead in this “recap” I am going to share my personal Harvey story as a timeline of events.

Though I am a weather enthusiast I have for the most part only experienced history making weather events from the sidelines.  I was supposed to be at Tulane in New Orleans when Katrina hit, and was here for Allison, Memorial Day, and Tax Day (I was in college in Austin for Ike) but I was never truly a “victim” of those storms (The Memorial Day Flood occurred the weekend before my wedding but fortunately only caused minor issues. I also had to spend a semester at UT while Tulane was repaired after Katrina).  Harvey was different – Harvey came for my home, Harvey made me a statistic, and in a way Harvey changed how I view my relationship with meteorology.

Before I get into my story I first want to state that I am not looking for and do not want sympathy, the problems Harvey brought into my life are minuscule in comparison to the issues and suffering many of our fellow Houstonians are experiencing. There are people who need far more help than I do. I want to write this story though because as hard as the experience has been I never want forget it, and I also feel like there are so many others who can relate and maybe, just maybe, feel like they aren’t alone in their troubles.

Although the Harvey saga began on Friday August 25th I am going to begin this story on Saturday morning, around the time I began writing what would be my final Houston Sports & Stuff Harvey update.

Saturday 10 am. After Harvey’s first round of heavy rains the previous night the radar had cleared up and I wanted to get out of the house.  I had checked the models again and the story remained the same as it had been all week, a ton of rain was coming.  My wife and I decided to head over to the bagel shop a few blocks from our house to grab some breakfast.  On the way over there we saw people running, walking, and pushing strollers along the Braes Bayou trail like it was a totally normal day. The bayou was already very high from the rains the previous night.

Saturday Noon. My wife is now about an hour into another Gossip Girl binge on Netflix (she’s been watching it for weeks now, and surprisingly there is only so much Blake Lively a man can take), and I am finishing up my Harvey update for Houston Sports and Stuff.  At this point I had seen numerous people on social media declaring Harvey a bust as it had not flooded the previous night. Computer models continued to show a major rain event beginning later in the day or evening and I emphasize in my post to not let your guard down. Friday night was only a brief preview, Harvey’s Houston showcase had not yet arrived.

Saturday 4 pm.  Gossip Girl has now been on my TV for about 5 hours. These supposed high-school kids are dealing with more adult problems than I do at 30 years old. I’m bursting with nervous energy so I decide to make some banana bread with some week-old bananas we have laying around.  We’re out of eggs so I take the opportunity to head to the grocery and get out of the house.  There were surprisingly few people at the store, I figured there would be a ton of last minute shoppers. Either everyone got what they needed or they were assuming the storm was over.

Saturday 5:30 pm. Banana bread is done.  My wife dumped a whole bag of chocolate chips in the batter.  Delicious.  Computer models have updated again and the forecast has not improved.  I send out another weather update to my family telling them not to be lulled into a false sense of security by the lack of action during the day. A historic event is likely on the way.

Saturday 6 pm.  The radar is starting to get active again with a growing feeder-band to our southwest.  My in-laws ask if we want to grab dinner since the weather has been pretty good so far.  Everyone is going stir-crazy at home.  After watching the movement of that band I determine we have about an hour and a half until it gets to us.

Saturday  6:30 pm.  No decision on dinner has been made.  The band is starting to look particularly nasty.  A strip of bright red is now showing on the radar- like an open knife-wound. I decide we are out of time to go anywhere for dinner.   Intense areas of lightning begin showing up on radar, an indication that it is getting stronger. Given that Harvey had already been a prolific tornado producer the previous night I begin to get concerned tornadoes may become an issue as this band rotates through the area.

Saturday 7 pm.  It suddenly gets markedly darker outside and the wind begins picking up.  The first tornado warning on this line of storms is issued and although the warning is not for us my nerves are getting the best of me. Unable to sit still I begin pacing around the house ipad in hand trying to extrapolate how much time we have until the storm gets to us.   I tell my wife there is a real possibility we will have to get into a closet if this band continues intensifying.

Saturday 7:15 pm. The energy spent pacing gets redirected to preparing one of our closets to be a tornado shelter.  Although a tornado warning has not been issued for our area yet, I can see multiple areas of rotation beginning to show up on radar.  I grab flashlights, a couple bottles of water, a chew stick and leash for the dog, and pillows from our bed and shove them in the closet. As soon as I finish my phone starts making that horrible weather alert sound. The tornado warning I had been preparing for is issued.

Saturday 7:20 pm. The actual rotation for which the tornado warning was issued is still about 30 minutes away from us, though moving in our direction.  All day my in-laws had been asking if we wanted to stay at their house so we didn’t have to worry about being stuck incase the water rose too high.  Our house had never flooded before in the 60+ years of its existence and I wanted to believe that fact would remain true after this storm, though I will admit I was still a bit nervous. Looking back, I can’t tell you why we didn’t just go earlier in the day. At this point the problem was that their house, which is only about 5 minutes away, was just as much in the path of the potential tornado as ours was.  I was tempted to break the cardinal rule of tornado warnings – do not try to out run the tornado.  I figured we had enough time to get in the car and drive out of the path of the rotation and then drive back to my in-law’s house after the tornado passed.  My wife talked some sense into me and convinced me that was a bad idea.  We called my parents, my in-laws, and my wife’s brother and his family (all not far from us) and told them all to be prepared to get into their tornado spot.  As this was going on the rain began falling. This was the beginning of the city’s decent into Harvey’s hell.

Saturday 7:40 pm. I was intently watching the radar hoping that the area of rotation would either weaken or begin deviating from its trajectory which was on putting it right over our house.  By 7:40 it had done neither and I made the call that it was time to get in the closet. We call our family members and tell them to do the same. I had my wife put on her tennis shoes (so she wouldn’t be walking barefoot in the event there was damage), I grabbed the dog, and we pulled the comforter off our bed and took it into the closet to cover ourselves.

Saturday 7:45 pm.  In the closet I continued watching the radar to give updates to the rest of my family who my wife had on speaker phone.  Once the rotation got within a few miles of us a debris signature showed up on radar; a sign that there was indeed a tornado on the ground causing some kind of damage. We pulled the comforter over our bodies and waited.  Although it was less than 10 minutes it seemed like forever.  The closet we were in did not have an air vent and it got very hot very fast, especially with a heavy comforter covering us.  As the rotation approached it began to skirt off to the west and ended up missing us by a couple of miles.  Very sweaty, we came out of the closet and were greeted by the sound of roaring rain. During the short time we were in the closet it had been raining so hard that our street filled to the point that driving would have likely been impossible.

Saturday 8:15 pm. Finally Gossip Girl was off the TV the news was on.  We saw that the tornado we had been hiding from did indeed touch down and ripped open a shopping center in Missouri City.  Though the tornado missed us the time spent hiding from it cost us our window to leave and stranded us at our house.

Saturday 8:30 pm – Sunday 3am.  Everything during this period became a blur.  The band that came in with the tornado warning and torrential rain grew to cover the whole city and just kept redeveloping overhead.   Eventually we got in bed but I never slept.  News reports started coming in of water entering peoples houses so quickly that they had to escape into their attics.  All night eyes were darting between the radar, the news on TV, and the website showing the rising level of Braes Bayou which is about 5 blocks from my house.

Sunday 3 am – A break in the rain finally came. I went to look out in my front yard and found that the water was about halfway up my front yard which was as high as it got during the Tax Day flood. I laid back down and fell asleep for maybe 30 minutes.

Sunday 3:30 am. I woke up from my brief nap and didn’t hear any rain. I looked at the radar and saw another heavy band developing and moving in but thought this break had given my street a chance to recede.  As I walked to the window I had hope that maybe we were going to make it out of this alright.  I pulled opened the blinds and almost threw up.  The water had actually risen during this time and was now lapping at my front porch. I went back to the bedroom with the sickest feeling I have ever felt, woke my wife up, and told her it was time to start moving our belongings.

Sunday 4:30 am. The jet engine roar of heavy rain had begun again.  We finished moving our most important items away from the floor – wedding albums, pictures, and small furniture we could lift and put on counters. I shoved some towels against the bottom of the front door. We got back in bed turned on the TV and waited for the water to arrive.

Sunday 5:30 am.  We begin hearing bubbling sounds coming from our toilets. Every few minutes we would hear “Bloop-Bloop”. Water was not inside yet, but this was the surest sign it would be soon.

Sunday 6:00 am.  I got up to check the status of the water again. I walked into the playroom which faces our backyard and stepped in a puddle.  I went back in the bedroom to tell my wife the water had arrived but when I got back in there I saw water seeping up from the floor in every corner.  I walked back out into the living room and saw tendrils of water oozing across the floor from every direction.  Towels were not going to solve this problem.

Sunday 6:45 am. Water continues to seep up from below.  It is now up to the top of our baseboards, almost to the sheetrock.  Once it got to the sheetrock I decided it was time to go to the breaker box and shut off the power to avoid electrical issues with the water.  I opened the back door and realized the water was a good 6 inches higher outside than it was in the house. When I opened the door I watched all kinds of dirt, debris, and bugs stream into the house.  I closed it quickly, walked in almost knee deep water to the breaker box and shut off the power.

Sunday 7 am.  The dull glow of daylight starts to come through our windows so thankfully the house isn’t completely dark but it is silent.  We have piled our bags to escape with, food, medicine, and our dog on the bed.  The dog slept through all of this. She was still snoring away.  The silence was only broken by the popping sounds of our submerged wood floors expanding due to the water and the bubbling sounds of water continuing to seep in.  Not knowing how high the water would get I put in a call to 911.  Someone answered after a few minutes and told us they would get to us when they could but not to climb in our attic. I start trying to figure out how we would get on our roof if we had to. My wife pulled open the blinds in our bedroom and the world outside was just grey. Grey sky and grey water was all we could see in every direction. I called the insurance company and filed my claim right then and there.

Water everywhere

The grey world we saw when we opened the blinds on Sunday morning.

Sunday 7:30 am.  After calling 911 a few more times a friend calls me and tells me a friend of his who lives couple of blocks away has their house built up high and we are welcome if we can get there.  My wife sends me outside to assess the possibility of walking…or rather wading.  I open the front door and again more water pours in.  Not 3 feet from my front door the water is already over my knees.  I look around and see people about 4 houses down and across the street standing on the porch of a raised house.  They wave to me. I walked towards them and they yell for me to come over there.   I walked back inside and told my wife we had a place to go.  She moved as fast as I have ever seen her move and shoved everything she could in a backpack and jumped off the bed.  I grabbed 2 trash bags and stuffed them with whatever other items I could find that we may possibly need.  We grabbed the dog, held her high and walked out the front door.  I tried to snag a green recycling bin floating by so that my wife could hold on to it for balance since the water was moving pretty swiftly down our street but she was having none of that. She didn’t care if we had to breaststroke our way down the street, we were getting to that house.  We started walking from our house, staying as high up in the yards as we could but the water was still almost waist deep.  We made it to the corner and carefully stepped down off the curb into what would be the street.  The water was now chest deep on my wife. We shuffled our feet across the street against the current flowing towards Braes Bayou and finally made it to the other side after what seemed like an eternity.  We climbed the steps of our neighbor’s house and were thankfully greeted with towels.  Our neighbors had already taken in about 10 other people from the block at this point.

Sunday 9:00 am.  Our neighbors have now taken in a few other families and the headcount in the house is close to 20 people plus 4 dogs.  To this point we had never met the people in whose house we were now in, nor had we met many of the neighbors who sought refuge there with us. But here we were all sitting around the living room watching rescues on TV as if we were all longtime friends.

Sunday 10:30 am.  The sound of helicopters becomes very loud.  Everyone in the house piles out onto the porch and sees 4 low flying rescue helicopters swarm into the neighborhood. One stops and hovers not 50 or 60 feet above my house down the street.  The wind from the propeller sends waves crashing into the side of my house, rips shingles off the roof of the house next door, and causes the big branches of the oak tree in my back yard to violently shake.  I am thinking that on top of my house being flooded this helicopter is now going to send the tree through my roof. I am wondering if they were coming to answer the call my wife and I put in a few hours earlier, but then I see the woman who lived next door come out of her house and motion to the helicopter. A crew member from the chopper quickly descends on a rope, ties up the woman and hoists her up.  This scene was repeated a number of times in following half hour at homes all around us.  I could not believe I was watching this happen on my street.  After this point I really don’t remember much from the rest of the day. Everyone in the house just kind of milled around in a daze all day.

Helicopter over house

Picture I took of a rescue helicopter hovering over my house.

Sunday 8 pm.  My wife and I have blown up an air mattress on the floor of our neighbor’s home office.  We find out that my brother-in-law and his family who live less than a mile away were able to get out of their house in his off-road jeep and make it to a family member’s house in Bellaire.  The water was still too high for him to get down to our street but he said he would try again first thing in the morning.  It felt good to at least have an escape plan, even though we weren’t sure if it would work since I knew more rain was coming.

Monday 6 am.  We awake to see it is still raining but the water has gone down to just slightly above curb level where we are.  My brother-in-law calls and says he was able to make it within 3 blocks of us but the water was too high down there for him to go any further.  We re-pack our garbage bags and begin walking.  We eventually make it to his car, soaked from the rain and from walking through more knee deep water, and are whisked off to an aunt and uncle’s house in Bellaire where we are finally re-united with family.

All told we ended up with about 8 inches of water in our house – peanuts compared to the multiple feet many others received.  We are fortunate that we were able to save everything that could not be replaced and that we have family to stay with. I have already decided that when we move back in I am buying a kayak. Though I hope I never have to use it, if the time comes I am going to get my family out and then go back for as many people as I can because I don’t want anyone else to experience that feeling of being trapped in rising water if I can help it.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this story Harvey also had an effect on my weather enthusiasm.  I will admit that immediately following the storm I was burnt out on the weather. I could not bring myself to look at the radar, the forecast, or any computer models for days following Harvey. In fact, I didn’t even realize Irma had formed until it was already a hurricane. But that exhaustion faded away and I was hit with a new passion for the subject. Now more than ever I am contemplating getting a formal university certification in meteorology. Not just because I love the subject, but because I see it as a way I can contribute to my community.  I want to better be able to help people understand weather events and guide them through sometimes scary situations so they can make the best decisions for their safety and property.

Harvey an its waters took an immeasurable amount from us – our homes, our possessions, and our sense of security –  but despite that I contend it brought about Houston’s finest hour. This storm brought out so much good in this city and I have never been prouder to be a Houstonian.

 

Tweet to or follow me @stephenuzick

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