The following is a part of a series of profiles of U of R students who were in someway affected by the Hurricanes that hit the United States at the end of the summer. For more background on the devastating hurricanes and their consequential damage across our nation, please read “A Summer of Hurricanes: Context for Stories of Those Affected.”
Anna Walton flew from her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, for a visit to Woodlands, Texas, a suburb of Houston where her friend Brandon Leavitt lives. Her plan was to take an end of summer road trip back to the University of Redlands with fellow U of R Sophomore Leavitt. They soon realized that Hurricane Harvey would hit as they planned to leave.
“Our week and a half in Texas turned into, ‘Okay we’re going to have to get ready for a hurricane.’” They stayed in Texas at the request of Leavitt’s mother, as his dad was out of town, and she didn’t want to be alone in the storm with his younger sisters and dogs to look after.
Even if they had planned to leave earlier, according to Walton, “The road we were going to take was completely flooded, so we would have had to take a different route. The highways were flooded, and we couldn’t go through the middle of Houston at all.”
When they explained that they were going to be late for the start of the semester, professors were very accommodating. Professors realized that in this time of disaster, it is more important to make sure that everyone’s family is safe rather than risking a flooded drive to school to make it on time for the start of class.
Harvey was Walton’s first experience in a Hurricane.
“I’m from Minnesota so all we get is snowstorms, so moving to the South, I had never been in a hurricane or earthquake before,” Walton said. “It was kind of scary. My parents were like, ‘Oh I didn’t know we were sending you to all of these natural disasters.’”
She continued, “It was definitely a really different environment. With snow storms you know that you’re going to get out within a couple days, you lose power, but we have wood stoves. If you lose power in the South, you don’t have A/C and its going to be really hot.”
The water rose quickly, as Walton explained.
“We were watching people’s snapchat stories and as the time goes by the water was getting closer and closer to their houses,” she said. “The water abruptly stopped having risen steadily, and fortunately did not flood Leavitt’s home.”
However, their pool flooded, which was a concern as the water from the pool could have potentially seeped into their house. The backyard fence was also knocked over from the rush of water, letting the dogs out in the process. They were forced to chase the dogs down and bring them back inside. Although the fence needed to be repaired, they pointed out that no one was doing that kind of work during the storm.
“People take the hurricanes very seriously, even if it isn’t as bad as you anticipated, there’s after effects of the storm. My house didn’t lose power this year,” Leavitt said, as he was fortunate not to have been as severely affected as he was in past storms.
“Hurricanes are a thing down there,” he explained. “It was my third one in the last twelve years. Even when I was younger, we had [Hurricane] Rita and felt the effects of it because all of the people from New Orleans were coming through. Then we had [Hurricanes] Katrina and Ike, and now Harvey. Ike was a big one that hit my community more directly. We had water in the streets and people were kayaking down my street,” Leavitt said. “Harvey was bigger than Ike, but Ike was felt more directly in my town.”
When Hurricane Ike hit Houston, Leavitt fondly remembers, “eating all of the ice cream we had in the freezer because it was all melting.”
They stayed inside for much of Harvey, entertaining themselves with board games. However, once the rain subsided, Leavitt’s sisters braved the water, going out to play and sent home pictures of restaurant patios flooded and businesses underwater.
Leavitt and Walton went to a park one day to check out the scene.
“Lake Woodlands went up over the banks so everywhere was completely under water,” Walton explained. “We went with his little sisters and their friend to a playground on the outskirts of the lake, and there were a couple feet of water completely covering everything.”
Leavitt added that the flooding did not stop them from having fun.
“They were playing the floor is lava on the swingset and the water was literally underneath them,” he said.
Leavitt also remembered that during a previous storm, “My sisters and I would ride down the street to where it flooded full force, and you could hit the water and go flying into the water.”
Although they were able to go outside during the day, certain counties, including Montgomery county where Woodlands is located, set up a curfew for those under seventeen years of age.
In a statement released by Woodlands Township official, it was, “Established by the Harris and Montgomery County Commissioners Courts, the curfew ordinance helps to ensure the safety of our youth and to provide accountability of the youth and their parents for the activities in our community. Each violation of the curfew ordinance is punishable by a fine up to $500.”
This curfew was set up by the county to keep youth safe. Parents allowing their children out past this curfew are committing a punishable offense. The curfew extends from the hours of 12:01 a.m to 6 a.m seven days a week.
Aside from the issue of curfew, gas and food availability in Texas were also a concern. “It was interesting to go to the grocery store and everything was gone. People were freaking out. There was no gas. Some people were saying it wasn’t going to be that bad and some people were saying this is the end of the world, we’re going to die,” stated Leavitt.
When they did go shopping, “There were aisles that were completely wiped out. There was no bread, unless it was vegan or organic,” Walton explained.
Although a shortage of food is problematic, they were not forced to stockpile this year as they were not hit as hard as some other areas.
“Even when we went from Houston to Austin afterwards, we had trouble finding gas. There was a single pump at one gas station that we got lucky and found, and there was a line of cars waiting for the one pump.”
There are times when individuals are not as fortunate.
“People leave and can’t get gas and the next thing you know you have cars sitting on the road completely stopped, Walking Dead style, because no one has a way to move their car,” stated Leavitt.
“I don’t think prices go up because they go out so quickly. There was no gas, there was no food, it was just gone,” Walton said. “You can’t raise prices for something that’s gone. It’s also pretty morally wrong, like ‘congratulations you have to evacuate, pay three dollars for gas.’”
Brandon also pointed out that there would be severe backlash for price gouging during a disaster such as this, so the majority of the prices remained at their standard level.
Another issue facing the residents in affected areas was evacuation protocols. Leavitt explained, “It’s a very carefully constructed thing when they plan evacuations. They can’t just evacuate the entire city of Houston and surrounding areas. That creates a much bigger problem. When everyone leaves from a major urban zone there’s going to be more deaths and highway accidents. The traffic jams are incredible.”
Even after an evacuation is called, “People don’t have anywhere to go so they plan to drive until they reach somewhere safe and then stop and stay where they are, but what happens is the entire city of however many million people leave, every community outside, and outside that are so full that people have nowhere to stay,” Leavitt said.
Walton chimed in, “There’s no resources. There’s no where to stay. There’s no food,” in these areas that masses of people attempt to flee.
Thus Leavitt explained, “They’re always cautious about calling evacuations. They really hold back telling you to evacuate unless they’re expecting something really severe because it’s going to cause a lot of problems.”
There are some sections of the city though that are deemed evacuation zones, but are done so with caution. Despite the areas being labelled unsafe, not all residents leave right away.
In the case of Leavitt’s sister’s piano teacher, she chose to stay despite living in an evacuation zone, and later had to be rescued by kayak. Emergency response workers could not reach her, so she reached out to community members, such as the parents of her piano students, asking for help.
Unfortunately, when she was rescued, the kayak tipped over. “She had a cat in a carrier and the cat just fell in the water, so they had to rescue this angry cat,” Walton said.
Driving presents a danger as well, “There’s a death every time there’s major flooding in Houston,” said Leavitt. One possible cause is that, “Someone may try to drive under an underpass not realizing that it’s 20 feet deep and they sink,” explained Leavitt.
Sometimes, “It’s not necessarily cars washed away, but more so flooded out. When you’re driving, you’ll hydroplane and you’ll go off the road,” said Leavitt.
The road conditions also pose a issue for emergency response teams, as Leavitt explained, “There were a lot of police around making sure everyone was okay, but the roads were flooded, so in an actual emergency there’s no guarantee that they’ll find a way to get to you.”
Rather than attempting to drive during the storm, Leavitt brought his car to a parking garage where it would be out of the reach of the flood. Instead, they borrowed his grandmother’s larger, a heavier car in case they needed to use the roads, but the risks still remained when driving.
To help with those trapped in the storm without a way to drive, individuals brought their boats down to help.
In the flood itself, there is often floating debris, but mostly tree limbs and leaves. In downtown Houston however, “anything that is not heavy enough to sink is just floating down the street,” Leavitt explained.
To prepare for the damage, many individuals put tarps on their roofs to prevent them from caving in. If the roof caves, then the floor will inevitably cave as well. Furniture was also brought to higher points in the house and even the carpet was torn up to be salvaged.
In the event that an individual decided to seek refuge in the attic, they were advised to bring an ax in the case that the water rose and they were trapped. Brandon explained though that this is not the typical way of finding safety, it was simply a precaution for those seeking refuge in the highest part of their home.
“At schools and churches people all came together and were donating hurricane relief supplies. I feel like it brought the community together because all of these people were waking up really early and they didn’t know each other, going to these areas. They’re hauling water and food, and just came and dropped things off,” Walton said.
The community came together to help those in need and at one point, “the local relief station, which was a big high school near me had more supplies and more volunteers than they had places to send them,” Leavitt said.
Now that school is back in session, classes have resumed but, “they let the schools out for a time after, and even when school got back in, the high school students were given no homework for a week or two because they had to help at home, and rebuild their houses,” Leavitt said.
The storms can break down the city, but build up the community.
“During Ike a tree fell over the entrance of my neighborhood, and we were literally blocked in until someone came and cut it down which was like a week and a half,” Leavitt said. “You could walk or bike if you could get past the tree, but the whole community didn’t have anything to do, we had no power, so we all just hung out. There were block parties out of having nothing else to do.”
One of the buildings that was destroyed was the theater that Leavitt grew up going to. “Growing up in Houston the museum district and art district are pretty cool,” Leavitt said. “I like theater and I grew up going to the theater in Houston. The theater that we go to had just had a multi million dollar renovation of the underground theater, but it was completely destroyed. It was flooded up to ten feet and all of it was trashed. We were part of the donation list, and now it’s all destroyed. They will rebuild it because luckily the main stage was fine.”
“Galveston, Texas is a beach city, and all of the houses near the beach are on stilts because when the water does come in they’re higher up. The whole city is basically made to be knocked down when a hurricane comes through” Leavitt explained.
This thought making him less likely to visit this coastal city. Although, they will be forced to rebuild much of the town, Houston is built for permanence.
Each of the cities affected will work to rebuild what they have lost but as Leavitt explained, “Another one could come at any moment and undo everything.”
photos contributed by the interview subjects.