By Andrew Davis
The scale of Hurricane Harvey was unfathomable. Between the nationwide volunteer efforts, the overtaxed first responders, the drone footage of I-10 looking like the Mighty Mississippi, and the sense that it affected everyone, the storm’s vast impact remains incomprehensible. Reflecting on those heady days, one of the best ways to understand what Harvey meant to Houston is to see it through the eyes of Houstonians. The several participants profiled here took part in the Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project, sharing their thoughts, their feelings, and their stories about how they survived the hurricane’s onslaught.
Tom and Lisa Slagle — Retired Firefighters from Kingwood
When floodwater begins to threaten homes and lives, many people have no experience or plan for such a situation they might even panic; but not Tom and Lisa Slagle. They have a combined fifty-six years of experience as firefighters and EMTs, retiring in 2014 after distinguished careers. As first responders with the Houston Fire Department (HFD), they have extensive disaster training.
In August 2017, as Lisa and Tom enjoyed retirement in their tranquil Kingwood neighborhood, meteorologists predicted that then Tropical Storm Harvey was gaining strength and would impact Southeast Texas. Their experi- ence as first responders allowed them to formulate a plan of action; but seeing as they were on the civilian side of the disaster, could that plan withstand five feet of floodwater flowing freely through their family home?
Lillian Hood — Retired Teacher and Grandmother from Kingwood
An eternal optimist, Lillian Hood and her husband moved to Kingwood in 1997 after lengthy careers teaching in Odessa, Texas. Their new neighbors vividly recounted stories about flooding there in 1994, and showed Lillian a picture of water covering the street signs nearby. While ominous, the neighbors told Lillian that the flooding was, to some degree, caused by the controlled release of water from Lake Conroe, where heavy rains threatened the dam. Water flowing down the San Jacinto River began to pool as it entered Lake Houston, causing extensive flooding throughout Kingwood.
The U.S. Geological Survey indicated the median dis- charge of the West Fork of the San Jacinto River is usually about 68 cubic feet per second (cfs). The San Jacinto River Authority disclosed that the rate of release in 1994 reached over 33,000 cfs.
Lillian: “I thought I would probably drown that night, that’s what I thought. We hung a lantern, a battery-operated flashlight lantern on the front gate, right by the front door and put out a white towel. I thought that would be a signal of distress. And we just stayed right outside the front door with the door wide open, hoping somebody would come … [but] if nobody came, there’s no way we could be saved.”
Luckily, Lillian did not have to wait until morning. With water about to breach her front door, rescuers arrived in the nick of time. The 9-1-1 operators had organized a dump truck to back up to her front door where they scooped up Lillian and placed her in the truck. Judy and a handful of other neighbors piled in the back and were taken to a shelter.
Helen Benjamin — Grandmother from Kashmere Gardens
Helen Benjamin is well-known in Kashmere Gardens. She is everyone’s grandmother, a beloved fixture of the community for more than fifty years. As a long-time Houston resident, Helen is well acquainted with the omnipresent threat of tropical storms.
During Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, Helen’s experience seemed to foreshadow future events. After the water in her house reached her ankles, Helen was forced to wait for a res- cue. Told that the Coast Guard was coming, Helen eagerly anticipated their arrival — for hours.
Helen: “They were supposed to be picking us up around 2:30. We stayed out there ‘till after 7:30 that night and we didn’t get picked up because every time the truck would pass they was already loaded, and they said, ‘We coming back, we coming back.’”
After a long, tense wait, firefighters rescued Helen, but communication with the shelters was inefficient. As Helen was shipped around the city, being rejected by shelters that had reached capacity, the truck crashed into a ditch, forcing its passengers into the floodwaters to await another rescue vehicle.
Helen: “I don’t want to see it happen again … [S]ome people said it didn’t flood out here, but you should’ve been here. You would know it flooded because this whole area was just like a lake … The only way you could get out of it was take the towel and dry your feet off and get up in the middle of the bed.”
In 2017, with cell phones, GPS, and experience gained from prior storms, one might expect that Houston handled Hurricane Harvey more smoothly than Allison. However, when asked to compare her experience with the two storms, Helen simply said, in no uncertain terms, “It was worse wit Harvey.” Helen and her daughter awoke before dawn Sunday, August 27, 2017, to find that water had already entered their home. She knew this meant the water outside was several feet high and their cars were destroyed.