Editor’s note: Unless otherwise noted, photos were virally shared via social media.
In fifth grade, we were assigned a research project that would take the form of a report, presented in front of the class. The research project was meant to focus on a news event from some time in the past. I can’t remember the specifics, but I believe we could go as far back in time as we wanted. Given the fact that I lived and went to school in Clear Lake City, a suburb just a half hour’s drive from Galveston, Texas, I chose the devastation of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. The old black and white photos in the books in the library astounded me, taking on a mythical quality. There was no part of me that saw this as something that could ever happen to me. It was close to the water, they would say. That town always floods, they would say.
The first time I remember driving through flooded water I was 18. I had been extremely sheltered by my overprotective Asian father, and so I didn’t know anything about how to protect myself (and my car) from waters that rose in the streets. I was driving to the Heights, a neighborhood I knew nothing about then, but where I now live, which was flooded. I assumed I could make it. As I drove through the water, which submerged my tires, I could hear the sloshing and could no longer feel my tires on the road. The graduate students watched me in horror, unsure of how to help. I was embarrassed at their seeing me commit what was clearly, in hindsight, an act of idiocy. So, I charged ahead, and luckily, I made it out on the other side. As they said when I came to the door, carrying on my back the weight of my teenage self-consciousness and shame, if I had put my foot on my brakes at any moment at that time, they wouldn’t have been able to help me. I puffed out my feathers like a rooster, and said, Well, my dad’s giving the car to my brother, anyway. What do I care? Inside, I was turning the color of a beet, and had to stare at the sky, drops entering my eyes, so they wouldn’t see my eyes tear up from my awareness at my own foolish choices.
At 22, I was driving to work again in flooding waters, a normal stormy day, one that happens often enough in Houston. I started getting terrified, and having learned my lesson, I pulled into a Walgreens parking lot. I was so flustered that I got my umbrella, got out of my car, and immediately locked the car. I realized too late that I had locked my keys in the car with the ignition running, the car in Park. As I stood outside, drenched to the bone, I waited for AAA to come jimmy my car open. Yet again, I was taunted—what kind of idiot locks their keys in their car in a torrential downpour? I overheard from a stranger next to me. A similar version, although less harsh, was said to me by the man who helped me.
That same year, Tropical Storm Allison hit my hometown. The night of the storm, I was singing karaoke at Spotlight Karaoke, about twenty minutes away from where I lived at the time by a freeway. We heard the storm rage as we belted out soul tunes and laughed at the drunks over-enthusiastic singing expressions. This was before Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and Hurricane Ike. We didn’t think anything of it. The owner of the bar told us to be safe getting home. As we rushed into my car and started the drive home, we saw one car, then another, and then another, start driving the wrong way up the freeway. It didn’t take long to realize that the waters were too high for cars to pass, that we could drown. Luckily a friend of mine was the manager of a hotel outside of town, and put us up for the night. I was living in Houston’s Medical Center at the time, and it was completely impassible for a couple of days. The water on the freeway stood still up to the exit signs, 18-wheelers floating, local residents kayaking. It took days to recede, but many areas were fine once the storm had passed. It passed quickly, the sun was shining. My father called me on the phone, worried about the car. I assume he thought I was fine if he could reach me by phone. The car was fine, I reported. We hung up. His suburb, even though so close to the water, never flooded.
I was 25 when Hurricane Katrina hit. What I remember: lots of criticism of how the residents of New Orleans didn’t evacuate when they could, stubborn and insistent that no one would displace them. Criticism at President Bush’s lack of response, at Barbara Bush claiming that the refugees in Houston’s Astrodome were doing just fine. The word refugee, again and again and again. My students at Prairie View A&M, where I had just begun teaching, displaced and heartbroken and enraged when I asked them to write about their feelings about the hurricane. I was teaching adjunct and part-time at Prairie View, Houston Community College (where I now teach full-time), and Writers in the Schools, and so when gas prices skyrocketed, it was possibly the worst financial time for me. But, Katrina didn’t really happen to me. My twin sister was living downtown with her husband at the time, and the two of them together complained about the number of displaced evacuees that were there, how awful it was to have to walk among the homeless criminals. My father responded by telling them that he and my stepmother donated a mattress.
Less than a month after Hurricane Katrina hit, Houston had its own storm to deal with, or so it thought, with Hurricane Rita. Terrified by what we had seen with Katrina, panic and fear set in as the entire city planned evacuations. I was among them. It took me nine hours to get from Houston to San Antonio. I was an adjunct at the time, so that meant that I wasn’t getting paid for some time, and I was quickly running out of money. I met a group of friends just outside San Antonio to stay at the bar that was run by the father of a friend. Once I’d made it there, we slept on the floor of the bar among the sand caused by the shuffleboard just above our heads. From another friend I had to beg for gas money as I’d completely run out by the time I made it there. I didn’t end up feeling the effects of Rita outside of the devastation of the evacuation. Dogs died in cars from fright, families were stranded. It was yet another miss, an almost to be.
My first semester as a full-time professor at Houston Community College, a day before my birthday, welcomed Hurricane Ike. Most of my friends were staying with others. I was terrified, as this one would actually hit Houston very specifically. As I lived on the second floor of a duplex, I decided to stick it out by myself. I took a photo of the hurricane swirling outside my window. I managed with very little damage, especially compared to others. I lost electricity for two weeks, dressed in the dark to go to school, and charged my phone at various coffee shops and houses so that I’d have an alarm to wake up to in order to make it to class on time. I slept with the windows open, suffocated by the intense humidity and covered in mosquito bites. The one tiny light of the time was offering up my house for a tango milonga. Guests brought candles and ice cream and wine, and we danced our stresses away for a night.
Since Hurricane Katrina, the media has consistently overreported any tropical storm or hurricane, and with good intentions. They don’t even truly know what a storm is going to do, but of course it’s always better to be prepared for the worst than to expect the best. On the day that my husband and I got ready for Hurricane Harvey, the sun was shining. Nevertheless, we bought what water hadn’t been gobbled up by the rest, some snacks. The night before the storm hit, I started seeing multiple posts on my feed about gas stations emptying in our area. Anxiety beginning to set in; I begged my husband at 11 at night to fill mine up at the gas station around the corner. He wasn’t worried, but did it anyway. It took over half an hour for him to return. When he did, he told me only one pump was left standing.
The street was flooded by the time we woke up. Our house is high up and far back. Over the course of the next few days, our street would flood overnight, and then gradually recede over the day. We were incredibly lucky, happening to live on a pocket of safety and drainage. What made this storm so different from any storm I had ever experienced was that there was not a single area of Houston that did not have floodwaters up to the street signs. Every single freeway was impassible, and residents from every single suburb in Houston were flooded in to catastrophic levels. I wrote my father, who I had forgotten was in California. He didn’t ask after me, but I assume, again, he assumed that I would have told him otherwise. Instead, he, along with my brother, heart-emojid all of my check in posts on Facebook. My sister and I kept in contact the most, throughout the days. My mother didn’t reach out once. Amazingly, we didn’t lose power once.
I have lived in Houston my entire life. I was born in Clear Lake City. I went to college at the University of Houston. I moved to the Greenway Plaza area first, at 18. As an adult, I’ve lived in Montrose and the Heights. I moved to Kingwood when I got engaged, and for the first year of my marriage. I helped produce a dance theater adaptation of Frankenstein at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. My twin sister now lives in Sugar Land, where I worked during my years in Corporate America. During my childhood, and as an adult, I have spent many hours in Houston’s Chinatown, to eat, to watch my father rehearse and perform Chinese dramas, and various other activities. As a writer for Writers in the Schools, I have taught creative writing in various parts of the city, including in Aldine Independent School District.
For one reason or another, I have traveled almost every area of this vast city. And every single moment of that life has been under water. During every other storm, I was able to do something for someone. I hosted an Austrian reporter during Rita and volunteered at the Astrodome. During Ike I offered up my home to a tango friend and as a space for struggling dancers to release their tension with movement. But because we are so landlocked, it is virtually impossible to get out. And while we have been trapped in our miraculous little street, images of my heart over the last 37 years of my life, my city underwater, fill our television and computer screens. It is more than I can bear.
However, my phone and my computer have also been filled with the messages and concerns of people that I’ve met over those 37 years. People I’ve had falling outs with, people I have lost touch with, my husband’s family, writers and artists, and strangers with similar backgrounds whom I’ve only encountered virtually. Images of rescues flood my eyes. I have shed so many tears, of heartbreak, but also of comfort at what happens when crisis brings a city, and the world, together. It is really something to see.
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Addie Tsai is the Senior Associate Editor of Poetry for The Flexible Persona.