I arrived in Houston on January 15, 2018. One month earlier, I had sent the final draft of my book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, to my editor. Rising, which I had been hard at work on for over five years, tells the story of different coastal communities around the country that are having to figure out how to live in (and leave) places that are flooding worse and worse, year after year, as tides get higher and storms stronger.
Just a few months prior, Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston in over one trillion gallons of water. Then came Irma, Maria, and Nate. Racking up more than 200 billion dollars in damages, 2017 was the single costliest hurricane season the United States has ever witnessed. During the month of September, one in every ten US citizens was living in a county with a disaster declaration.
Climate change has begun to rearrange our communities, and is in the process dismantling our ideas of home. For this reason, I decided to go to Houston and walk the wrack line. In marine sciences, the wrack line is the band of debris left on the beach by high tide. Lately, I have been thinking that as thunderstorms unload unprecedented precipitation and storm surges surpass all previous records, wrack lines have begun to run right through the center of so many of our lives. Instead of writing another story about the science of climate change and how backfilling wetlands exacerbates flooding, I decided this time to have residents speak for themselves. They spoke to me about what it is like when the water comes, and how they have chosen to shape their lives to this mounting risk.
“My house was on the market when Harvey hit. My retirement is tied up in this house. I thought I would sell it and we would downsize and move elsewhere and now, well now, I really have no idea what is next. The sheetrock is removed from the walls and it is hard to know if we should start remodeling or what . . . Listen, if you see a child about to be hit by a car aren’t you going to do something? Well, we see a whole city that is about to be hit by a car or has already been hit. [Pauses]. It is a different kind of car. This city has a flooding problem and we are not doing everything we can to prevent it. I have been down to city council, I have prepared my remarks and delivered them. I say, here is another metaphor for you, ‘Our city is on fire and we need to call in every fire truck we can to put this fire out.’ But that is not what they are doing; instead they are giving developers millions of dollars to make the problem worse. I keep thinking of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind who says, ‘With God as my witness I am never going to be hungry again.’ I want to see that from our mayor. I want him to stand up on his soapbox and say, ‘With God as my witness I am going to do everything I can to keep my city from having to go through this again.’ And until he does that and he acts, I will continue to think of him as a failure. I mean, two people died as a result of the dam releases. That is manslaughter! I looked it up. I wanted to be sure I had the term right because I am not a lawyer. One of the ladies was across the street—right there on Memorial Drive—in a wheelchair. By the time they released the water from the dam the roads were impassable. If you didn’t have a boat you could not get out. And it was the middle of the night. So how are you supposed to escape? That lady across the street, she drowned.” — Cynthia Neely, Hollow Drive, Houston
“Where I live, in the northeast, my house was like an island. For three days I could not leave. When we could finally get out we headed right over to the George R. Brown [Convention Center]. I held a sign that said, ‘¿Tienes preguntas? Habla español.’ Some people would look at us and try to hide. They were nervous, I think. You have to remember that one in ten people in Houston is undocumented. And for them the storm is scary on many levels. When I asked if they were OK, most said, ‘yes.’ But then I would ask if they had a plan and most did not. So on a deeper level they were not OK. I would start talking to them about the applications that would be coming––applications to get temporary housing, applications for FEMA help, ways to make sure their landlords spend their recovery money fixing the buildings where they live. We made it through the storm, but now we face the recovery and that is a very difficult process to navigate. Harder than the storm, I think.” — Alain Cisneros, FIEL (Familias, Imigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha)
“This dog here, Pancake, he’s a river dog. A golden-boxer mix. His girlfriend, a Dalmatian, she lived over there in the greenhouse. Well, that family sold their house to Harris County after the flood, as part of the buyouts. The county is going to tear it down any day now. But until they do, Pancake, he keeps running over there, looking for his girlfriend. He doesn’t know that she is gone, like, for good.” — Morgan Russel, Banana Bend Texas
“ Jim Blackburn is an environmental attorney who we chose for our lawsuit. The first thing he did was hire Larry Dunbar, a hydrologist, to see if we had a case. And we did. So then Jim says, ‘I won’t represent you if you want money. Money can redo your house but that really doesn’t solve your problem because you’ll just flood again later. What we want is “remedy”.’ He said that we need to prove inverse condemnation. Essentially, the developers are using water (or traffic or crime or some combination of these) to do their dirty work. They build some development without putting in the proper drainage, which floods out homes nearby. The housing values drop. The more flooding, the more they drop. And then they can buy all those houses at low prices and redevelop the whole area. The city wants the increased tax revenues of the newer homes and the denser the better. But we also get torrential rains. High density and more concrete doesn’t give the water anywhere to go, and more flooding results. It would make sense if they built pockets of high density surrounded by detention ponds that serve as parks when it’s not raining. But we don’t do that. We want a court ruling that will force the development practices in our city—in Houston—to change. If we are successful at this stage, the case will be sent to trial where the City will be forced to defend its decisions to spend drainage and transportation money on developer pet projects and not critical flooding needs.” — Ed Browne, Residents Against Flooding
“I’m not going to sell unless someone gives me 1 million dollars. I moved here when I was twelve years old and have been here twenty-seven years. Both my parents died in this house. This place is my serenity; it settles my nerves. When the sun comes up it is like you could reach out and touch it because it is right there. I can’t imagine selling, but a lot of people are doing just that. I didn’t know my neighbor, Minh, before the flood. But one day I walked over and asked about his cedar trees and he told me he was planning on staying as well. He owns a business down here, and he got twenty feet of sand in his parking lot. I go down there and help him dig out and he pays me something. Now it is just us—J.J. and Minh—every day.” — Jessie Milner, Sandbar Estates, Texas
“The National Resource Defense Council ran an article about how Hurricane Harvey might mean the end of the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken and now I get about ten calls a day asking if the bird is extinct. The answer, thank goodness, is no. You see while the storm did kill all but two of the birds we have living in the wild on the preserve, we also have 170 birds in captivity as part of our breeding program. And I am hopeful that from those birds we can begin the slow and careful work of getting the population numbers back up here on the preserve.” — John Magera, acting manager of the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge
“My grandmother had an antique store in Marshall, Texas. Back in the 1940s, she and my grandfather drove up along the east coast, in their station wagon, pulling a trailer. They stayed with all the spinster dealers she befriended over the years, buying things from them as they went. I sort of inherited the business and eventually taught English at the local middle school, too . . . When we left the skies were clear and the sun was shining and I thought the storm and the whole ordeal would be over soon. But my husband had been watching Channel 11 when the Army Corps announced the Addicks and Barker Dam releases and he demanded that we leave. [Author’s note: Record-breaking rainfall was still flowing into Houston’s reservoirs in the days after the storm, threatening the earthen dams’ integrity. The decision to release the waters and flood tens of thousands of residents as a precautionary measure remains controversial.] I’ll tell you what, they let those dams rip loose. After that, we were not able to get back into the house for nineteen days. I have no idea what was happening with the water, but when I got back the marks were about three feet up on the walls. Some of this can be salvaged but a lot of it will cost more to restore than it is worth. Most days, I show up at 10 a.m. and as you see I get to work cleaning the items I am trying to save. But I am seventy-four years old, so I am slower than I’d like to be and I am not sure what, in the end, can be done.” — Kay Haslam, Legend Lane, Houston
“My daughter recently told me, ‘if you ever need to wake me up to tell me that we are flooding, you are not allowed to do that if we are not actually flooding.’ The Tax Day flood  happened very early in the morning and I ran into her room and said, ‘wake up, we’re flooding, implement the plan.’ I have developed a six-step plan , which helps us to save the things in the house that we can’t afford to lose while also keeping us safe. At that point I think we were on step three, which means putting the couch up so that it spans the sink and the island, pulling out the bottom drawers of chests and filing cabinets and putting them on the new dry space you created by spanning the couch. Things like that. The other day my son, who is eight now, asked me, ‘Daddy what did you do when it flooded when you were a kid?’ And my response was, ‘No. Memorial Day , that was my first flood. My first flood is your first flood.’ He has lived through three floods already, he thinks it’s totally normal.” — Drew Shefman, Meyerland, Houston
“There are people who have not mucked and gutted yet and we are four months out from the storm. They are overwhelmed because they, for some folks, it’s their third flood in three years, and they don’t know what they are going to do. They ran through their savings or their retirement with the first flood. With the second they got SBA loans or home equity loans. Now they are on the third flood, floundering trying to figure out what their next steps might be. In this area, we have had seven or eight named FEMA disasters since Memorial Day of 2015. You have entire neighborhoods that are ghost-towns where people don’t know if they want to return. Drive through at night or on the weekends, when there is no construction going on, no kids out in the yard playing, nothing happening and all you see are piles of debris.” — Lynae Novominsky, Facebook Administrator of “Houston Flood 2015 & Beyond: Support & Resource Group ” and Disaster Outreach Coordinator, JFS Houston
“The waitlists were so long for contractual help. So very, very long. And because our neighborhood is poor no one was helping us. I needed to get back into my house. To get back to living. The hotel I was staying at was an hour and a half away. So I came in here––with my mask and my boots––and I started to muck and gut myself. The toilets were nasty. The floors, sheetrock, everything. But we saved the house from getting worse. And West Street Recovery and other organizations showed up to help me. Some brought snacks, some brought people to assist with the work. Thank god for them, I could not have done it without them. My focus was to get one room finished. One room that I could retreat to where I felt that things were normal. We finished the bedroom last week.” — Zoila Villarreal, East Houston