Five years after Hurricane Harvey, a reflection on the love I have for my city.
I was 17 years old when Hurricane Harvey hit my hometown of Houston, Texas. It was August of 2017, the summer before my senior year of high school. It was a time teeming with change and instability.
In fact, the week that Harvey happened, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I missed the rain and its comfort.
I missed hearing the splatters of the droplets on tree leaves, and the way it cut through Houston’s heat. But I especially missed the way that right after a good rain — if I breathed in deeply enough — the city’s air had an earthiness that filled my lungs. The smell was a mix of mulch and dew and salt.
I think I was dreaming about rain when the storm entered my house, and the water began to rise.
And rise and rise.
Houston raised me.
The humidity hugged me tight and the hot sun kissed my skin. The rain cleansed me.
Then there was the heat. It always sticks around — even in the winters — and has a way of forcing everyone to say exactly how they feel. I like that. It weaves an air of authenticity throughout the city that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
I love how the sun overexposes everything, dousing every inch of the city in light, leaving the sky a static, bright blue for months on end. Even on cloudy days, when the sky is swollen with rain, the sun is nearby, barely hidden.
The Bayou was a place where the smoke from barbecued brisket married the mugginess in the air. It was where my friends and I would take walks to end long nights, where I went to read my Baldwin books. It was where I went when I was nervous about something, where I went when I was excited. The Bayou was my safe place.
And I loved our house, too. It was built in the late 1940s. When my family bought it about eight years ago, they were adamant about not changing a thing. The previous owner sold the house to us for cheap, as she wanted to move in with her daughter up north during her “last few years.”
Our house’s bathroom had a baby blue radiator heater that I wasn’t allowed to touch. There were coordinating pale blue tiles placed around the sink and a muted sheet of fruit wallpaper. I’d play with its peeling edges as I waited for the water to heat up before a shower.
We never updated the house. Instead, we decorated it. My grandmother put up torans in almost every doorway, so they were the first things we saw when we walked in any room. They were cut from bright green, yellow and red fabrics. Some had pieces hanging off to look like mango leaves, others looked like marigolds. They all held love.
The hallways were covered with paintings we haggled for at garage sales, the shelves full of family photos. One was of four-year-old me kissing my little brother on the cheek. Another was of my dad holding up either my brother or me, as an infant. No one could tell which one of us it was.
We lived next to Lauren. Lauren would invite me over to eat store-bought brownies, look at the plants entangling themselves in her greenhouse and flip through old books. I interviewed her once for a sophomore year English project about heroism, as she had escaped Nazi Germany as a teen. I remember I asked if she ever felt like a hero. She just laughed. Lauren had the phonetic spelling of my name written down on a post-it note. She stuck it to her fridge, so she’d never forget how to pronounce it. When Lauren died, my grandmother cried in my arms.
The Bayou, our house and our neighbors felt like home.
Five years after the storm, my memories from that day exist in fragments.
My grandmother shook my shoulder early in the morning, before the sun rose. I tried to let the sounds of the rain lull me back to sleep, when I heard her say something about flooding. I shot out of bed and looked down to see my feet sloshing around in a couple inches of water. She told me to move anything I loved from the floor onto my bed. I remember vividly how calm she sounded.
My family is from Gujarat, India, where the summers were so hot and dry that the annual heavy monsoon season was a relief of sorts.
“There are three seasons, beta,” my grandmother would say. “Winter, summer, and monsoon. After the summers come the monsoons.”
Compared to that, Houston’s tendency to flood was nothing. Hurricane Harvey was different.
My family remained on our couch, with our legs propped up, but the water kept rising and rising until it brushed our bodies. When our furniture began to float away, my dad called 911. They recommended that we climb onto the roof. We knew my grandparents wouldn’t be able to, so we decided to leave the house before the flooding got worse. The water rushed in fairly fast, a ruthless reminder of what nature can do.
All five of us held hands and walked to the front door. There was about two feet of water at this point. We had to get to higher ground.
As my dad tried to pull the door open, we all stood back. I remembered doing hurricane drills at school and learning that doors and windows won’t open until the water pressure is as big inside as it is outside. Apparently, sometimes it’s best to wait until the water is higher up to escape it. It wasn’t until the water was at my waist, that the door opened. We grabbed each other’s hands again, using our conjoined arms as a barrier, and pushed ourselves through the water’s current. My father led the way, my little brother squealed every time he saw a snake and my grandparents said nothing, but breathed heavily. I walked with my eyes closed.
After a block or so, the Acostas let us into their house. They had stairs, so they were watching the storm from their porch in yellow raincoats and boots. As we all made our way up the stairs, I exhaled.
The Acostas were kind. Maria, the mother of the house, brought out paper towels and started wiping down my grandparents’ legs and feet. She made her son grab us all house slippers, as we had to evacuate without shoes.
I knew everything was going to be okay, as we all waited out the storm together. The rain pounded against the roof and the sky crackled. Junior, Maria’s nephew, sang songs about how much he loved ketchup. Andrew, Maria’s adult son, was a chef and made us all fried rice. After we ate, Maria urged that we take naps on the sofas. She said she’d wake us up when the storm passed.
When we awoke, the storm was gone, along with everything else.
My house endured a little over three feet of flooding. The Bayou had overflowed and sucked everything out from most of the houses on my street. It was essentially a mudslide, clogging the roads with sewage. It took all the things we could never replace.
After the storm, Houston’s hot and humid air was full of salt and prayers. The city reeked and after just a few days, everyone’s lawns were cluttered with furniture and whatever else had be removed from their gutted homes. Everything we now owned took up less than half of our small front lawn. My house was a mere skeleton of what it once was, what it once held.
We spent my senior year of high school rebuilding it. We couch surfed for a few weeks before moving into a hotel. All of a sudden, my body felt old, and sometimes, all I could do was sleep through the day. I felt scared even though the storm had passed. I felt angry and anxious and sad all at once.
Eventually, I learned to cope. For a while, I didn’t want to be happy until everything was back to normal, and we were able to move back into my house. But, I had to let my fear and sadness coexist with hope. I was able to find small moments of joy during the aftermath. Joy was the warm waffles we got every morning at the hotel; the one photo album that survived; the way the hotel manager laughed every time one of us lost our room key; a long talk in my friend’s car after school.
And as I wrote college admissions essays about who I was, I processed some of the emotional leftovers from the storm. I unburdened myself. I reclaimed my life.
I write this reflection from my now-rebuilt childhood bedroom. I just graduated from college a couple months ago and immediately wanted to return to Houston. I wanted to be home.
I never redecorated my room after the storm, so the walls are bare. Old books that were on the highest shelves of my room survived the flood and still lie there, collecting dust. There’s also a crack that is slowly splitting one of the walls in half. It appeared after we rebuilt. Apparently, no matter what you do, you can’t truly fix the foundation of a hurricane-damaged house.
It doesn’t bother me, though. Now when I think of home, it’s not in the traditional sense. Rather, the wandering state I find myself in, amid life’s ever-changing circumstances. Home is no longer just a place, but a feeling I hold deep within myself. Houston, though, forever has my heart.
Now, a couple years after the storm, the city has settled down, and I find myself missing the rain again.