Hurricane Harvey: From My Eyes

Story and Photos by Tuesday Kahl /

THE CALM

On Wednesday, August 23rd, I got off work late and decided on a whim to get some grocery shopping done. I spent over an hour in H-E-B lazily making my purchases––I bought some snacks and water, and enjoyed the slow traffic in the store. On Thursday, that same H-E-B was crawling with people. They were frantic, buying extra water and food because of an impending storm. Prior to Thursday, we all just thought Harvey was a tropical storm with some rain. Texans aren’t scared by rain; in Houston alone we get over 50” a year. Most tropical storms that head our way are comparable to the worst of our rain storms, and at that, they sometimes they pale in comparison to storms like the Memorial Day 2015 floods that battered San Antonio and Houston, or the Tax Day 2016 flood that predominantly hit the west side of Houston.

Sunset over Momentum Katy.

In each significant storm, I have contrasting memories. In Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, I remember being the last kids sitting in the dark at our daycare with a single remaining teacher, and water entering our minivan on the drive home. The next day, we waded across Nasa Road 1 in our swimsuits for some powdered donuts. Then there was Tropical Storm Erin in 2007––I went shopping and to the optometrist during that one. During the Memorial Day floods of 2015, I got stuck inside Main Event during a tornado in San Antonio, then enjoyed margaritas made on generator power shortly after at Chuy’s. The following day, I attended River City Rock Fest only to meet the storms back at home the next day in Houston. During Hurricane Rita, our evacuation story was worse than any damage sustained by our home and most of Houston. My youngest sister was born exactly a week after Hurricane Ike. During Ike, my mother stayed in the hospital in case she went into labor while my brother and I stayed with my grandma Mimi. As the storm worsened, two trees fell on Mimi’s house with the three of us inside. I worked outdoors as a lifeguard during Tropical Storm Alexander and all we did was play card games. As a Texan, I’ve seen a lot of storms. This is only a fraction of the major storms I’ve experienced in my time in Texas. No matter what these storms brought with them, we recovered. Most of these storms left isolated damage if any at all. Harvey was significantly different.

On Thursday, August 24th, I came into the gym with a smile on my face, greeted the desk staff, and got started on some administrative work. As soon as I pulled up my computer with a tab open on Facebook, I saw the word Hurricane. Hurricane Harvey. On Thursday, the tropical storm that meteorologists expected give us some extra rain had turned into a major category 3 hurricane. People got worried. Members asked if I had water and food for at least a week and thanks to my grocery store trip the night before, I had plenty––more than most did if they attempted to shop on that Thursday. The quiet, sleepy H-E-B I experienced on Wednesday night was now a roaring pit of frenzy, anxiety, and panic. A Hurricane was coming. At this point, the rain was concerning for those who had flooded before in the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods two years prior, but most people were relatively unconcerned by the “hurricane” part of all this. The last two hurricanes that struck Texas missed Houston and left most of the city relatively unscathed. This storm wasn’t even going to directly hit us; it was headed for Corpus. Most Houstonians let our Texas ego hang out. We prepared, but we weren’t that worried.

Friday, the storm lumbered slowly, ominously towards the Texas coast. It turned away from an evacuated Corpus and destroyed Rockport late on Friday. The storm was still expected to head north, then east. I spent Friday night in the gym with the GM and a colleague. We talked, we bouldered, we monitored the storm and got ready to fight any leaks that might occur that night as the edges of Harvey rolled in. Around 3 a.m., I threw up my hammock and went to sleep as thunder and rain crashed outside and the wind howled like a pack of coyotes. Their howls forced me to toss and turn in my hammock. The wind reminded me of when I confused the winds during Rita for dogs––I thought they were our host’s dogs howling at the storm. The storm howled on through the rest of the night. As Saturday morning rolled in, the rain seemed to be nothing more than a regular Houston rainstorm. We researched the storm, and decided to close the gym for the day. We went for safe instead of sorry. I had intended to spend the entire storm at the gym, but Harvey looked so innocent on Saturday morning that I went home. Upon arriving, I laid some sandbags outside my door, got my hurricane kit ready, and after finishing preparations, I laid down to take a nap. I was exhausted.

THE STORM

At 7:30 that night, I woke to a vicious crash of thunder. It jolted me awake as if the lightning had struck me in my bed, running straight from my neck through each of my bones. I looked out my window and saw water covering the walkway. I put on some shorts, my rain boots, and a coat, and walked onto my porch. The complex swimming pool was at its brim and I saw an ominous sight in the parking lot to my right. Water. So. Much. Water. My car was staring at me as if pleading for help as a Suburban drove by, pushing waves higher and higher onto it and the others too low to move now. As I marched out into the lot, water easily came over my boots, then to my knees. I waded to the other lots only to find things even worse. I went back inside. A quick scroll through my Facebook timeline revealed that the sight I was staring at was one many others were: friends and family losing cars, watching water creep closer and closer to our homes and all we hold dear.

Lighting strike on the night of the storm.

This was the moment I realized Harvey was a beast. I realized the power it held over me, and all of Houston, at that point. It stole my car from me. I realized I was alone in my apartment, that no one could get to me, and I couldn’t get to anyone. I was stuck. Harvey had no rules or regulations, no morals or remorse. It was a force of nature that had no sympathy for anything in its path. Harvey didn’t care; the rain didn’t care. I instantly felt helpless. I was strong and resilient and had even acquired the nickname “Force of Nature,” but this was a real force of nature. I paled in comparison to the storm that had only just begun. Harvey put me in my place. Reminded me that I am small, I am human.

Over the next few days, I called and texted all those close to me. I stared at disaster photos of the friends and family members I couldn’t help through a phone screen. I watched other Houstonians lose everything. The water rose and rose. It was unrelenting. We have a no-hype weather blog called Space City Weather here in Houston. Eric Berger, the editor of SCW kept us all sane during the storm. One post will always stick with me––it described three bands of rain that would pummel the west side of Houston, my side of Houston. He wanted to tell us all not to worry and that it was hype but it wasn’t. Harvey was real and bearing down on us. Harvey wasn’t supposed to come to Houston this strong, but it did. Harvey wasn’t supposed to drop this much rain, but it did. Harvey was here and it was angry. I can’t imagine being in Eric’s shoes, or those of any meteorologist, and having to tell a city that we were all in trouble and it wasn’t stopping anytime soon.

On Sunday night, reports were made that Barker and Addicks reservoirs would need to have water released or the dams would fail. For those that don’t know Houston, we are designed to hold water. Every park turns into a retention pond, we have miles of bayous, and these two reservoirs were designed to protect us. Releases have never been necessary in the time since the dams were built. It wasn’t an easy choice for the Army Corps of Engineers. They had to prevent an uncontrolled release. They knew that they were putting other people in grave danger. Water releases started on Monday.

THE EVAC

I realized how close I was to Buffalo Bayou, and so did my parents. I had no way of escaping. The water had risen and receded throughout the storm, but when releases started, it only kept rising. My stepdad called and said he was going to try to come get me. He couldn’t not try; I was his daughter. He made it to I-10 from far in the northeast realm of Houston. He tried every single road he could. He got turned around at every road because Buffalo Bayou, carrying all the released water down to the Gulf of Mexico, was blocking the path to me. He had to give up. Thankfully, I have amazing friends. First, two different set of friends tried to approach from the east and west to pull me out. Both failed. Finally, a pair of college friends living 175 miles away in San Marcos insisted on making an attempt. They thought they had a way in to come get me in a giant lifted truck with a kayak, air mattress, and life vests in tow. Three and a half hours later, with water licking my door, my friends miraculously arrived and rescued me. I left my home, my car, and everything I owned at the mercy of Harvey, save a single back pack and the clothes on my back.

We spent the next six hours attempting to get out of Houston. We could no longer exit the way they came in. We were forced to turn around three dozen times or more, and even pushed a state trooper out of high water at midnight after his patrol car flooded out. At one point we made it to 99, the road we intended to use to get out. We stopped the truck to get out and see how deep the water was. I sloshed to the middle of the feeder road and saw water blocking our path to safety for what felt like the hundredth time that night. I screamed into the night at Harvey and at the water. I cried and shook my fists at this storm. My city was in ruins. I’ve called the Houston area home since 1999. I had 18 years of love and memories. Harvey took four days to destroy it. Every turn there was more water, more of my home destroyed. Seeing photos of water while locked in my home was one thing. Seeing it with my own two eyes was entirely different. Everywhere I went there was water, water, water, and more water. It was unending.

At long last we made it to I-10 west; we were exactly where we needed to be. A police car pulled out in front of us, and we slammed on the brakes as helicopters circled above. We were so close to safety, and we were told we had to turn around. Military helicopters needed to land where we were, and there was a semi truck underwater ahead. With desperation in our hearts, we turned around and I pulled out my map again. While attempting alternative routes, we were forced to backtrack several times––our path obstructed by closed ramps, submerged 18-wheelers, and airboats carrying people who had just been rescued from their homes. Passing by shelters and National Guard tankers, we arrived at highway 90. That’s when the fear truly set in, and I wondered if we were going to make it. The water went on for as far as I could see in the night. It had a current like a river flowing over the road. We had to drive around stalled-out cars and water was at our door. A normal ten-minute venture from my apartment had now taken us hours of fighting through this storm. After what was quite possibly one of the most frightening ventures of my life, we finally found an access point to I-10 and drove to San Marcos as fast as we could.

I spent the next week staying with friends and family, being passed to whoever could take me. All I had was my backpack; the worst thing was not knowing what I would be coming home to. I returned to the gym on Labor Day. Our General Manager offered to take me from the gym to my home––we spent almost 3 hours trying to get there. We passed my normal route home, only to find 16 feet of water covering it. When we arrived, my car was gone and my apartment suffered minor damage.

Flooding in Houston.

The new normal was ugly. My hometown of Humble and Kingwood was destroyed by the San Jacinto River and Lake Houston, which jumped their banks. People found alligators in their homes, and businesses I shopped at regularly are shells of buildings now. The rival school of my old high school was destroyed and cannot open this year. My college sustained damage to all but three of its buildings. So many roads were still covered in water, and still are. My 30 minute commute turned into two or three hours. When roads finally started to open, it looked like a bomb had gone off: trees everywhere, mud above eye level, homes obliterated, fences and cars destroyed. Signs reading “No Wake Please” are a consistent reminder that two months ago, only boats could pass where cars should. It is now over two months post-Harvey, but those signs are still up and traffic is still awful. You can’t drive around Houston without staring at people’s homes and lives turned into water-soaked piles on the side of the road.

As a gym, Momentum Katy sustained some damage. Our leadership offices, daycare, and staff room were rendered unusable. Repairs have taken quite a while, because a lot of the contractors were stuck in their homes or lost their homes, too. Gym traffic slowed; it’s only just now beginning to return to normal. Our members offered to help staff, and each other. We had people ask if anyone needed climbing gear donated to them. Several of our members lost everything, and three of our staff were severely affected by the storm, losing homes and cars. Eliza Keegan, our Youth Program Manager, was removed from her home by the National Guard after releases started from Addicks reservoir. She lost her car and had her home infested with fire ants looking for safety. Austin Quiring, a Gym Operations staff member, was out of his home for weeks and lost most belongings from the first floor of his home. His house was only accessible by canoe for an extended period of time.

We needed to do something for our city and the community that welcomed Momentum and our gym with open arms. We realized there was one thing we were doing without even realizing it. Climbing was a release for those affected by the storm, a chance to forget the outside world and immerse themselves in a new boulder problem or route. It was a chance to allow kids who couldn’t return to school a way to get out some energy and do something constructive and challenging. We launched our Real Deal 2 Help Heal, where we offered 2 week memberships for $30, with $15 of that going to the Rebuild Texas Fund. So far, we have raised over $2500! We also lent hands to each other and shared stories and love. We banded together as a community––something we do best as climbers.

As for now, most of us as individuals who were affected have made strides in returning to normal. Austin got his car running, his home demo-ed, and is working on repairs. Eliza and I now both have new cars, and I found a new place to live. The gym is almost where it needs to be; the affected rooms are almost done being repaired. All our staff is in the gym and working. The gym is back to normal, our lives are returning back to normal. Harvey still haunts us in ways. Helicopters and rain still make many of us a bit anxious, and FEMA and the National Guard are still here. Others still need help demo-ing homes and our commutes are littered with reminders of Harvey’s destruction. These little reminders will exist for a long time. Recovery doesn’t take a week, or a month, or even a year. Slowly but surely we will get there, even if by nothing else than sheer willpower and grit.

TEXAS PRIDE

Living through Harvey was traumatizing for all, even for those who didn’t lose homes or material belongings. If you made it out okay, chances are 99.9% that someone you know and love didn’t. When you still have to pass the destruction for months, it does something to your brain. You feel like you’re living in a war zone. The pain can’t go away and you can’t heal. Because it’s still here. The very real reminders are a part of your daily life. Houston has a long way to go before things are “normal,” before we don’t hurt anymore. That’s okay, though.

Houstonians are Texans. As many know, Texans can have a major ego when it comes to our state. Everything is bigger and better in Texas. Our egos are as big as our hats and as tall as our boots, and we wear our state like our hearts on our sleeves. Most think our intense pride is silly, ridiculous, and even annoying. What I can tell you though, is that we have the grit, resiliency, love, and togetherness to back it up. During the storm, Texans gathered their boats and trucks and rescued each other alongside first responders because it was the right thing to do. Our beloved Texas grocery store, H-E-B, delivered supplies, food and support where FEMA, Red Cross, and others couldn’t. Mattress Mack, a Houston native and owner of Gallery Furniture, opened his stores to those who had lost their homes and needed a place to stay. JJ Watt, our hometown Houston Texans football hero, raised millions for Harvey relief. We received help from all over the country and all over the world.

However, the most remarkable things happened in our own neighborhoods, communities and cities. Houston isn’t just one city, it’s an expansive metropolis containing well over 100 smaller cities that collectively call themselves Houston. We banded together to demo, to rebuild, to eat together and feed each other. Schools that remained unscathed took in students from schools that were destroyed by flood waters. Friends opened their homes to friends and strangers alike. We stood by each other. I had friends bring me food and help me do my laundry. These normally simple tasks pre-Harvey were now huge burdens post-Harvey. We did them together. We supported each other. Texans rescued Texans––many places had to turn away people looking to volunteer because there were too many volunteers and too many donations to take in any more.

No one recovers like Texans, no one bands together like Texans. The outpouring of love and support as a state was remarkable and intense. Social Media feeds littered with photos of disaster turned into photos and stories of people helping others. We are gritty. Above all else, there is no state with more grit than ours. Grit is how we make it when the going gets tough. We put on our boots and our hats, we hunker down, and we extend our hands to those who need them. That’s how Texans recover. That’s what we do. Our grit is eternal, and not even the merciless battering that Harvey delivered could keep us down for long. We are Houston strong; we are Texas strong.

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