Hunker Down

When the Weather Gets Nasty, Houstonians Take Refuge in Laughter

It's better than panicking.

By Jeff Balke July 18, 2017 Published in the August 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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When you live in a place that floods like this constantly, you have to make jokes about it.

Image: Shutterstock

The photo of a single roof shingle in the grass began circulating after Hurricane Rita circumvented Houston and made landfall just east of the Texas-Louisiana border in September 2005. The caption: “storm damage.” Whether it’s a shingle or an overturned plastic patio chair labeled “never forget,” we live for these moments of levity, both when we’ve narrowly avoided disaster and when we find ourselves in the thick of it.

For Houstonians, weather is life. Our calendars are marked with the first day of hurricane season (June 1), and the last (November 30), which we always greet with relief, although we never fully let our guard down, as devastating floods can strike at any time. Our lives are marked by storm events—how else would we know that we lived in that house in 1983, if it weren’t for Hurricane Alicia? And we’re all amateur meteorologists, with our advanced storm-tracking apps and our (attempts at) understanding weather phenomena like El Niño.

Maybe we do this monitoring, calculating, remembering and planning as a coping mechanism; it provides us with a sense of control, of order. After all, it can be terrifying to ponder that a certain portion of every year is essentially a roll of the dice when you live on the Gulf Coast, as we Houstonians do. If we’re lucky, everything we’ve built—our families, friends, colleagues, pets, neighborhoods, homes, cars—remains intact. If we’re not, we could lose it all, including our own lives. But let’s not be dramatic, right? Better to laugh.

Perhaps nothing illustrates that point more than that local folk hero, the immortal Hurricane Ike bear. As the powerful 2008 storm bore down on Galveston, forecasters and newscasters from across the country gathered along the Seawall to witness the surge exploding out of the Gulf. There, in the midst of all the seriousness—and not far from where, hilariously, Fox News anchor Geraldo Rivera was swallowed up by a particularly large wave—came a man, dressed in a bear costume, strolling along the shore in full view of the cameras. KHOU’s Greg Hurst called him a clown, but can you blame us for wanting to have a little fun amid our fear, never mind the endless, mind-numbing live feeds of rain-drenched journalists that, at times, actually made us wish for premature death?

But make no mistake, we remain glued to the TV during such events, assuming we have power. It can be remarkably entertaining, especially when you make it a drinking game centered around the phrase “hunker down.”

Deadly Tropical Storm Allison, which hit in 2001, was a horror show—one of the most devastating rain storms to hit the Houston area in our city’s history. But it produced ceaseless, middle-of-the-night local TV news coverage that was as compelling as it was ridiculous. In our favorite moment, a reporter, soaked to the bone in yellow waders, stood waist-deep in water at a normally busy intersection. He pleaded with viewers, begging them to remain indoors.

“Stay inside and hunker down,” he implored us. “And whatever you do, for your own safety, do not wade into the water.” It was priceless.

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