The Monster That Won't Die: A Hurricane Harvey Diary

This wan't her first hurricane, but it was her worst.

By Harriet Riley September 11, 2017

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A flooded Barker reservoir spills its waters into Buffalo Bayou and the Energy Corridor neighborhoods to the south of its earthen dam on August 29, 2017.

Image: Shutterstock

The nightmares about water coming in my house just won’t stop, though it's been two weeks since Harvey brought 51 inches of water to Houston. The dreams are very realistic. But I was one of the lucky ones. With water still directly west of me and water just behind my house, we were literally the last dry house standing.

This was not my first hurricane.  I know how devastating it is to watch water slowly destroy your home. I flooded on Pensacola Bay in Georges in 1998 and my roof was seriously damaged in Pensacola during Ivan in 2004. I also witnessed and/or evacuated ahead of several other storms, including Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and Ike here in Houston in 2008.

I've lived on the Gulf Coast for most of my adult life. But Harvey was different from all the other storms I've experienced. What made this storm different was the relentless rainfall and the problems Houston had containing that water.

In my experience, hurricanes bring one or two nights of terror and sleeplessness followed by months of recovery. But this one just seemed to never stop. During Harvey and its aftermath, I kept a hurricane diary, a tradition of mine for every one of these crazy weather events, and an idea borrowed from my mother; she kept a hurricane diary when she and my older sister went through Hurricane Betsy in New Orleans in 1965. Their diary survives in our family scrapbook along with a piece of glass from the window of their hotel room.

These journals of disaster are helpful because—as most of us learned in Harvey—the days seem to fall together in one big blur in our minds. Below are some excerpts from my Harvey journal chosen to highlight what made this storm so different, especially in my neighborhood off Memorial Drive in West Houston, near Beltway 8. It was an experience best described as a horror movie when you think the monster is dead, but the creature keeps returning with a vengeance.

Day 1: Friday, August 25

Dinner at Union Kitchen behind our house. Crowded and jolly spirit with everyone out before we get stuck at home with the storm. Harvey turns into a “rare event” category 4 during dinner. Makes landfall near Corpus at 10 p.m. or so. 

Day 2: Saturday, August 26

We wake up at 5:45 a.m. to a very loud buzz from our phones. First of many flash flood and tornado warnings. The sound is jarring and disturbing like a bomb falling in my head. Heavy rain. I realize while still lying in bed that is it going to be a LOOONG few days.

Later Saturday: 9:32 p.m. Water over the driveway to the bottom step. Over Greg’s knees in the street. Unrelenting rain. The loud buzz continues on our phones. Spent time in the closet during the tornado warning, but we can’t stay there  because we must watch the water. We get our backpacks ready to leave if needed with passports, jewelry, laptops. Greg carries the photo albums upstairs. We take shifts sleeping. 

Day 3: Sunday, August 27

I wake up to a text about five deaths in Houston overnight. But our house has not flooded. We still have power and wifi. Rain stops for most of day. Our neighbors across the street’s (C&L) yard is totally submerged. They are now worried about flooding. Their neighbors on either side flooded overnight. We quietly pass the day stress-cleaning, reading and watching the television. Later we drink a bottle of wine with C&L. The real concern becomes the release of water from the Barker and Addicks dams west of us. This has never been done but the Corps of Engineers became worried that the dams would break because of the water levels getting so high. The dam’s runoff flows into Buffalo Bayou which impacts us and the stream behind C&L’s house. So a new worry tonight. We make ourselves go to sleep by 11:15 and have a full night’s sleep for a change. 

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Hurricane Harvey dropped 1 trillion gallons of rain on Harris County.

Image: Shutterstock

Day 4: Monday, August 28

Last night was quiet but so, so many are still being rescued. A good friend off Briar Forest spent the night on the roof with her family. Watching the boat and helicopter rescues on TV is devastating and here we are with A/C, TV, wifi, lights and food while all around us people are being evacuated. We couldn’t go outside because steady rain at day—hard at times and gusty at others. We don’t like all this added rain. We are realizing that we are in the middle of a huge disaster and it feels apocalyptic. After dinner we went to C&L’s and saw how they raised all their downstairs furniture up four or five inches off the ground. They had spent all day making preparations. But with the dam release and the continuing pounding rain, it all feels like it would be futile. You can not see their pool for all the water. Very upsetting... Flash flood warnings still blaring from our phones. Constant worry in the back of my mind about the dam breaking.

Day 5: Tuesday, August 29

It feels like Groundhog Day. More of the same. I can’t believe it’s only Tuesday. It should be Friday for sure. I am shocked when I see the date. Wake up to C’s post about 4 a.m. that he couldn’t fight the water any longer. Very worried about them, but figure they are probably sleeping upstairs after staying up all night wet vac-ing their floors. Feeling very down. Refuse to look at TV anymore. I go outside in my boots and see how high the water has gotten. It is all over C&L’s yard and then over the ditch by our houses. We then see that Memorial Drive and Tallowwood—100 yards away—is really deep and boats are rescuing people from Legend Lane, Hollow Drive, Pines Apartments, Memorial Drive Town Homes and more. All those streets, homes, apartments have flooded overnight. I feel mad. I feel like the dam release is filling up Buffalo Bayou and making the flooding so much worse than it should have been. I am wet and angry.

In an effort to leave the house, we bike to the bridge on Kimberley (by Town & Country Village) over Beltway 8 and look down. It is the most incredible, freaky, terrifying sight. Beltway 8 is filled with flood water. This is 30 feet of water, like a deep river flowing by. It absolutely blows our minds. We suppose the roadway is holding some of the water that might have flooded our house. Back home, we watch more of the rescue operations by our house. Families and pets keep coming by the boatload. Helicopters circle overhead. Greg lines up in his car to help transport families coming off the boats to shelters. Later we go to our neighbors to see all of their floors, the lower parts of their walls and some cabinetry ruined by a few inches of water. We feed our neighbors lunch. I watch more rescues behind our house after that and see a deer rescue by wildlife people. Who knew we had wildlife here? Such a long day.

We sit on our porch later and see the sun come out at about 5:30 p.m. The sky turns blue and feels heaven-sent. I think everyone in Houston breathes a collective sigh of relief at the same time.  The temperatures feel cooler. This moment pleasantly ends an extremely tiring and stressful day. But it still feels like we are under house arrest and the day is not over.

Later, my neighbors come over to shower and report that they got most of the water out of their house and have made a plan to save their kitchen cabinets. We walk them home at about 11 p.m.. The water had risen over their sidewalk in an hour. This feels ominous. 

Day 6: Wednesday, August 30

This day starts at 4:30 a.m. when I look out and see our street is filled with water. I sleep a bit more. At 6 a.m. I see the water creeping into our driveway. Creep is what the water does all day. Silently, insidiously, slowly, bit by bit all day. By night it is at our bottom step and seeping into the garage and in the whole backyard. No flash flood for us, no; instead just that insidious creep. Water torture. It is creepy. No pun intended. Our neighbors tell us they have water inside—again—and it's rising slowly. They know they have to evacuate. We wait for them to gather everything and then along with some strangers we’d never met help them move their essential things to their cars. Seeing everything floating around is awful. I’ve been in flooded homes after the water receded, mine included. But being there with the water in the home is just heartbreaking. Photos and books float by along with notes and paper cups. The dank water is way over my boots, two feet maybe. At the end, L and I cry and hug a lot. We are losing our best and closest neighbors. Everything is different here now. Nothing will be the same.

Later, rescue efforts are in full force. Air boats, canoes, kayaks, ski boats, fishing boats are all going in to evacuate families and pets. Evacuees are just sitting around the shopping center behind our house looking lost. I see a lady sitting with a bird in a cage wearing house shoes and vacant look. Union Kitchen, where we ate Friday night, is flooded. When we went back to our yard, we see the water has gone up. Greg tells me to pack a suitcase to be ready to go. We put low things and valuable items on tables and counters or upstairs. Parker brings his car around to the dry spot further up Tallowwood and Greg wheels King, our 13-year-old dog, out in a wheelbarrow.  They also take our suitcases out through the water to our cars a block away on dry ground. Despite all the devastation, it is a sunny, hot day. My nose is sunburnt from being outside.

Later, we walk in our boots through the muck to the wine bar at the other end of the street and it is like a normal sunny day with cars going back and CVS open. At our end, we were knee deep in murky, dank, stinky water and at the other, it is life before Harvey. Bizarro land. We share wine with friends for an hour or so and by the time we get back to hurricane world on our end of the street, the water has gone up more. It is definitely creeping deeper into the garage. We are checking the water every hour or so and will take shifts (again) in the night. The bullfrogs are making a symphony outside our windows. It sounds like we are on a lakeside vacation.

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Clean-up has just begun this week in many West Houston neighborhoods.

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Day 7: Thursday, August 31

The water doesn't recede overnight, but neither does it go up. Stable, I’d say. We wake up to coffee on our lakefront porch and shed some exhausted tears. In the afternoon, we walk out to our cars for the first time. We put on boots to walk across lawns to get to our cars because the driveway and street are still flooded, but it stops halfway down the street. We drive to a friend’s house a few blocks away to rinse off and change our shoes before heading out. In their neighborhood, the yardmen are working in all the yards, just like a normal Thursday. The mailman is making his rounds. None of that is happening a few blocks away at our end of the neighborhood. Helicopters circling remind us that life is far from normal.

By the time we are both home in the evening, the water has receded some and we sleep better for the first time in six nights.

Day 8: Friday, September 1

Water recedes even more. Boat rescues are continuing 100 yards away at Memorial Green. In the late morning, the mayor puts our area under a voluntary evacuation. They urge people with water in their homes to vacate. So I think the boats are now officials going door to door to urge people to evacuate. But then I see a fire truck and ambulance with stretchers. We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Did I mention that we had guppies swimming in our yard yesterday and Wednesday? Now that the patio and driveway are dry, we have dead worms everywhere. Harvey racked havoc on the worm population. Parker brings back King after two nights. I hug him so hard. Two nights feels like forever without our dog.

Later our neighbors on the other end of our street have a potluck for everyone to share stories. We laugh and cry together. Once we just passed each other in our cars, now we are eating a meal together. It helps a lot. It’s not over for our city, but this diary is over for me. I have a lot to process. We all do.

As we look at the numbers from Harvey, we now hear that almost 70 percent of the homes in Harris County have damage. We are part of the fortunate few. Then why do I feel so bad? So much has shifted in the two weeks, and now we face months of clean up, traffic, frustration and the smell that won't goes away—Harvey, the monster, won't go away.

Harriet Riley is a freelance writer focusing on creative nonfiction. She publishes primarily short nonfiction pieces in magazines and on-line publications. Before moving to Houston in 2007, Harriet taught undergraduate writing classes at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. She has also worked as a non-profit director, hospital marketing director and newspaper reporter. She has her master's in print journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and her bachelor's in English and journalism from the University of Mississippi.  She is in her 10th year with Writers in the Schools and is honored to teach in a variety of settings with WITS. She also teaches an adult creative writing class through the Spring Branch Community Education program.

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