Jenny Block: Hurricane Harvey and the revelations of disaster

It doesn’t seem real.

The flooded homes. The boats floating down what were streets just a day before. Construction trucks dropping off load after load of people at makeshift shelters. Tiny babies wrapped in beach towels. The elderly and infirm being carried or wheeled or airlifted out of danger and into the sky. A retirement home filled with people sitting in waist height water. No help in sight.

It’s like a disaster movie at which you shake your head. “That could never happen.”

It’s happening.

I live 90 miles northeast of Houston. I spent the weekend of Aug. 26 in Waco. We had had the trip planned for more than a month. We were going with friends from Houston proper, so it made sense to keep our plans and get out of town.

By Sunday, Aug. 27, we weren’t sure they could get home. They made it though and their homes have stayed dry.

But they are the exception and not the rule. We found ourselves glued to the coverage while we were in Waco, and we haven’t been able to tear ourselves away since.

Before we left town, my fiancé cleared things away from the sliding glass doors, raised the boat and the jet ski, secured all of the furniture on the deck, raised everything up off the garage floor.

She told me we’d be fine. All I could do was trust her.

We got back from Waco late Sunday afternoon, stopping for gas and groceries on the way. As we got closer to home, we saw standing water and traffic lights out of commission. She was right. Our house was fine.

I felt equal parts lucky and guilty.

And the more I watched the coverage, the more I wished there was something we could do. But we couldn’t even get to Houston if we tried. The road to the city was out. And the rains kept coming. The forecast seems to change every minute, but the magic of humans in the face of tragedy did not.

It started strong and stayed strong.

On every station were people rescuing people, donating goods, caring for neighbors, opening their homes. Strangers were strangers no more.

When survival is the only goal, difference melts away. There is no race or gender or religion or sexual orientation. There are only humans in need. And good humans help other humans.

Furniture stores became shelters. Fishing boats became rescue vehicles. Private citizens became humble heroes.

The Cajun Navy joined the rescue from New Orleans, Katrina still all too fresh in their minds. Newscasters became a comfort to those seeking and finding rescue and shelter — some even leading the charge, connecting rescuers to those in need.

It’s a terrible shame that it takes a tragedy of such grand proportions to bring people together. But it is a source of great joy that it does, in fact, bring people together.

Tuesday, Aug. 29, 1 a.m.
It’s 1 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 29, as I write this. The rain is pummeling our tin roof. The lake is higher than we’ve ever seen it, waves lapping hungrily at the dock.

Robin can’t bring herself to turn off the coverage and come to bed. She’s watched it all through the night, dozing off on the couch for only a few hours.

Earlier in the evening I insisted we take a break and watch something benign. But neither of us could look away from our phones, with friends checking in and posting photos and updates.

Though I am dry and safe, I am still frightened and sad. Frightened for what the next few days might bring. Sad for the people who have lost their homes and everything they have come to know as their lives with no end to the waiting and temporary housing and loss in sight.

I am uplifted by the deeds of so many, including Houston’s incredible mayor, Sylvester Turner. And I am saddened — though not surprised — by 45’s callousness and the complete lack of empathy from Joel Osteen, always there to take people’s money but a total no show when his community needs him.

Osteen refused to open his megachurch’s doors, lied about being flooded, and even asked for money on his website: “We do not yet know all the ways we can help … if you would like to donate to our relief efforts, please do so here.”

Not sure how you can help, Osteen? Close your coffers and open your doors, the community begged.

Ultimately, under GREAT pressure from the community and the media, he did open his doors. Although many reported that he turned people away if they were not members or if they did not plan to join or at the very least donate. Shameful behavior on all counts no matter how you cut it.

That’s the thing about tragedy. It brings out people’s true colors in the most glaring light.

Tuesday, Sept. 5, 3 p.m.
It’s now 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5, as I finish gathering my thoughts and reflecting on this horrific and revelatory natural disaster. The waters are receding. The sun is shining. And over the weekend we had a houseful of Houston guests grateful for the chance to step away from the pain and the mess.

Funny how a simple weekend with friends can have such a massive healing effect.

It’s been crushing to watch the true devastation of a city you have just begun to fall in love with.

It is even more painful to watch your other half suffering as she watches her adopted hometown in ultimate crisis with no way to lend a hand.

The suffering is immense and shockingly close, and I am eternally grateful to have remained safe and dry and to have been able to help, even in the tiniest of ways.

I am also deeply grateful to have a woman by my side who is the ultimate Girl Scout in the face of adversity. If, God forbid, we ever do find ourselves in a natural disaster or other emergency, I know she would handle the situation with strength and grace, keeping me safe and protected and leading the charge to help those in need.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them; the first time.” — Maya Angelou

Note: If you’re looking for a simple, direct way to help, tampons, pads, wipes, and diapers (for babies and adults) are very much needed for evacuees. I have created a Target wish list where you can buy product or gift cards. Everything purchased will be distributed to shelters and agencies as needed. Just click here to donate:

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 8, 2017.