Some cities in Texas evoke certain imagery for Americans: For Austin, it’s tattoos, the State Capitol, bicycles, good tacos. For San Antonio, the Alamo and the River Walk.
But while Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country, my hometown’s identity has always been hard for me to describe. Sometimes when you tell people in other parts of the state you’re from Houston, you see a blank expression cross their face. What’s there to say about it? “Wow, it’s huge. The traffic, man alive.”
Now, in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey—the most extreme rain event in U.S. history—everything has changed. Suddenly I have a lot to say. I’m devastated for and proud of my gigantic hometown, and I wish I could be there to help.
From afar, I’ve watched Houston police officers and civilians and reporters band together again and again to save lives and provide shelter. “For a stunning moment the world has stopped fighting against each other and started fighting for each other,” Houstonian Angelia Griffin wrote on Monday. “It’s breathtaking.”
While I write this, as Emily Ramshaw of the Texas Tribune so aptly put it, local journalists from Kingwood to Bellaire are “providing an around-the-clock public service while picking through the remnants of their own homes, relocating their own families, and, in some extreme cases, typing on their laptops upstairs while floodwaters rush into their ground floors.”
We don’t know exactly how many lives and homes are lost, but we know the devastation is huge.
Greater Houston is sprawling, more than 10,000 square miles, and heavily populated, and a whole lot of it is under water. Some live in areas where the water’s already starting to recede, but those near the Barker or Addicks reservoirs may have their homes flooded for a full month.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told the Associated Press on Tuesday morning that he was “really worried about how many bodies we’re going to find” when authorities finally get the chance to begin checking for fatalities. They’re so inundated with rescue calls, they have barely been able to start yet.
Many of my friends have lost their homes, and I’m lucky to say that my family is safe and dry right now. The first photo I saw Tuesday morning showed two men riding Jet Skis through a destroyed shopping center not far from my childhood home.
I don’t even know what’s happened to the house where I grew up, which my dad designed from scratch and constructed, in part, with his bare hands.
But really—even if I didn’t realize it until this week—Houston has always been defined by the shared experiences of its more than 6 million residents. Catastrophic floods are nothing new for the city.
Everyone remembers the devastation wreaked by Tropical Storm Allison and the failed evacuation before Hurricane Rita. Everyone knows what it’s like to get stuck in traffic on 610 for hours or step into a burning hot car on a humid day or stand in line at our beloved state grocery chain H-E-B, or watch a commercial featuring Mattress Mack, who has as much gusto now as he did in 1990.
Some of my best childhood memories are of hiding in a closet with cousins during a bad storm—or the pivotal day when my brother and I got to skip school because my mom drove our navy blue minivan into a high-water intersection at his urging.
As the van flooded with water, my mother hoisted me, age 6, up onto her waist and held my older brother’s hand as we waded onto dry land and watched that now-iconic vehicle sink.
We wandered into a nearby office building, where I was allowed to eat vending-machine candy and then spent the rest of the day playing on the floor in my mom’s office with some kind of toy or book.
Allison was a lot scarier. Rita was legitimately terrifying once everyone ran out of gas on the highway without anywhere to go.
In each of those cases I was incredibly lucky and protected by my wonderful parents and grandparents, who have a lot of experience surviving Texas storms—and are doing it right now.
Hundreds and hundreds of volunteers have already sacrificed their well-being, time, and money to help others in our giant family of a city.
To me, the people in Houston have always felt welcoming and friendly—certainly compared to others like Dallas, though I won’t taint this love letter by ripping too much on our rival city.
Part of that scrappy, laissez-faire nature always felt connected to the extraordinary diversity in Houston, in nearly every possible sense of the word—financial, cultural, racial, geographic.
Thanks to fellow Houstonian Jia Tolentino, I learned this week that the city took in 200,000 Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s. And to this day, Harris County on its own welcomes nearly 25 of every 1,000 refugees the United Nations resettles anywhere on the planet.
That diversity is why we have such great food, including gigantic beef ribs and Vietnamese-style boiled crawfish and Southwestern Creole and pho and honest-to-God New York bagels. David Chang wrote this excellent sentence about my humble metropolis in 2016: “I’ve always wondered where the food in a Blade Runner-like future would appear first and what it would taste like—and I genuinely believe it’s here.”
And our hugeness and variety and our context in Texas means we can be a little too honest—and curse sometimes—but we’re rarely afraid to disagree.
“Houstonians aren’t passive-aggressive,” my mom likes to say. “They’ll tell you if they think you’re full of shit—but they won’t say it in a mean way. We’ve kind of lost that in this country.”
It’s also why, if you ask two Houstonians what their favorite aspect of the city is, you get laughably different answers. Some may say the food. Others will say the size—or the skyline or 97.9 The Box or Free Press Summer Fest or how easy it is to open a business (zoning laws, y’all).
What I’ve realized over the past few days, while watching my beloved city get destroyed by wind and rain, is that I still have so much left to discover about the place I was born and raised. I’m just praying now I have the opportunity to do it.