Harvey: First hurricane for this Oklahoma native
By Ginger Broomes
As a new southeastern Texas resident, I wasn’t here for Hurricanes Ike or Rita. Until Harvey, I had never been affected by a hurricane.
I grew up in Oklahoma — Tornado Alley — with the sounds of sirens each spring, our storm season. As children, we regularly did tornado drills in the halls of our schools — on the floor, facing the wall, bent down with our hands on the back of our necks, as if that would protect us from falling debris.
Before I moved south in 2015, my friends asked me, “Aren’t you scared of hurricanes?” Confidently I replied, “No way. You get a week’s notice it’s coming. Here, we get like 15 minutes!”
That was before my first experience with “the storm” — Hurricane Harvey. That confidence failed as I watched as the water rose toward my home in Orange, Texas, keeping my family stranded and keeping help from reaching us. I suddenly longed for a time with just a 15-minute warning because at least then we could run underground, and because the short warning also meant a short duration.
If they don’t strike directly — and I was lucky because one never did — tornadoes are temporary. You go underground and you emerge until the next one. Usually by late summer, you didn’t have to worry about it again until the following spring.
Hurricanes, on the other hand, have no short duration. As we saw with Harvey, it can move in, as it did with Houston, then move back out to the Gulf of Mexico, where it rebuilds strength before moving back to land again. If you survive the hurricane itself, the aftermath can last for years.
On Aug. 29, 2017, I’d been sent home early from my job in Sulphur. My employer was worried about us driving in the beginning deluge of Harvey. Rain had already started and hadn’t let up. My husband — born and raised in Orange — said at worst, the driveway might flood because our Little Cypress neighborhood backed up to a bayou. He’d been through Hurricanes Rita and Ike, and we were in a 500-year flood plain in a house on 6-inch piers so he really thought the storm would only be an inconvenience.
The rain continued when we went to bed that night. About 10 p.m., we heard a loud boom in the distance, and the power went out.
The rain hadn’t let up the next morning. Taking one glance down the driveway, I knew I wasn’t going to work that day. We were stuck, with no water, no food, and no way for anyone to get to us.
At the time, I didn’t know people in Orange who had boats were going house to house to rescue people. With emergency crews lacking access and no government assistance, other residents were the ones rescuing and checking on people.
I broke down as the waters rose, obscuring our front yard and the driveway until all we saw was a lake surrounding us on all sides. Earlier, I had taken food out of the fridge and put it into ice chests. We used what little bottled water we had to brush our teeth. We cooked food in pots and pans on a makeshift fire in our grill.
The main house wasn’t yet taking on water. But the add-on in the back that was level to the ground began to flood. We waded in rubber boots and waited. A neighbor we’d never met before greeted us — he was still waiting for his family to be rescued by boat after calling 911 over 12 hours earlier.
I had never felt so helpless. All the weather forecasts I’d paid such close attention to earlier in the week had not predicted such a rain, and we were not prepared.
The rain stopped on the afternoon of Aug. 30, 24 hours after it had started. The sun came out just as the water had begun to cover the tires of our cars and accumulated to a depth of over an inch in our living room. We held our breath and waited. We were still stranded and running out of food, and ironically, water.
Later that day, my husband waded to a neighbor’s home through a shared trail. Our home (save the small add-on) and the neighbor’s were the only ones in our neighborhood to not be submerged by a foot or more of water. Our neighbor lent us a generator that we used periodically to power fans to cool us off.
Because there was no government help, anyone who’d gotten out by that point had done so with the help of another neighbor and then later the Cajun Navy.
On Thursday, Aug. 31, we awoke to a changed world. Now on day three with no power or air conditioning in the brutal south Texas heat, and still trapped in our home with no communication to the outside world other than the radio, my husband set about trying to find help. Our road was still impassable. In addition to the drone of motorboats, helicopters became a constant sight overhead. It was like being in a war zone.
One street in our neighborhood was passable by truck. My other brother and sister-in-law, Lauren, lived in Vinton and once my phone service started working, I called them. Lauren fought her way to me. Interstate 10 was flooded going west past Orange toward Vidor and Beaumont; Louisiana was the only direction we could go. By now there were checkpoints and officials were not letting just anyone into Orange. Once she got in, we weren’t sure we were getting out. There were going to be more checkpoints along I-10 going into Louisiana.
Two blocks away from my home, I waded out, taking a zigzag of trails to meet her on a slight hill where the water had drained enough to allow a pickup to get through. In my bag were my most prized possessions, items I had hastily packed. Meeting her in the parking lot of Little Cypress Baptist Church, I tearfully said goodbye to my husband, who, as an employee for the city of Orange, had to stay behind during disasters. I felt like a refugee in a foreign country, with no idea of where I was going or what I would come back to.
Leaving my neighborhood, I saw just how bad it was everywhere in Orange. Several streets were impassible; we took roundabout ways to get out. Landmarks were obscured by water. Stunned people were everywhere, at convenience stores that had no power, grabbing everything, leaving the shelves bare. As we drove out of Orange I saw boats instead of cars on the city streets.
When Lauren first got me out of Orange, our first stop was a Vinton fast food restaurant. Next to the restaurant was a church with a sign that read, “If you need help, come in here.” Only a day or so outside of Harvey and our neighbors in Louisiana had marshalled food, drink and shelter for the Orange victims.
But it didn’t stop there. Everywhere I looked there were food banks and volunteers for Harvey victims. At the grocery store, if you mentioned you were from Orange, you got extra help, and a “God Bless You.” I had never seen such empathy before. It suddenly occurred to me that a distance of only 20 miles could be the difference between disaster and normalcy during a hurricane.
We were able to retrieve my car days later after the water receded further. At the I-10 Toomey-Starks exit, we waited in a single-file line to be let through, the police checking IDs to make certain people actually had business there. Many places in Orange were still underwater, and power lines were down.
Most vehicles behind us were trucks hauling boats — everything from two-man bass boats to larger airboats. It dawned on me that these were Louisianans, heading into Texas to rescue people. Every truck had cases of bottled water in their beds. It was the first glimmer of hope I’d felt since all of this had begun, and it amazed and strengthened me.
Days later, back in Vinton, as we were still without power and any services in Orange, I thought I could get home again. Entergy was fixing the power and slowly things were coming back online. But then the Sabine River — the border between Texas and Louisiana — had now flooded the interstate. Now I was trapped in Louisiana, with my husband back home.
For several more days I waited on news, this time of what the Sabine was doing. Never had my life been dictated by water as it was now. Water had kept me trapped in Texas, and now it was keeping me in Louisiana. Tornadoes came and went.
During my stay in Louisiana — and I’d lived there for two years prior to moving to Texas — I learned a lot about how they cared for their neighbor to the west.
About a week after I’d left for Louisiana, we were told that it was safe to go back to Orange. Loaded down with water and canned goods, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. Like something out of a movie, I headed onto I-10 where most of the exits were still flooded off the highway. I’d spoken to my husband and we were to meet at the only open exit.
My palms sweated as I searched for the exit. I met him at a truck stop that had just reopened since the flood, and it was the first time I’d seen him in a week. Separated by only a few miles, yet many feet of water, it was like something out of a movie I wanted no part of.
He was exhausted from sleeping atop his desk at his office in downtown Orange, and we were weary from being separated, and from not knowing what was going on. When I saw his city truck pull into the drive of the truck stop, I had barely put my car in park before getting out and flinging myself into his arms. This had been the scariest, most helpless feeling of my life.
The trip back home was surreal, and life would continue to be for weeks, months. We were nowhere near an ocean but it was as if one had taken over Orange. Destruction was everywhere. Now there was the National Guard, and the Red Cross, and Army tanks and stations and tents throughout the town. I had only ever seen these things on television, and here I was living it.
I realized very early on how lucky I was. We still had a home. There were, and would be, so many more who’d lost everything and a year later were still rebuilding.
To this day, our only saving grace was the generosity of others. Neighbors and even strangers helped our community before any formal help arrived. Church groups, the Cajun Navy, were there to rescue and provide meals. I’ve never seen anything like it.
When you are in a moment of devastation with nowhere to turn, the kindness of strangers sets you back along the path of rebuilding.