Saturday, September 30, 2017

Into Uncharted Territory

Come Monday morning, I will be unemployed for the first time in my life.

I started working a day job back in February 1999. Of course, back then, it was the only job. I have worked steadily ever since. As 2017 rolled around, everyone at my company knew the project for which we were hired to work would end. For many of my co-workers, that end arrived back on 30 June. For me and two other technical writers, we got an extra three months. That time ran out on Friday. Actually it was Thursday since my boss decided we three didn’t have to come to work yesterday. T’was a nice gesture and we thanked him for it. Actually, yesterday just seemed like one of my bi-weekly days off. Come Monday, things will be different.

I don’t know about y’all but I love to work. Sure, the paychecks are nice and necessary, but I crave the structure and routine of work. I enjoy working through problems, developing content, and delivering products. I enjoy using my skills to help my company and my clients. I have no problem with getting up in the pre-dawn darkness, knocking out a thousand words, and getting the boy out to school and me to the office. I was fortunate enough to work close to my house, enabling me to come home for lunch with the wife.

Come Monday, all of that remains in place except the office part. Everyone I speak with tells me I’ll find something. I know I will, but it’s the uncertainty that’s new to me. I’m the type of person who is ready to establish a new work/life routine as of yesterday. I’m ready for the next day job challenge and I’m eager to dive into a new set of assignments and delivery high-quality documentation.

But until that next day job arrives, it’ll be time for a new routine. And I think everyone here knows exactly what it will entail. For the longest time, I’ve always referred to my day job as the primary job and the fiction writing job as the other one. Come Monday, that routine will be flipped. I’ll be here, writing most of the day, every day. The early morning part will remain the same: wake, get the boy off to school by 6:25 a.m., and then, instead of hopping into the car to head off to work, I’ll come back here and start my new novel. I purposefully didn’t work on it yesterday or today and I won’t do anything tomorrow. For the near future, my fiction writing job is my day job. I’ll be living (admittedly not of my own choosing) the life of a full-time fiction writer.

It is what I ultimately want, but I’m not ready yet. I’ll make the most of it, but come Monday, I’ll be looking forward to the day in which I can be a full-time technical writer again.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Son of Houston-con: An Old-School Comic Convention

It’s not everyday you get to meet a man who helped open your eyes to a larger world.

About a month or so ago, I was in my local Bedrock City Comics store to see if they had any of the old western pulp magazines featuring Texas Ranger Walt Slade as written by Bradford Scott. They did and I bought one. On the checkout counter was a flyer for something called “The Return of Son on Houston-con.”

Now, longtime comic readers will note the checkerboard along the top edge
reminiscent of DC Comics from the 1960s. That alone caught my attention and intrigued me. Other than Comicpalooza back in May, all the other comic conventions were cancelled or postponed this year, so I was more than happy to see what this con was about. And for $5 for two days? It was almost like theft.

The other thing that lodged in my brain was the venue. It was a hotel. The first conventions I attended here in Houston back in the late 70s and early 80s were in hotels. Nothing against the way cons have evolved over the decades—with the expansion of what’s on sale to the cosplaying—but there was something cool about a small con. As I walked into the hotel last Saturday, I held hope that the con would be a throwback to the cons of old.

And I was rewarded.

Son of Houston-con was entirely held in two, non-contiguous rooms. One room featured toys. I bypassed that room when I first got there because I want to see the comics. They were there, all in one not-too-large room. Bedrock was there and much to my happiness, owner Richard Evans brought all his pulps! Naturally, I snatched up the remaining Thrilling Western titles featuring the adventures of Walt Slade. (I discovered an interesting story, “The Sun Rises West,” and read it first; here is my take.) I also gravitated to the dollar boxes of another vendor. Slowly, I made my around the entire room, reveling in all the vintage material, including this, a program from Houstoncon ’71. What the cover doesn’t reveal is that Kirk Alyn, the first live-action Superman from the 1940s serials, was the featured guest.

After a walkaround of the toy room—which had an original Six Million Dollar Man 12-inch action figure and the Evel Knievel scramble van—I was just about to leave when a man asked if I had enjoyed myself. I said yes, very much. He wore a name tag so I started asking him questions about the folks who organized the event. Turned out the name on the tag was the same name on the original flyer: Don Price. Very graciously, he told me a bit about the history of the original Houston-con back in the day—he attended that 1971 show; turned out the program was his—and the comic book collecting community here in Houston.

And then he dropped the name Roy.

Immediately my mind reacted. “You don’t mean the guy who owned Roy’s comic shop on Bissonnet?” [Right near Murder by the Book for folks who know where that shop is located.] Price said yes and offered to introduce me to him.

Now, for the younger folks who read these posts, y’all know there is such a thing as a comic book store. Throw in digital and there’s a myriad of ways to get every comic you want. But back in the day (gosh I sound old) the only place to get comics were spinner racks at grocery stores, drug stores, and convenience stores like U-Totem, 7-Eleven, or Stop n Go. And if you missed an issue, especially one with a cliffhanger, well you simply missed an issue.*

My grandfather who lived near Roy’s Memory Shop (that was the official name) would always drive me around to the various convenience stores in his neck of the woods. One day, I saw a shop with spinner racks near the front window. Not only that, his painted sign featured the Human Torch. What must this store be?

I walked in and it was nirvana. This was a store whose sole purpose was to sell comics and memorabilia.
 For a kid who devoured comics, this was heaven. Every time I visited my grandfather—probably once a week—he would take me there. It was in Roy’s Memory Shop I learned what day comics were released and was able to ensure I didn’t miss an issue. Once I learned stores like Roy’s Memory Shop existed, I never had to worry about comics again. I found one in Austin when I was in school there, another in Dallas, and again back in Houston with Bedrock City and The Pop Culture Company.

All of that is background and prelude. Mr. Price introduced me to Roy Bonario last week. I am an adult now, but some of my childlike wonder at discovering his store returned when meeting the man himself. I was able to tell him how much his store meant for a young kid like me and thousands of other kids over the years. He began talking about past Houston-cons, the business of collecting, and how much fun he had in talking with fans over the years. It was quite a moment.

Have y’all ever had a chance to meet your “Roy” and tell them how much what they did meant to you? I’ve had one other moment like this. It was up in Denton, Texas, and I was attending The University of North Texas for grad school. It was an evening class in the history building and we were all hustling to get to our lectures. A man, older than me, was walking in the lobby and his face was instantly recognizable to me. It was George King, my 10th grade world history teacher. He was the one responsible for igniting the fire of history within me. I had the opportunity to remind him who I was (he said he recognized me), why I was there, and that he was the one who flipped on that history switch.

*World’s Finest Comics #246 was one of the comics I bought from a spinner rack at a Stop n Go near my grandfather’s house. The lead Batman/Superman story was a cliffhanger. I scoured all those convenience stores for #247 but never found it. Many years later, guess where I found #247?

You don’t really need me to answer that, do I?

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Sun Rises West by Oscar J. Friend

Last week, I attended a small comic convention here in Houston that served as a throwback to the early days of comic book fandom. It was hosted in two rooms in a hotel. One room was devoted to toys; the other to comics. But, happily for me, the owner of Bedrock City Comics brought his pulp magazines.

I had been to his shop last month after I discovered Bradford Scott and his pulp hero, Texas Ranger Walt Slade, in paperback. After reading my first Slade novel, I wanted to read one of his old pulp exploits. I bought one issue of Thrilling Western and reviewed the Slade story. Naturally, I beelined to that section of the pulp magazines on sale last week, but I’m not here to talk about my next Slade story.

No, what I’m here to talk about is the odd mash-up of a western in a World War II setting.

The cover date for Thrilling Western volume 29, #1 is May 1942. I’m not sure how much lead time editor G. B. Farnum gave to writers, but Oscar J. Friend’s story was definitely written after December 7, 1941.

 “The Sun Rises West” features cowboy Chuck Hardin. He’s been hired to work a cattle ranch out on Hawaii. With just the description of Hardin, you know you’re in for a treat: other than battered suitcases and his typical cowboy attire (you know what I’m talking about), he brings his Winchester and two double-action .45 six-shooters. The other character comment on Hardin’s attire more than once.

There’s a girl here, but she doesn’t figure too much into the story other than the typical rivalry between Hardin and Montague Townley, the ranch’s manager. With a name like that, you also know what kind of man he is. Well, there’s also a native Hawaiian co-star in Hamelaki George who fills the role perfectly.

And you already know who the bad guys are just from reading the story’s title and sub-title: A Novelete [sic] of Texas Guns in Hawaii. Yup, the Japanese, specifically the houseboy Mikimatu. The old pulps were filled with descriptions and terms we in the 21st Century cringe at, and that’s all there. But Friend piles it on. After being introduced to Mikimatu, cowboy Hardin never pronounces his name correctly for the rest of the story, instead using terms like “Mikiblotto.” The physical
descriptions are worse. But that was a different time, and when Friend wrote the story and the readers consumed this story six months after Pearl Harbor, I don’t suspect many minded.

Speaking of Pearl Harbor, it doesn’t take a genius to know that’s when this story takes place. The day is lost for America, but Hardin, naturally, wins the day at the Robinson Ranch.

The story is good and about what you’d expect. Not much to write home about, but it’s a fantastic snapshot at a particular time and place.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Stories from Harvey, Part 4

Ever since last week’s column discussing my experience during Hurricane Harvey, I created an impromptu series of posts focusing on my little stretch of west Houston. Here is Part 2 and Part 3.

What characterized this week was plain and simple normalcy.

My boy went back to school on Tuesday. His school is out in Katy so the commute was interesting considering the carpool dad (not me) would have to find a way to cross the flooded Buffalo Bayou. The answer was the same for most folks in west Houston: go out to Grand Parkway 99. I heard some insane stories of multi-hour commutes. Houston’s traffic is already legendary. The post-Harvey traffic will likely be the award winners for years to come. A friend on Facebook lives only 2 miles from her hair salon, but those two miles involve crossing the bayou. This week, it took her 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to work.

I have the luxury of living close enough to my office that I could walk or bike, but I’ve not even had to bother. My company has been closed since 28 August, so it’s been an unexpected two-week holiday. I was able to complete a western novel, install a new window A/C unit in my wife’s studio, and continue my bicycling around the area.

By Thursday, much of my stretch of west Houston was all but normal. The water was receding at a glacial pace, but by Thursday, you could see the line of debris along most streets and curbs. I rode to a shopping center on Eldridge, ground zero for the Cajun Navy’s efforts in west Houston, and was able to ride onto the sidewalks directly in front of the stores for the first time in over ten days. A car had emerged from the water since the day previous. Sure, it was a small one, but to think it had literally been underwater for ten days was amazing.

Around behind the center, an open trash dumpster showed the water line. And you don’t have to imagine the smell. It wasn’t pleasant.

Neither was the line of …stuff floating in this water. That plastic toolkit was floating this way and that. Behind that fence, down Enclave, an alarm bell clanged. I wasn’t sure how long it had been ringing but no one seemed bothered to answer its call.

I stuck my phone up to a beauty salon’s front door. The floor looks pretty gross, but the chairs and supplies up on the shelves appeared undamaged. At first I thought there would be salvageable items in there, but after talking to a man who owned a nail salon, he said all the chairs would have to be replaced. Too contaminated. Likely this beauty salon will have a similar fate.

A little way up the street is the St. Basil the Great Greek Orthodox Church. When I got there, they were closed up for the day, but I noted a few things. There was a forklift and platt full of water bottles. Children had taken the time to draw on the sidewalk with chalk. My mind wondered if they were victims of the storm or cheerleaders helping to boost the spirits of the first responders.

I suspect by Monday, when I join my fellow Houstonians and return to work, most of my daily activities will be all but back to normal. In driving out to Katy yesterday, nearly the entire commute went by without seeing any physical examples of the hurricane. Now, half the commute was along the Barker Reservoir so I knew the other side was still full, but little-to-no damage could be seen. It was a shocking revelation considering I hadn’t had the need to travel far from my neighborhood for over ten days. I expected to see more destruction. I know it’s there; all I’ll have to do is go north once I’m able to drive that way. Highway 6 opened its north/south lanes late yesterday so the commute times should be reduced. When it’s fully clear, I’ll make a trek and see some more of my city and offer assistance.


Speaking of assistance, if there’s one Lesson Learned from this entire experience, it is this:

Form a Social Media group with members of your neighborhood. The information we passed along to each other during the storm was invaluable. It pooled the brains of more than the people in my own house. But as the storm abated and the sun came out, we continued to share information about water conservation, which families were taking food up to the fire and constable and police stations, and any other storm-related news. So, if you don’t already have a social media group—we use Facebook—with your neighbors, make one.

When a storm like Harvey comes ashore, you discover your neighbors aren’t necessarily just the ones living next to your house. You don’t meet a stranger after an event like this. You have to expand your definition of “neighbor” to include your entire subdivision, city, state, and, of course, the nation. We have been blessed with so many people coming to Houston to offer help because the need is here.

And the need is about to be felt in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. As I’ve been following the news about Hurricane Irma, its wind speed, and its sheer size, I’m gobsmacked. That thing is larger than the state! Where the hell do you go? Houston got a mind boggling amount of water dumped on it, but we didn’t get the wind. That’s the one thing that always freaks me out when it comes to hurricanes. So as things get back to the New Normal here in Houston—and we’re not without our own challenges, of which I’ll still write—my thoughts and prayers go to Florida today.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Stories from Harvey: Part 3

(This is part 3 of an impromptu series looking at the impact of Hurricane Harvey on a small stretch of west Houston. Here is Part 1, and here is Part 2.)

Late yesterday afternoon, what struck me most was the quiet.

As I have done for over a week now, I rode my bike to various points near my neighborhood. The first stop was the Dairy Ashford/Ashford Parkway intersection. What was once a flowing river is now calm and dry. The water had drained enough so that there were three distinct pools of water: on Dairy Ashford north to the bayou and the two subdivisions that flank the intersection. Where the water was gone, the cement and surrounding dirt was a dry as you’d expect in early September.

The two policemen stationed at this crossing were new to me, but they still enjoyed and appreciated the baked goods I delivered on behalf of my wife. “What, are you trying to make me fat?” Officer Hightower said with a smile. When I mentioned we had dropped off a couple of pies at the west Houston substation, Hightower stopped me. “The cherry and the apple?” I said yes. “I only had the cherry, but it was one of the best cherry pies I’d ever had.” It made my wife’s day to hear that feedback.

Hightower was working with another officer from El Paso. When I mentioned he was now the third officer from El Paso I had met, he grinned and said, “Well, you have only thirty-three more to go.” I’d love to meet them all and thank them.

The Stonehenge neighborhood still had water in the back of the neighborhood. Two law enforcement men guarded the area, one at the entrance and one at the water line. When I got to the water line, a lady and three men milled about. They meandered around a pickup with the tailgate open. Inside were waders, all with camouflage. The price tags still hung on the zippers.

The woman walked over and talked with one of the men operating a boat. Even now, a full week after Harvey finally hightailed it out of town, people were still boating back to their homes to salvage what they could. The woman wore a purple LSU t-shirt and she hustled back and told the men to suit up in the waders. She got into a pair and I asked if it was her house they were trying for. No, it was her mother’s house. She lived back in a cul de sac. I told her I knew exactly the cul de sac because there was a nice big corner house that decorated big for Halloween and Christmas. For Halloween, the owners put giant spiders all over the outside of the house. It had always been a destination location during the holidays. The woman smiled wanly. That was her mother’s house. It had sustained two to three feet of water. Most of the important things had been moved upstairs, but the ground floor was all but lost.

I rode past my office building—open for business, but my company was still out until Thursday—and noted the water had receded some. The smell was what hit me most. Couple sewage backwash with 90-degree heat and humidity and you can pretty much imagine the stench wafting through the air. It made me ride just a bit faster because the wind kept the odor out of my nose. The only other office building with folks working had their parking garage still under water. Well, the first floor. They parked their cars up and down the side street. The woman I spoke with said her company was on a skeleton staff until the water receded further and opened up the garage. That’ll likely be next week. Her home was fine.

A middle-aged couple stopped me and asked for directions to get to Highway 290, the northwest road out of Houston to Austin. I sighed and told them they were in for a long commute seeing as how it was after four. They were undaunted. They were also smiling. They were house hunting. Their home was inundated with water. It was a total loss.

After more than a week of not being able to get close to the intersection of Eldridge and Enclave—the site of many a rescue by the Cajun Navy—I threaded my way on dry land, through parking lots, and over medians to reach the shopping center that housed Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, arguably one of the best Mexican restaurants in Houston. Their mole enchiladas are THE best I have ever tasted. The restaurant was located the closest to Eldridge so I suspected substantial water damage. Surprisingly the debris line was only about eight inches.

When I looked inside, I noted people inside working to clean up the interior. With a pantomime of me talking on a phone (not sure what I was thinking there), Daniel Ruiz, the general manager, opened the door and talked with me. He showed me around the inside, pointed out how they were cleaning up, and noted that they didn’t have any carpet. With a sense of pride, he said he planned on reopening on Monday. My family had already had a hankering for Mexican food—our favorite restaurants are either flooded or inaccessible—and I’m already looking forward to Monday.

 Not sure of the science behind this, but on the curb there appeared to be leaf impressions. Granted, It’s likely just mud, but they certainly appear to be hurricane fossils.

Speaking of odd images, the detritus of the area told its own stories. With traffic nonexistent at that intersection, the only sound yesterday was of rushing water, not a sound I expected so I searched for the source. It was across the street in the other shopping center. The water had broken through a wooden fence and now gushed downward. If there was one thing Harvey taught all Houstonians it was topography. We may be a city on a flat land, but we all know where the slopes and rises are now.

Not sure why someone abandoned their suitcase in front of the Holiday Inn—closed until further notice—but there it sat, baking in the sun. Note the car across the street, its front end dipping into the ditch.

The residents and workers of the Holiday Inn went to extraordinary measures to safeguard their cars. Not sure I would have thought to do this, but this person did. See the water line on the tire.

When the water rescues were in full swing, many people swarmed the area. I found this little makeshift path fascinating. The rescuers used what was on hand to avoid vehicles and people languishing in the mud.

The Residence Inn by Marriott was still open. This being the Energy Corridor, we have many folks from other countries. I spoke with David Snow, the manager of the Residence Inn and he explained what they did to help the foreign visitors who had nowhere else to go. They evacuated the first floor and put people in any other room up to the top floor (I think it was six). They also brought all the food to the second floor, including the beer and wine to make his guests comfortable. Finally, they were able to isolate the electricity from the first floor to prevent a short circuit.

I complimented him on the effort he and his staff took. He was stuck at the Inn for the duration of the storm, unable to get back to his northwest Houston home. Thankfully, his home sustained very minor leaking. I said it must have been something to watch the Cajun Navy from his front row seat. He shook his head in admiration for the effort they put forth. He mentioned he would walk the perimeter of his hotel at one, two in the morning. He’d see some of those guys jump on their boats and motor off into the darkness. He wouldn’t see them again until morning when they’d be brining back survivors.

Right as I was leaving the Residence Inn, I ran into two soldiers, Aldridge and Cantu from the National Guard. These young men said they were staying at the Inn and it was the first real bed they’d had in a week. They had been deployed out in Orange, Texas, on search and rescue and had returned to Houston for additional duty.

When I got away from the water line and kept going south on Eldridge, signs of life reemerged. The cars thundered along the street, joggers ran their routes, and parents pushed babies in strollers. Much like the residents of some neighborhoods who put signs on their front yards pleading for the power company not to turn off their lights, businesses along Eldridge were eager to let the public know they were open for business.

Yes, that is a Japanese restaurant right next to a French restaurant and bakery. On the other side of the bakery is a Thai restaurant followed by an Indian one. If you love food, west Houston is a fantastic place to live.

Actually, no matter what, west Houston is a great place to live. We’ve sustained terrible damage and it’ll take weeks, months, and years to get back to where we were before Harvey, but we’ll get back.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Stories of Harvey: The Protectors

I received some nice compliments from folks who read the initial post regarding my personal experiences with Hurricane Harvey here in Houston. As I wrote in some of the responses, I’m a writer. My story is one among millions.  The process of writing the piece was emotional yet cathartic. I document my life, usually by writing about books, music, and films, but the hell that Harvey wrought was too large to ignore.

One thing about an experience like this: you rarely meet a stranger. If you are a person who doesn’t like to chat with other folks, a common experience like this is the perfect ice breaker. More than once this week during my daily bike rides around my area, I would stop, look at where the water is, and just start talking with folks.

Yesterday, I paid specific attention to the policemen. They had the unenviable job to protect the mayor’s order of a mandatory evacuation in the flooded Buffalo Bayou zone. My house is a few hundred feet south of the southern border line. It is on various north/south streets that I have visited every day to check on the water lines.

Dairy Ashford / Ashford Parkway Intersection

Of all the places I visited regularly, it was the most devastating. It is a split road with a median. By Sunday, 27 August, just the first day, it was impassable north to the bridge over Buffalo Bayou. It only got worse as the week progressed.

But by yesterday, 3 September, much of the water that had been rushing east across Dairy Ashford was now gone. The neighborhood to the east still suffered and the one to the west was worse, but you could see the road.

There’s a Super K convenience store where members of the Texas State Park police and other first responders had stationed themselves. It was their job to get back in the neighborhoods, assess if there were folks still living in their homes, and get them out. Some people probably feared for their belongings, but the police were there for protection.

I met two HPD officers standing guard. In the late afternoon sun, I was in my t-shirt and shorts. They were in full uniform, Kevlar included, sweating up a storm. But they were in good spirits and happy to talk with me. The first thing I noticed were their badges. With the death of Officer Steve Perez in the hurricane, one of their own was down. They wore the mourning badge ribbon with the Latin inscription Nemo Me Impune Lacessit, which translates to “No one provokes me with impunity.” They mentioned it, but I told them I knew all about Officer Perez. I think the entire city knows about him.

The homes of these two officers, Officers Horowitz and Gonzalez, were spared although Officer Horowitz, who lives farther west of me in Katy, said the waters were rising up his driveway when the rains stopped. While I was there, the telephone lines into the affected neighborhood were reestablished. Seeing my son, the telephone worker proudly announced the Internet was back on. “And that’s the most important thing, right?” My son agreed. Heck, I did, too. Late on Friday afternoon, we had the hat trick: our power went out, our cable went out, and our cell phone went out. At least all three worked through the storm.

Officer Horowitz commented that the toughest part of policing this particular stretch of Houston was that the bayou had flooded all the north/south streets, but the boundaries of this district included the area north of the bayou. If a call came in and they needed to go north, they would have to drive all the way to Voss Road, about seven miles to our east just to get up to Interstate 10 and then come back. He mentioned that HPD may have to create a temporary solution until the roads are again passable.
He and his partner had to stop one driver from approaching, but when they all started talking and laughing, I knew it wasn’t a bad situation. A few minutes later, they were called away. I thanked them for talking with me and making sure the area was safe.

The Neighborhood

There are two neighborhoods directly to my north that were affected by the flooding. In both cases, the backs of the neighborhoods were flooded while the fronts were not. I monitored the water lines all week long. Yesterday was the first day I did not. It felt weird. By yesterday, the water levels in the two reservoirs was down enough that the Army Corps of Engineers was lessening some of the drainage at the spillway.

The mayor’s evacuation notice was only for folks still living in homes with water inside. When the announcement was made, the city drew a large rectangle. To help people make up their minds, he was going to have Counterpoint Energy turn off the power to the affected houses. What about the homes in the affected area but without water damage? They were fine, said the mayor, but that didn’t stop more than one family to erect signs like this.

Yesterday afternoon after five, I rode into Shepherd Trace. A police suburban was parked at the water line, about thirteen houses inside the subdivision, a far cry from the previous water line about three homes in. One officer was inside, the other was outside having a cigarette. I stopped and started talking with the officer inside. He was HPD Officer Vu. He told me much the same as Horowitz in terms of what they were required to do. I asked when he was off the clock and he said six. The only provision was that he and his partner couldn’t leave until another team showed up. Sometimes that could take an extra hour or so.

His partner turned out to be Officer Rodriquez from El Paso. His uniform was different that HPD’s—he wore his gun belt with a leather strap crossing his chest—but the different shade of blue gave away his identity. I thanked him for coming all the way out here to help us. (For you non-Texans, El Paso is 744 miles away, about a ten-hour drive.) He was very deferential, stating that he and all the other officers from other municipalities were here to help their fellows in HPD. That kind of camaraderie is certainly what permeates the men and women who wear a badge and swear to protect civilians like me. But it was when I asked him if he was getting paid by FEMA that he revealed his character. He said he hoped so, but if not, it would be volunteer time and he was happy to do it.

The Office Buildings

I live in the Energy Corridor and some of the buildings are close enough for me to bike to work or walk if need be. Enclave Parkway is a short road that houses a few companies like Schlumberger, Dow, and Sysco. You can drive north up Enclave to the first stoplight, but then you can’t go any further. That first stoplight is where the Sysco building is located and I wheeled up to their visitor parking lot where I met a security officer with “S. Connor” on her name badge. Her jurisdiction was up and down Enclave. When she saw Harvey approaching, she made arrangements for her dog and camped out in the Sysco building all during the storm until this past week. After the rain stopped, she patrolled all over the flooded area, sometimes in the truck, other times in the golf cart. She marked water line locations and which cars were stranded and flooded and reported back to her security company.

It was with frustration that she pulled out her phone and showed me a photo of a car. Its driver had, within the past hour, driven it into the water, perhaps as an attempt to get some insurance but perhaps not. Ms. Connor was inclined to think the former. It was a fancy sports cars and she lamented that the driver might have an easier time getting some money than she would. You see, when she finally went home, she arrived at her apartment and someone offered to take her to her place by boat. She said the comment stunned her and it took her a few moments to process. When she got to her house, it had flooded. She had prepared and stashed important papers and special things up “just in case a little water got inside,” but many things were ruined. The apartment company offered to move her and other residents to a different complex within its organization, but she would have to pay the higher rent. She couldn’t afford the extra $200, so today, in addition to filling out the paperwork for her ruined property, she’ll have to find a new place to live.

The Mobile Communications Station

There’s a school near me and it’s not everyday you see a tall antenna with a generator churning, giving it power. When I rolled up to the one man sitting there, I learned he was from Williamson County, Tennessee. He and his team of ninety folks from the Emergency Management Agency had driven seventeen hours to get down here. They were assisting the Houston Fire Department in getting people out of the evacuation zone. They were stationed at a nearby mall the previous day and he didn’t know where they’d sleep last night or where they would be stationed today. But he was happy to be here. “Houston and Texas would be there for us, so we’re here for y’all.”

Ours is a stretch of Houston where, if you didn’t know about Harvey, there were no visible signs of devastation or flooding. We are so, so fortunate. As the old hymn says, count your blessings and name them one by one. Those of us just beyond the flood line know exactly what the first thing on that list of blessings would be: a home.

I’m not the only one who knows that. Among the sounds of passing cars and distant helicopters still patrolling the area last night came the sound of Mexican music. One family was having a party in their back yard, the talking and laughter so welcome after the week we’ve had. It’s going to take a long time before true normalcy returns to Houston—we will likely have a new definition—but it was nice to know that on this holiday weekend, some bit of normal is already here.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

When Harvey Met Houston

I have the happy ending.

That is the fact you must know before you go any further. For all the details I relate in this post, there are thousands of folks like me who did not have the happy ending. It is for them my heart breaks and my eyes fill with tears.

SATURDAY, 26 August

When I woke a week ago today, my thoughts were on the folks down in Rockport. They withstood 140 MPH winds as Harvey ran ashore. For us in Houston, it was a gray day. We had prepared our house the previous day, so Saturday was a day of waiting. The rains started overnight (6 inches by 9am Saturday) and no one knew if the hurricane proper would meander up Highway 59 to Houston. Many stores closed around noon. We stayed home, satisfied our craving for a hamburger by grilling under the over hang of my house (it was raining of course), and just waited. The rain started.

By 9:00pm, I measured the bucket I was using as a rain gauge. It read 12 inches. So that was 12 inches in approximately 24 hours. I had made a few sandbags I used to divert some of the water away from our patio. That probably saved water from getting into our house.

We went to bed with the constant sound of rain. Overnight, my wife and I took alternating shifts. We woke up every two hours and checked outside. Still raining. Hard. Even when your shift was over and it was time to return to sleep, sleep was hard to come by, especially when every cell phone in the house would buzz with tornado warnings.

SUNDAY, 27 August

We woke to rain. It hadn’t stopped at all. I checked my rain bucket at 7:45 am. It read 12 inches. That was 12 inches since the previous night at 9pm. Total so far: 24 inches.

The rain slackened sometime through the day but never stopped completely. My son and I trekked out of our house for some scouting around, specifically at the bridge to our north.

I live south of Buffalo Bayou about half a mile. The two reservoirs y’all heard about are to my west (Barker) and northwest (Addicks). We are downstream. The bridge over Dairy Ashford has a depth meter, but I wanted to see the water in person. I wasn’t alone. Lots of folks were seeing what Harvey had brung to our neck of the woods. In west Houston, the Buffalo Bayou is a hiking/biking park with paved walkways and wide open stretches on the north side. The distance fluctuates but I’d say there is about 30-50 yards in many places from the north bank to the first line of homes. On the south, much less.

The rain had lessened, but never quit. The height of the water had reached the bottom of the bridge and the cement arch that ran across it. My favorite do-nut store, Shipley’s, had taken on about 8-12 inches of water. Dairy Ashford was blocked by water just north of the bridge.

 Even the roaches sought protection.

We were mainlining local TV coverage, KPRC, our local NBC affiliate, was our resource. In addition, there is an excellent local weather site, SpaceCityWeather, which features a couple of guys, one of which used to work for the Houston Chronicle. They were invaluable not only for their clear-headed forecasts but also because they were caught in the middle of it, too. They weren’t holed up in some bunker somewhere. When they were pessimistic, you knew to be worried. It was the worry and uncertainty that knifes through you. I carry stress in the back of my neck and upper back. By Sunday, those places hurt.

The rains started again and went for the rest of the day. By midnight, blessedly, the rain had completely stopped. The only sounds were the drips of water. It was blessedly silent. I checked my rain gauge. A new 10 inches, for a total of 34 inches. Maybe it was over. Still, the wife and I took shifts through the night. I had the 3am shift.

MONDAY, 28 August

Surprisingly, I woke at 6am to mostly silence. It didn’t last long. The rain started up again. I checked the perimeter of my house, picking up branches and shoveling mud to make it easier for water to flow. I even dug a couple of small trenches to get the water away from the house. But the rain was unrelenting. In seeing the radar images on the TV, you get the point of thinking: If the rain would just stop, the water would have a chance to do its natural thing and drain away. But the rain never stopped. That knife in the back of my neck twisted a little, but it was nothing like the evening announcement.

The Harris County Flood Control District, in communication with the Army Corps of Engineers, held a press conference. In it, they said the two reservoirs to the west of Houston, the Addicks and the Barker, were full. The fact was mind boggling. You can see in images just how big those things are. And they were full? And the Addicks was starting to overspill. They made the gut wrenching decision to open the dams and start draining the reservoirs. If they didn’t, there could possibly be a need for an emergency release. Or worse. I think you know what ‘worse’ is. The water flows into Buffalo Bayou. Yes, the bayou would rise. When a reporter asked a particular question, the answer was unambiguous: yes, houses that were dry up to that point [and had survived the hurricane’s rains] would be flooded.

Yeah, really.

I’m geek enough to admit that the famous line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan drifted into my mind: The needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few. When you see it in a movie, it’s a cool line. When the possibility that you might be in the few, that’s something else entirely.

That knife in my neck grew white hot. I literally felt it turn. My stomach dropped. My wife and I looked at each other, and it was a look only spouses know. Now what? At the time, they had no way to know exactly where the water would go, but it had to go somewhere. Like many around me, I frantically searched for information on the internet about elevation and distance from the bayou. The distance from my house to the lowest bend of the bayou was half a mile, about 3700 feet. My elevation—another fact I didn’t know before Monday—was 12 feet higher than the southern bank of the bayou that was already overflowing. It was now we had to make the call: stay or go? If we went, what do we take?

By this time, my neighborhood Facebook group—which, up until this past weekend was devoted primarily to play days and pool gatherings—was in high gear. One of the dads posted the neighborhood directly to our north, across an east/west road called Briar Forest, was flooding. Now, I’m a fiction writer so when I hear the word “flooding,” I start with Noah and work my way backward.

I drove north and assessed the situation. The back (northern) part of the other subdivision was underwater. Someone had put a brick to mark the water line. I could still see the brick. I checked two other north/south roads and marked their water lines. I came back home. With other information gleaned from the internet and other sources, we prepped the house just in case. I looked at the map and the topography of the area and began to think of just how much water needed to fill a sizable area in order for it to reach our garage door. It was a vast amount of space. And the water I’d seen was flowing north and east, away from our house. We decided to stay and took shifts again.

TUESDAY, 29 August

People ask me all the time why I’m so happy in the mornings. It’s because I woke up, something not guaranteed when you go to sleep. I woke on Tuesday morning, still to the sound of rain, but in my house. I smiled and immediately said a thank you prayer. I rode my bike and checked the water lines. Slight increase, but more or less holding steady. But they hadn’t opened the dams to full capacity yet. I rode to the nearest intersection to the Dairy Ashford bridge and couldn’t believe what I saw: Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel. Aw, crap! He never goes anywhere good.

In talking with my Facebook group and other neighbors and newly minted friends, most folks didn’t think the water would get as far south as my house. The government officials, too, issued an image of the extent they expected the flooding to get. My house still stood to the south of that line. It didn’t make Tuesday any better.

But by Tuesday afternoon, the winds had shifted, the rain had stopped, and blue sky peeked out from behind the clouds. As I wrote on Facebook, it wasn’t a rainbow, but it was darn close. Then the sun broke through. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one whose eyes filled with tears.

I hadn’t heard from all my friends and family, but I heard from some who had fled, some who had stayed, and some who got flooded. All the while, we stayed dry.

 Michael Ciaglo‏ on Twitter on Tuesday said it all: Maybe the best sunset Houston has ever seen, or needed #Harvey

After midnight on Tuesday, I sat in my reading chair, a wing back, stiff alcoholic drink on the bookshelf next to me. I sipped maybe twice and fell asleep in the chair.

WEDNESDAY, 30 Aug to FRIDAY, 1 Sept

Time has a way of scraping by when there is nothing but dread in your mind. The water appeared to be staying away, but more reports of friends started coming in. My Sunday School teacher’s house was flooded although he had safely evacuated. A trumpet player in the church jazz band/orchestra had three feet of water in his house. A member of my book club had to evacuate by boat, but his second story apartment was fine. Others were fine, like us. Now, my section of west Houston had no way of going north, but the southern paths were open. To give you an idea: if I wanted to get to Interstate 10, just a couple miles north of me, I would have to go 9 miles to the east or 16 to the west.

Each morning, the first thing I did was check the water lines. Both mornings had less water, but not very much. Everyone’s new best friend, Jeff Lindner of the Harris County Flood Control District, was a steady rock of unambiguous information.  He was typically up past midnight answering Twitter questions and dispelling rumors, specifically on whether or not the dams would fail. He knew his words would affect people's lives, and he delivered the news in a clear, straight-forward manner. By his own admission, he had been at the office a week and slept maybe 7 hours the entire time.

He had the bad luck to tell people that their homes would flood. By Friday, he had the unenviable
position of having to tell folks whose homes flooded as a result of the dam release that the flood waters would not recede for 10-15 days. Ten to fifteen days out of your house. Get your mind around that. Oh, and it would take three months (!) to drain the reservoirs provided it didn’t rain. We are in the heart of hurricane season and about to start autumn, a wet time here in Houston. You can do the math. Just imagine: it’ll take until Thanksgiving for the reservoirs to drain.

As I write this, around 8pm on Friday, the situation is still dicey. There’s a voluntary evacuation notice for folks living in a large rectangle with Briar Forest as the southern border. The reason is the officials don’t want folks to hunker down in a second floor of a house for two weeks with no way to get out.  The two Kroger grocery stores near me are open but with certain staples like bread, milk, eggs, and produce down. In one of the moments that made me chuckle, when I went to stock up on things I missed last week, many heads of cabbage still remained. I guess some folks don’t know what to do with cabbage.

Oh, and the internet is out at my house. At least it didn’t go out during the storm.

I have many things that’ll be hard to forget:

The sound of Coast Guard helicopters flying overhead.

The idea that there were children who were excited about starting school on 28 August having purchased all their needed school supplies and new clothes…and it’s all gone. And maybe their school is, too.

The idea that the parents of those children could do nothing to stop the rain or the flood waters from rising and taking away all they owned.

So many other stories you’ve likely already read or heard.

The emotions that overflowed me and my wife when we watched Lester Holt on Monday as he came to my hometown to report on this catastrophe. There’s something about a national presence that brings a different perspective.

But there are also all the stories of true heroism.

The heroism of our first responders was remarkable. The first truly memorable photo is this one showing Houston Police SWAT officer Daryl Hudeck as he carries Catherine Pham and her 13-month-old child.

Then there was Brandi Smith, the KHOU reporter, who helped save a man’s life. [LINK]

The heroism of the citizens with boats was also remarkable and not surprising. It’s just what people do. The idea that the Cajun Navy saw the need, hitched the trailers and boats to trucks, and hauled ass to Houston to help complete strangers. It’s just what people do.

The heroism (although he doesn’t like that term) of local furniture salesman Jim McIngvale who opened his showroom for survivors, not caring about the cost. Because it was the right decision.

The heroism of Mayor Sylvester Turner and Judge Ed Emmitt. They led us in a dire situation with steady calm.The same goes for Police Chief Art Acevedo who would also speak in Spanish so those folks could understand the issues.

The heroism of Officer Steve Perez who tried to drive to his station to help but got caught in the floods and drowned.

The heroism of our local media who stayed at their posts the entire time. Without them, we’d be in the dark and even more scared than we were.

The devotion of local officials like Jeff Lindner who stayed at their jobs when their own homes were being threatened or flooded because it was the right thing to do.

The heroism of the volunteers who came to the rescue of their fellow people.

The sight of the police cruisers from San Antonio and Fort Worth who came to town, sirens blaring and lights flashing, to take over and allow our local police officers a respite. It swelled the heart and made the eyes well up.

The hashtag #HoustonStrong has already made the rounds. Yes, it’s a hashtag, but it’s also the truth. We are a strong folk down here. We will rebuild, but Harvey has likely changed us. It brought to the fore what most of us already knew: Houston is a great place to live, with fantastic people, fantastic food, and fantastic culture. It is a melting pot of peoples from around the world. Out here in the Energy Corridor, you can go to parks and hear five or six languages spoken. We all came together this week for this unprecedented event. I want HoustonStrong to be emblazoned on everything and seared into our memories. When Harvey unleashed its worse, Houston stood up and showed its best.

They say that 1 trillion (here, let me show you the number: 1,000,000,000,000) gallons of water fell in four days here. You can look up the statistics of what that equals. The one that clicked home is that is the amount of water gushing over Niagara Falls in two weeks. We got it in 96 hours. Staggering.

 I heard a man on the local news who was then driving a boat to help people say something that pretty much sums it all up: There’s more love here in Houston than water.
He had the bad luck to tell people that their homes would flood. By Friday, he had the unenviable position of having to tell folks whose homes flooded as a result of the dam release that the flood waters would not recede for 10-15 days. Ten to fifteen days out of your house. Get your mind around that. Oh, and it would take three months (!) to drain the reservoirs provided it didn’t rain. We are in the heart of hurricane season and about to start autumn, a wet time here in Houston. You can do the math. Just imagine: it’ll take until Thanksgiving for the reservoirs to drain.