Since Harvey, I have been living in two places, the way you do when you’re in the midst of reading a book and you have its landscape tucked in your mind somewhere. One place is Chicago, where I live. We’ve been having a cool summer, a few sprinkles the last couple of days. Someone mentions school starting and I almost say: “But it’s starting late, because of the water.” The other place is my hometown, Houston, where the sky opened and didn’t close for days, drowning the region, a year’s worth of water with no place to go.
School is set to begin on time in Chicago.
A newsman broadcasting from a rescue boat in Houston points out my old elementary school, Kolter, which has three feet of water, with a high-water mark two feet higher. The school was named, our teachers told us, for the principal of another school who died in a fire, after everyone else escaped, like a captain going down with the ship.
“Who by fire and who by water”
You’ve seen the photos, the videos—devastation, heroism. You’ve read about the rescues and the deaths, and that it will take billions of dollars and many years to recover. One-third of the city water-logged.
The neighborhood I’m from, where the ABC newsman was, is called Meyerland, in near southwest Houston. It’s considered close-in, offers an easy commute for employees of the world’s largest medical center. It is named for George Meyer, who developed family-owned land (some of it rice fields) into a residential subdivision. Vice President Richard Nixon cut the ribbon at the dedication in 1955. Nixon praised one of the model homes as well as an H-bomb shelter.
And there is comfort, too, in community and continuity. My ballet recital when I was six was held in the downtown Music Hall, where we went for High Holiday services because the old Beth Yeshurun couldn’t handle the crowd, and where we would have our high school graduation, in our red robes that hid our squirt guns.
There were only six congregations in Houston back then, and one had such a low profile I didn’t know about it. I felt I knew someone from every Jewish family. And sometimes family secrets.
Now there are dozens of synagogues and any number of Jewish neighborhoods. In a way, we’re like Jews everywhere, and why do I say “we” when I’ve been living in Chicago all this time?
The state’s first synagogue, Beth Israel, was founded in 1859 in Houston by 32 young, mostly immigrant men. At least six of the men owned slaves, “though most only owned one as a house servant,” according to the Institute for Southern Jewish life. Just one. But still an enslaved person. Owned. You can find old post cards showing “Negroes” picking cotton in or near Houston, 1914, 1920, and you would swear you were looking at a picture of antebellum life.
Beth Israel was Orthodox, then Reform. When I was growing up, it seemed that everyone was more or less the same kind of Jewish, preparing for a double bar or bat mitzvah, boys bareheaded in school. No one was hippie-Jewish or Hasidic—just Jewish enough to use Hebrew letters to handwrite in code during public school classes. We did not think of ourselves as less-than Jews or faux Jews just because we were not in New York or Chicago or LA. We were our own norm. We didn’t know that they didn’t imagine that we existed.
“Where are you from? New York?” an interviewer asks my cousin J, who used to live across the street from us. J is an actor and a TV star. “No,” says J, “you’ll never guess.”
In the early 1960s when my parents “built” our house, as it was said then, meaning that they worked with an architect, they chose century-old brick for the outside and for an inside wall behind the gas fireplace. The smudgy grays and oranges and whites of the brick are homey and interesting. We called it a ranch house, though the official designation is Mid-Century Modern, the style that dominates Meyerland. They are mainly brick, one story, no basement, with front and back yards. There are small and large variations. Detractors have called them Ranch Burgers, to denote sameness, as in stacks of mass hamburgers. We never worried that the nearby Brays Bayou would do anything other than catch rainwater.
The husband of my friend S calls the architectural style Jewish Modern. For the last two high school reunion weekends the couple has hosted a party the night before the official gathering in their long low white brick house. In 2004, in the middle of our party, their daughter and her friends walked in, newly-graduated from our high school, Bellaire. I talked to them and for a moment I felt that we were the ones who were 18 with new diplomas, with a summer before us and then the rest of our lives.
At Bellaire in the early 1970s, there was an open campus for lunch, a smoking area, and a dress code that forbade two things: flip flops and bare midriffs. It was said and believed that Bellaire was the third best high school in the nation. It was not. I was not prepared for college. Because the curriculum was not demanding we had time for other things. I used to stay at school until the wee hours twice a week at school putting out the twice-weekly newspaper. The staff loved being by ourselves in the newspaper “shack.” The next day (which was really the same morning), I would drink from a big thermos of black coffee in class.
I’ve joined a Houston flood Facebook site, begun in 2015, when almost a third of Meyerland houses were water-damaged. The first few days of Harvey were filled with pleas for rescue. Wednesday they turned to practicalities: Do we have to tear up the hardwood floor? The sheetrock? Can you live on the second floor while the first floor is being replaced? How do you get rid of mold? There’s information about FEMA and insurance, dehumidifiers, rehab companies that are and are not reputable. Some people are trying to figure out if they should tear down and rebuild. No one, so far, has said they’re high-tailing it out of town. These are people of means and education, who have put down stakes.
In the ABC News video, the broadcaster pointed out the original ranch houses, which were inundated, and the newer elevated homes, which were dry.
Unlike Katrina, Harvey has been indiscriminate, destroying property of the rich, poor, and in between, and many ethnicities. As an old joke goes, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” This is true especially when recovering from a tropical storm.
Since Harvey, I’ve been calling my mother in the morning. She’s safe in a high rise where many of our former neighbors also live, Meyerland gone vertical. A building of grandmas, as my niece once said. I check on my sister, who sold her twice-flooded house this summer and is living in a townhouse with her husband and dog and excellent drainage. I checked on two of my former colleagues from the Greyhound Gazette at Albert Sidney Johnston Junior High. One is sheltering her mother (rescued via kayak) and some neighbors. The other is out of town. My friend B from Jewish nursery school, born one day ahead of me, is fine and is helping others out. After one flood, she and her husband tore down their house and built a new one that’s elevated. My other friend B from Jewish nursery school lives in a high rise.
My mother, sister, and nieces went to a baby shower the Saturday before the deluge. The expectant couple left town and Facebook tells me that their house and car are ruined and they lost everything, including the shower gifts. Someone has started raising funds for them.
Outsiders think Dallas is bigger, because of the TV show. They are shocked to learn that Houston is the most diverse city in the country, and the fourth largest. Houston was founded in 1836 by two huckster brothers from New York who touted the climate, for one. It flooded twice in 1837, and still white settlers came. In 1858, Jacob de Cordova, a Sephardic Jew from Jamaica who amassed land in Houston and beyond, noted: “The principal objection to these lands is that in consequence of their extreme flatness they are often in the wet season covered with water.” The John C. Freeman Weather Museum in Houston, which is now only virtual, has an online exhibit, “City on the Bayou: Houston History Through Floods. In the 19th century alone, there were significant floods in Houston in 1839, 1841, 1843, 1845, 1853, 1854, 1875, 1879, 1887, 1899.
Nearby Galveston was destroyed in a 1900 hurricane and flood, considered the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history. More than 10,000 died. The city raised itself, but never regained its stature.
Wetlands and marshes are covered over with concrete topped with buildings made of brick or steel and glass. There is no zoning. “There is no accurate way to measure the 22 lives the storm claimed, the priceless possessions and precious mementos it ruined, and the subsequent worry and hardship it randomly cast upon so many families and business owners.” This is from a Harris County Flood District report. It is describing the damage of Hurricane Allison, back in 2001.
In August 2015, I was in town and went to our old street in Meyerland, a few months after the Memorial Day flood. I met the mailman, who was calling for Tinkerbell. She was a cat who stayed on after her people left, and the mailman was feeding her and other cats in her situation. It was like a ghost town there on this residential two-block strip of Braesheather. When we lived there, there was one Catholic family two doors down who lit up their house outside every winter while were inside ours lighting Hanukkah candles. That day in August, all or most of the houses were empty. Some windows were boarded up, others had building permits taped on. There were dumpsters in a couple of driveways. Construction trucks were parked in others and there was a big white storage trailer in the driveway of our old house.
Mail-forwarding hadn’t been working, the postman told me, so he told his customers not to sign up for it, and instead to come by their ruined houses daily to pick up the mail. He walked down the deserted street, putting bills and letters and magazines in slots and boxes in the front of houses.
As I stood there, the owner of my old house drove up. She offered me a tour of the house and its additions. It had sustained three feet of water and consequently had been stripped down to the studs. That’s what you have to do if you want to get rid of the mold.
Imagine—another flood in April 2016. And then, 16 months later, Harvey.
Also in the 2015 MD flood, as people say (Memorial Day), a couple in their 80s drowned when their rescue boat capsized. They were wearing life jackets but the current defeated them. I know the family. A double funeral was held at Beth Yeshurun.
At our 2014 high school reunion, G said, warningly, enigmatically, “Not every place is like Meyerland,” and repeated it, meaning, I think, that Meyerland is liberal, accepting, Jews are accepted there. G deals in oil and cross-cultural training and was probably thinking about businessmen from Arab states, tough types, who believed in fighting, and moreover, killing.
No one besides me remembered the Y family who lived down the street and around the corner. The Ys were in exile from the Shah’s Iran, and after the revolution Mr. Y went back, serving in the government for a very short while.
His daughter was in my civics class and she was the first person I ever heard mention Amnesty International.
I look up the history of Kolter School, and I find that Jennie Katharine Kolter was not a principal but a second-grade teacher at Edgar Allan Poe School. In 1959, a distraught parent set off a bomb on the playground and Kolter was “blown to bits.” The bomber, his son, and two other boys also died, as well as the school custodian. Many were injured. No wonder they told us it was a fire.
There were other things we didn’t know, that in town there was Emancipation Park, bought by ex-slaves; that Sam Houston owned slaves; that Reconstruction was a revolution to bring radical equality, and it was successful in some ways. We never learned about a black-on-white race riot in 1917, set off by Jim Crow conditions and police brutality. It resulted in the largest mutiny trial in U.S. history and the hanging of 19 black soldiers.
As the week wore on, streets were clearing and people were returning to their homes. My mother said a grocery store was allowing people to enter one by one, as in a nightclub filled to capacity. She was at home gathering linens and household supplies to donate. Harvey has moved along the coast, wreaking devastation elsewhere.
My friend P the intellectual died a few years ago of ALS, at age 57. She was a political activist and fundraiser, and unfailingly optimistic. My friend S is newly gone, as is the light that seemed to surround her as she approached people and drew them in. My Greyhound Gazette friends visited her new grave and stopped at my father’s to say hello. Another person who died too soon, they said.
Our junior high, named for Confederate general and “Lost Cause” cult figure Albert Sidney Johnston, is now called Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School.
Even now, as the seas are warming and the air is more humid, arable land has become desert, weather has gone screwy, still there are people, in high places, decision-making places, who think climate change is a myth, think that none of Harvey’s lakes of rain were caused by human activity.
Yes, the newspapers were right, as James Joyce wrote in “The Dead.” Endless rain was general all over the coast. It was falling hard on every part of the flooded streets and avenues, the skyscrapers, falling hard on the cemented-over wetlands, upon all the living and the dead.
**Note: This story has been amended to omit an anecdote that turned out to lack proper sourcing. We regret this mistake.**
S.L. Wisenberg is the author of three books, the most recent of which is The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press). She is a former Miami Herald staffer and has been published in dozens of literary magazines and anthologies. She grew up in Houston, where she was a substitute portrait artist at Astroworld amusement park, since razed.