Monday, September 18, 2017

My Trip Through Harvey to Houston

I spent most of the day Monday trying to get home to my family northeast of Houston. We live in a small town that has been heavily impacted by Hurricane Harvey's rains. The resulting road closures seemed to make the journey impossible.

As I wrote previously, I was out of town on business when Harvey hit. We expected wind and rain, but nothing like the torrential rains and flooding that we got.

With flights into Houston canceled and the city's airports closed, the closest I could get to home on Sunday was Dallas. I rented a car and spent Sunday night there.

On Monday, I set out down I-45 towards Houston. The weather was good and traffic was light in both directions. There were many trucks pulling boat trailers headed into the storm to offer assistance. God bless the Texas and Louisiana rednecks of the Cajun Navy.

Since we live northeast of Houston, I stopped at the Buckee's in Madisonville for gas. The famed Texas-size convenience store was teeming with people, some fleeing the storm and some rushing to help.

Rather than try to get close to Houston on I-45, I drove toward Crockett. At this point, it wasn't raining although I did pass flooded fields and side roads. The rain started, first as a drizzle and then as a downpour as I approached Livingston and Texas Highway 59.

I knew from Google Maps and the TX DOT website that Highway 59, the route home, was closed. I decided to see how far I could get. If I had to turn back, I would retreat north and find a place to spend the night.

South of Livingston, near Goodrich, a large sign proclaimed the road closed. Cones diverted traffic to the exit ramp and Texas State Patrol cars made sure that no one kept going.

I pulled to the side of the road and got out. I walked up to the State Patrol car and asked the trooper if there was any way to get into my town, telling him that my wife and children were there.

I expected him to tersely order me back up the road. Instead, he said that he didn't know, but had heard that one of the eastern roads into town might be open. He said that I was welcome to try that way, but that 59 was under "deep water."

"It won't hurt to try," he said.

I thanked him and he gave me a weary, "Good luck."

I followed the trooper's directions toward the roundabout route home. By this time, it was raining very hard and steadily. I was far from the only vehicle on the road, but most were large pickup trucks.

After about 20 miles of driving, I turned into the road to my town. I crossed the Trinity River on a bridge that was intact and above water, but could see that the Trinity was raging far over its banks.

On the west side of the river, a sign proclaimed the road closed. Several pickups were parked near the entrance to a rural subdivision. The road itself was above water here, but flooded to both sides. I could see the tops of cars sticking out of the water.

I saw a young man with a firefighter's turnout pants on and went to talk to him. I asked about the road since trucks were going past the closure sign and splashing through the water that covered the road beyond.

"You can get through this," he said, "but you can't get all the way to town on this road." He gave me another road that he thought was open.

"We've been trying to get people out with boats," he said, "but nobody wants to leave."

I turned around and backtracked toward Livingston. A few miles back, I turned down the other road to town.

About 10 miles down the road, I passed a "road closed" sign that had been pushed to the side.

"I'll see what it looks like," I thought. "I can always turn around."

I passed through a few areas where shallow water swept across the road. Carefully I pressed on. As I got closer, I began to think that this might actually work out.

Suddenly water splashed up all around me. I had driven into an area where deeper water completely covered the road. In the driving rain, I couldn't tell that water completely covered the road until I was in it.

I slammed the rental car into reverse and backed my way out of the water.

As I contemplated my next move, a truck came toward me from the opposite direction. As he pulled up, I rolled down my window and asked how it was up ahead.

"You can get through," he answered. "Just stay to the far side. They water isn't as deep there."

By this time, I could see a steady stream of vehicles from town, some no bigger than my rental car. I waited for a gap. The semi behind me honked impatiently.

When I could get in the left lane, I took off through the water. I stayed slow and to the shallow side of the road, only going right to get around oncoming traffic.

The road was covered for several hundred feet before it cleared again. I passed over the bayou bridge just outside town and saw that the water in the bayou was within inches of washing over the bridge.

I finally made it to town. Roads were closed there, but not flooded. I paused to take a picture of water spurting like a fountain through holes in a manhole cover.

I turned down the state highway that leads to my house and zipped around the sign proclaiming the road closed. "No problem," I thought.

A few hundred feet down the road, I stopped short.

Water was deeper here than I had seen anywhere. The Exxon station two miles from my house was underwater. A pickup truck sat up to its doors. A semi truck was flooded and nosed down in the water, apparently in a ditch.

And there were headlights. Another pickup was headed my way. Water was up to the headlights, but it was moving. It came slowly, leaving a wake in the gathering gloom.

Let me just say that this was not smart. Every year, people are killed in Texas as their cars get swept away in water far shallower than this. It only takes a few inches of fast water to lift a car off the road and drop it off the embankment to the side, drowning the driver and passengers. An entire family on the south side of Houston died this way the same day I made my journey.

Luck - or more likely, Providence - was with this driver. He drove out of the water and up the small hill where I sat watching him.

We, along with the occupants of the truck behind me, talked for a few minutes, sharing information about roads around town. The driver of the truck offered to lead the way back though the water and "push the water out of the way" for us.

I and the driver behind me both declined. We didn't feel like dying today after coming so far.
About this time, my wife was able to get through on my cell phone. She said a neighbor had found a way from town to our neighborhood.

I met the neighbor, who had a big truck, in town. I followed him back down the road that I drove in on, though the deeper water, and down a side road. Water was across the road here as well, but not as deep as what I had already come through.

I followed the neighbor the rest of the way to my house. I opened the door and walked in, to a very surprised wife and kids and lots of happy hugs. There were some happy tears as well.

We thought about going out the same way I had come in since the rain was forecast to continue for another few days. In the end, we decided to stay since it was getting dark. The house was not flooded, the power was on and we didn't want to chance driving on flooded roads at night.

As I write this, spirits are high and our supplies are holding out. Rain picked up again during the night and roads have gotten worse again, so we plan on staying home. Direct TV, whose signal has been almost uninterrupted, video games, board games and books help pass the time. We may go kayaking down the street (literally) if the rain lets up.

The cellphone tower down the road is flooded, which makes communication difficult, but we are in much better shape than many families.

We are anxiously awaiting an end to the rain so that we can begin to assess damage. I parked my truck at Hobby airport when I left town on Thursday so I suspect that it is underwater.
Trucks and homes can be replaced though. For now, we are thankful that we are together and safe.

On behalf of all Houstonians and Texans, I would like to thank everyone around the country and the world for their prayers and concern. Please keep the prayers coming. Harvey is not finished yet and recovery will be long and difficult.

I also cannot speak more highly of the people of Texas and those who have come to assist. Emergency personnel, both full-time and volunteer, have done an outstanding job and saved countless lives. Neighbor has also helped neighbor in the best traditions of Texas and the American spirit.

Maybe something good can come of Harvey if it helps to bring the country together.

Originally published on The Resurgent

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