On the road with Hurricane Harvey: what it was like to cover the storm

Guardian reporter Rory Carroll spent days travelling through the storm’s passage, witnessing remarkable resilience and generosity, and dismaying damage

The rain started about an hour south of Dallas, specks bouncing off the windshield. It thrummed heavier, eased, then hammered down in waves, a syncopated rhythm.

By Buffalo it was sluicing, blotting out the moon, stars and landscape, everything except the blurry headlights ahead. Cars, then trucks, started pulling off the I-45.

By Centerville roadside signs started flashing a mantra: “If you see flooding, turn around, don’t drown.”

It was Sunday night and Hurricane Harvey was unleashing unimaginable quantities of water on Houston, America’s fourth-biggest city.

The airports were shut so I was driving down from Dallas, almost marvelling at rain that seemed horizontal. After Madisonville the only other vehicles headed south were towing boats.

With visibility negligible I halted at Conroe, 42 miles outside downtown Houston. It would take three days to finish the journey, an at-times surreal zig-zag through a waterworld of flooded highways and towns.

Yes it's blurry but in absence of a waterproof phone I'm shooting through a Jiffy bag. pic.twitter.com/7iTtWbVhof

— Rory Carroll (@rorycarroll72) August 28, 2017

For swaths of Texas and Louisiana, Harvey’s impact is just beginning. Dozens dead, thousands of homes damaged and destroyed, perhaps $100bn in damage. Recovery will take years.

Travelling through the storm’s passage was uplifting – people showed remarkable resilience and generosity.

And dismaying. Everywhere, peeking above the waters, was evidence of hyper-development that had devoured wetlands and prairies which used to serve as natural sponges. A century of lax regulation had pushed nature to the brink. Now nature was pushing back.

“I was sitting on a stool with the water up to my ankles when this snake swam by me,” said Jennifer Shardlow, 35, huddled over coffee at an IHOP diner which became a refuge for displaced families in Conroe on Monday.

“Alligators are coming up through the bayous,” said William Miles, seated a few tables away. His wife Erin noted the gloom. “We haven’t seen the sun in four days.”

Back on the I-45 I got about 10 miles south and diverted to the Hardy toll road, which seemed higher and drier. I took a wrong turn, doubled back and tried to re-enter Hardy, only to encounter a foaming surge. Steve Perez, 60, a Houston police officer, drowned trying to get onto the toll road.

Marooned in a community called Woodlands, everything was shut except Chinese restaurants and an Alcoholics Anonymous centre offering coffee and wifi. “Are you an alcoholic?” one man asked. He grinned. “You might be before this is over.”

Spring Creek was overflowing, inundating a neighbourhood called High Oaks. Seven rescue vessels were in action, two from the fire department, the rest owned and operated by private individuals like John Brown, a 41-year-old metal worker with a battered fishing skiff.

John Brown on his way to pick up evacuees in Woodlands. Brown’s own home was flooded.
John Brown on his way to pick up evacuees in Woodlands. Brown’s own home was flooded. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Guardian

He plucked people and pets from their homes and delivered them to Sawdust Road, where other volunteers, knee-deep in water, led them to trucks. “I think it’s beautiful, everybody coming together to do this,” said Brown.

On Tuesday I got as far as Cypress, a northern suburb of Houston, and encountered the Cajun navy: volunteers from Louisiana with canoes, skiffs, airboats and jet skis. Trump supporters, mostly, who had paid their own way to help one of America’s most diverse cities.

“Put a gay or black person in need next to them and they’ll help. But in a voting booth they’ll turn around and cut their healthcare. It’ll just blow up your mind,” said a self-described liberal member of the navy. He requested anonymity.

Television footage showed dramatic rooftop rescues but in the chaos many would-be rescuers drove around in vain seeking people to help. They got lost, stuck in traffic and struggled to launch their boats.

Those who launched in Twin Lakes, a submerged estate with mock Tudor houses, encountered a different problem: residents did not want to leave. They were reluctant even to show themselves to the crews paddling past their windows.

“We’re staying, thank you,” said one woman, clicking her door shut.

Brad Johns, 39, tired and drenched after a 22-hour journey hauling and paddling his boat to get to this point, was stumped. “We’ve come all the way from Louisiana to help.” That night a motorist crashed into his truck, damaging the truck and boat, forcing a retreat to Louisiana.

Brad Johns, followed by John Utesch, seek marooned Houston residents.
Brad Johns, followed by John Utesch, seek marooned Houston residents. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Guardian

Here is another aspect television does not show: boredom. People hunkered in mercifully unscathed homes grew antsy with confinement. “Two kids bouncing off the walls – I had to get out,” said one volunteer in Cypress.

Humanity gleamed in acts of generosity and courage – not least that of the mother who drowned while saving her three-year-old daughter.

Less visible was humanity’s role in aggravating the storm: endless strip malls and suburban tract homes where once were swamps affording natural flood protection; an energy industry, headquartered in Houston, accelerating climate change.

The sky cleared on Wednesday – Harvey moved east, towards Louisiana – and the waters began to recede around Houston. Driving the final stretch into downtown, sun glinted off a skyline whose towers proclaimed oil, money, construction.

Downtown escaped relatively unscathed but you could see the storm’s human cost in the convention centre, which at one point sheltered 10,000 people.

Some wandered outside, hauling bags and pillowcases stuffed with clothes and food. A shirtless Bob Marley fan strode among them shouting: “The rasta say everything’s gonna be all right.”

It wasn’t all right.

The first casualty of tropical storms isn't truth but footwear. pic.twitter.com/KDeC6fq4Tx

— Rory Carroll (@rorycarroll72) August 28, 2017

Inside the shelter, Eloy Martinez, 57, a plumber, picked from a mound of donated clothes. His home was gone, he was sick and he had no flood insurance. “It’s going to be real difficult to get established once again. It’s going to be a mess, that’s all I know.”

An elderly Latino man at a desk for information about missing people gazed ahead, apparently not hearing questions, his eyes vacant. Officials warned of cholera and typhoid outbreaks.

On Thursday explosions rocked a chemical plant and on Friday rescuers were still trying to reach people trapped in flooded suburbs and cities to the east.

Where the high waters receded they revealed devastation: homes, streets, entire towns, silent and sodden.

Harvey, a storm for the record books. Until the next one.


Rory Carroll in Houston

The GuardianTramp

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