Saturday, September 20, 2008


Depending on what part of a hurricane you experience, riding it out can be easier than recovering from it. Today is a week from the morning Houston woke up after Hurricane Ike. Most of Houston was able to get some sleep Friday night a week ago. Galveston, the Bolivar Peninsula and other seaside areas weren't so fortunate. There everybody who hadn't evacuated spent the night wide awake in awe and dread. I can't speak for the experience of people in those hard-hit places. All I know first hand is what's it's been like in Houston this week.

People in Houston woke up last Saturday morning, ventured forth, and started making terrible and interesting discoveries. Many noble old trees were shattered. Some yards were a foot deep in oak twigs with roof tiles mixed in. Cars that had spent the night out of doors had green measles: leaf shreds tightly plastered onto the paint. And of course, the power was out.

Everybody everywhere in the city swung into action. People poured outdoors to clean the yards, streets and storm drains. On many blocks, no one had ever seen that many of their neighbors all at one time, including men and women, elderly people, and kids pulling rakes taller than they wore.

Across the city, the hurricane responders ranged from residents to law enforcement and tens of thousands of power company people from here and elsewhere: visualize whole convoys of power trucks. Points of Distribution for emergency supplies opened up in civic buildings, parks and church parking lots. The PODs were manned by assorted civil servants, church people and volunteers. Some of the PODS were organized to a T: line of cars snakes through the parking lot or city park; drivers requested to pop their trunks at point A; a a case of Meals Ready to Eat slung into the trunk at Point B, case of bottled water loaded in at Point C, the load topped off with bags of ice at point D; trunk is snapped shut and away goes the grateful recipient.

All in all, the big picture of hurricane response was rather dramatic. Recovery, though, feels more like a string of small beads. The power company gets lights on block by block, hospital by hospital. Schools and places of business locate one employee after another. Restaurants open back up one by one and cautiously extend their hours and their menus just a bit more each day.

I have my own personal recovery string of beads.

  • The morning after the storm, moving my container roses and other plants back out onto the front porch.
  • Confirming that the commode can be flushed by refilling the tank (with a gallon of blue plant food water; the commode needed flushing more than the plants needed food.)
  • Getting water back. It wasn't safe to drink, but it meant the commode worked again.
  • So did the shower.
  • Going to my library day job and having actual hot coffee.
  • Returning home to see that the trash truck had miraculously come and emptied the apartment complex dumpster.
  • Cleaning out the contents of the fridge into that inviting dumpster.
  • Finding that the blackout at my apartment complex had turned into a brownout. The lights came on with a weird early-Halloween glow of little real use. But one eye of the stove got warm enough to actually heat water or soup.
  • The street lights coming on the fence row behind the apartments. If those lights are back on, could we be far behind?
  • The cleaned out, aired-out refrigerator purring to life. Lights! Computer! Action!

I think most other people in Houston have had the string-of-beads recovery experience. One of the food critics at the Houston Chronicle did a nice piece about stepping up from canned tuna and crackers to Meals Ready to Eat. A friend of mine who works at NASA-JSC heard a happy report, about a building that had a leak, "Building Twelve smells good!" My friend and I went out for lunch at a seafood restaurant with a one-page Hurricane Ike Menu. The grouper sandwich was very good.

There are metaphorical storms in life that work the same way hurricanes do. A bad enough storm can devastate beyond hope of recovery. Other storm experiences are bad, but not devastating. They first galvanize a response and then segue into slow, unspectacular recovery. For example: In late 2006 my mother developed Alzheimer's. I didn't know what the hell to do, but being an only child means you're inevitably where the buck stops. I spent the better part of a year and a half in response mode, with some dramatic consequences. My mother is now in Assisted Living, her house was emptied out and sold, and her finances have been sorted out and arranged to last as long as she does. Cherished things from her house are now in my house. Her car has become my car. She still lives in Columbus, Georgia, where I grew up. I still live in Houston, Texas but I spent months of vacation the past year and a half in Columbus essentially doing disaster response.

Disaster response brings out elemental truths. One: you are not as alone as you feel. Family, friends, caregivers, and elder care professionals have helped me to an extent I would not have believed. Two: if you go into high gear with enough practical help and encouragement, things can change for the better much faster that you would have believed possible. A street full of storm-littered yards can get picked up in a morning, half a city huge can return to electrical power in a week.

Maybe there's a third elemental truth too: recovery happens. Bit by bit, bead by bead. After the hurricane, I heard from my cousin in Columbus that my mom was glad I stayed with friends during the hurricane and didn't hunker down in my apartment alone. Hunker down? That's what the Mayor of Houston said for us all to do. It was instantly picked up by the news media. My mom using that phrase means that with her friends and neighbors in Assisted Living, she follows the news. She's an order of magnitude more in touch with the world, not to mention safer and better nourished and happier, than when she was sliding into Alzheimer's while living alone. Meanwhile, I now have in my own home some things that mean a lot to me from my mother's house. Things like my grandmother's favorite chair, which daily brings a subtle benediction to the corner it rests in. Recovery happens: there's a small but growing string of small reassurances that my life hasn't been turned inside out forever by my mother's Alzheimers. Like after a hurricane, the beads are small and familiar but surprisingly pretty or silky or lustrous, and the beaded string seems miraculous. It's not that life will ever be exactly what it was before the storm. And perhaps I wouldn't want it to. But life does go on, and it can be happy again.

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