After Ike: Same As It Ever Was

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The night Hurricane Ike hit Houston, I was jittery and basically drunk by 7 p.m., having consumed all the Miller tallboys in our refrigerator to calm myself and prepare for the upcoming power outage (though the storm would not hit until well after nightfall). As Ike moved in, thudding and howling, I called my best friend every 10 minutes until she lost reception. “I’m in a closet with the dog and the wine,” she said. “This is how I always thought it would end for me.” I repeatedly shook awake my apparently unconcerned husband, a native Houstonian who had lived through this before. “Kevin, what was that? What was that? OK, now what the hell was that?”

But what I remember most is the morning after, when darkness finally left us. There was no power, just a trickle from the faucet, and when we peeked out the back door, we could not see our neighbor’s house through the fallen trees. Everything was a mucky-wet, leaves-and-branches-covered mess.

I’d been awake for more than 24 hours, stressed, exhausted and afraid, listening to KUHF nonstop. When Mayor Bill White’s voice came through my tinny clock radio with updates—first in English, then in gringo Spanish—telling us to boil water and stay off the roads, I listened like a dutiful daughter listens to her dad.

That’s how White sounds all the time, actually, like a very nice dad calmly explaining why you can’t have the car keys or that vegetables are good for you. I suspect that’s why he’s so popular. The morning after Ike, I craved the father-figure thing like never before, and nodded along with everything he said.

“Please share with your neighbors. … This is no time to play in the ditches. … If you don’t need to bathe right now, don’t bathe right now.” I paid extra attention to White’s description of his journey through the passable parts of the city.

“As I’ve been driving through, I’ve seen people helping their neighbors … I commend those citizens. The citizens of this community are going to need that help.”

Maybe it was the exhaustion or the tallboy after effects, but something about “Dad’s” voice made me start crying.

Things I began to understand about Houston when I moved here almost 10 years ago:

1. We tear down any building more than five minutes old.2. We are probably friendlier than people were wherever you came from.3. We get it done.4. Nobody else seems to like us very much, and this troubles us deeply.

Living through Hurricane Ike and now, thinking about my city a year after the storm’s impact, I have come to realize that these tenets of Houstonianism were true, are true, and will most likely remain true forever. Galveston Island, our cousin to the south, is still far from normal and will surely be a different place when the rebuilding is finally complete. Galveston’s hurricane story—inarguably more devastating—is theirs to tell. But as a Houstonian, Ike and its aftermath have convinced me that this city is one of fundamental principles that can’t be shaken by natural disaster.

Oh sure, the television weathermen’s latest Cassandra routines carry extra urgency (“Are you prepared for hurricane season this year?”). And when you careen down the freeways, you can still spot bright blue tarps dotting the landscape like little oases, but every month there are fewer of them. Things are mostly back to normal.

What’s missing most obviously are the trees. The enormous oak in my mother-in-law’s yard that once watched over my husband and his childhood friends playing baseball is now hardly more than a stump. This past Fourth of July, a good friend in Midtown realized he now has a view of the downtown fireworks from his backyard because of the missing trees. (He would rather have his trees back.) In a town that prides itself on demolition in the name of progress, it’s ironic that some of the few things we’ve allowed to age were destroyed by Mother Nature.

The torn and uprooted trees that landed on fences, homes, yards and streets were taken apart by chainsaws, and in weeks after Ike, the buzzing chorus echoed throughout the city, intermingled with the grumble of generators. Broken limbs didn’t hang around long. The morning after, we stumbled out of our homes, looked around, shook our heads and got to work.

“There was one guy in my neighborhood who was out with a rake before it even stopped raining,” a friend remembers. “He had his poor kids with him, raking. Now we call him Mr. Yard.”

My husband went over to our neighbors, the Gomezes, and helped them take down the huge tree that landed in their backyard, destroying their kids’ trampoline. When we’d first moved onto our street, the Gomezes had welcomed us with a cooler of Cokes and some homemade salsa. Just being neighborly.

When I came to Houston, I—an East Coast native—couldn’t understand why everyone talked to me so much. The cashier at the Kroger, my mechanic, strangers in elevators. What’s wrong with these people? I thought. It took a while to fall in love with it. Then it was like I’d never lived any other way. It was that way after Ike, and I heard about it from friends all over the city. The family pulling their daughter in a red wagon, handing out coffee and doughnuts to yard-working neighbors. The Jack in the Box on Montrose Boulevard inviting area residents to bring their grills for a giant cookout of free hamburger patties before they spoiled. People sharing electricity via cords stretched across streets, folks checking in on the elderly, everybody lending out saws and rakes.

“People are always like that right after a disaster,” my dad (my real dad) warned me over the phone not long after a curfew was imposed. “They’re nice at first. Then they start to go psycho.” But Houstonians didn’t. There were jerks, of course, including the man with the British accent in the Heights who refused to move his truck, forcing me to drive in reverse around the block. (“You know, sir, we’ve all been through a crisis!” I yelled from the car window.) But waves of looting never materialized. Crime rates didn’t spike. Someone I know said the reason Houstonians never riot—not even when the Rockets won the championship two years in a row—is because it’s just too damn hot. I like to think we’re just too damn polite.

After the hurricane, you were assigned a number—the number of days you’d been without electricity. A year later, people still wear that number as either a badge of honor (“We went 14 days without it.”) or a guilty secret (“We got it back the day after. I know, we were so lucky.”). Two weeks without electricity doesn’t sound so bad. Until you go two weeks without electricity.

“Got power?” was how you introduced yourself, and it was all we talked about in the three-hour lines for gasoline and during our Sisyphean attempts to find ice. (If I’d collected all the “NO ICE!!!” signs I saw following the storm, I could wallpaper my house.) The power gods were arbitrary in their benevolence, returning electricity to one friend the morning after the storm while neighbors a block away spent 17 days in the dark.

You tended to seek out your own. When I returned to my job as a public school teacher and the faculty gathered for a meeting, those of us without power discovered we’d gravitated toward the same table, our air-dried hair askew, our expressions sour. It was hard not to envy those who were enjoying what they called a “hurrication,” complete with Internet, cable and A/C. But the offers from more fortunate Houstonians were never-ending.

Come over for a real meal. Come over if you need a place to stay. Come over if you just want to unwind. Several people we know gathered in one house with power for “Camp Ike,” where they whiled away their days drinking wine and eating Omaha steaks. My husband and I headed to my best friend’s house to do laundry and watch television (bliss!); her power was on the day after the storm.

“I feel like Eva Peron,” she admitted as she served us sandwiches. “I live in luxury while my people suffer.”

In the days that followed, I was up by 5 in the morning and asleep at 8 p.m., mimicking the rhythm of the sun. My husband and I spent our days hot and restless, drinking Jack and Cokes with no ice, sprawled on the couch, listening to call after call into local radio stations. Deejays asked over and over, “How are you holding up?” The tones of some of the callers implied that we weren’t the only ones driven to drink during the day.

We’re just barbecuing on the carport right now, and we’ve got lots of liquids.

We got trees all over the place, man!

I was blessed and am praising God that the tree didn’t fall into the bedroom.

Over shrieks in the background, one man explained to KUHF’s Rod Rice that he was trying to amuse three small kids with no power and no water pressure.

“All things pass,” Rice answered sagely.

But not all things. Almost a year after Ike, a couple I know split up. The husband admitted Ike’s role.

“The aftermath made me realize just how dysfunctional my marriage was,” he told me. “Without the veneer of basic amenities providing some sense of balance, all we did was fight. All our resentments quickly bubbled to the surface. Things swiftly deteriorated from that point.”

We may have been bored, hot, cranky or drunk, but we got back to business. A fundamental truth is that Houston does not take kindly to lazybones. We survived the oil bust in the 1980s. We survived the collapse of Enron and the flooding from Tropical Storm Allison. And when it was time to take in 150,000 Katrina evacuees from Louisiana, we responded with grace and elbow grease.

It was like that with Ike, too. We got to work, and we expected others to follow our lead. Mayor White uncharacteristically yelled at workers from the Georgia Forestry Commission that they needed to pick up the pace sending supply trucks to distribution centers around the city. According to reports, White colored his suggestion with a strategic use of the F-bomb.

Maybe Georgians were offended, but the majority response in Houston was civic pride.

Usually what people in Georgia think of us would be pretty important. It’s a painful reality that we desperately like to be liked and appreciated, even as we still laugh over the New York Post’s infamous 1994 headline (“This Place is a Hell Hole”) and The Economist‘s 2001 profile that claimed our hometown is “ugly.”

Days after the storm, we wondered if anyone was still paying attention.

“Are we still on the national news?” I asked my mother back East.

“Not really,” she said. True, Ike didn’t devastate Houston as Katrina did New Orleans, but after the storm dissipated, there was a sense that we were going it alone. Anderson Cooper didn’t stick around long.

Cut out of the national media, we relied on local radio, television and newspapers. Local broadcast stations spent days repeating supply distribution information and interviewing everyday people. Much later, when I had met KUHF’s Rice, I asked how he’d survived for hours at a time talking to the exhausted, the frightened, the drunk. He told me he’d been happy to serve as a “cathartic vehicle” for his fellow citizens.

Rice came to Houston from Pennsylvania 18-and-a-half years ago. Like me, and like many non-native Houstonians, he never dreamed he would stay. Now he plans never to leave.

The day after the storm, when everyone on my street ventured out to take stock, our neighbor Mr. Gomez wandered over.

“You know,” he said ruefully, scratching his sweaty, beefy neck. “I always see stuff like this on CNN and think to myself, ‘Those poor bastards.’ And now that’s us. We’re the poor bastards.”

My husband and I laughed. We were, all of us. And despite the camaraderie, the time off from work, the warm highballs at two in the afternoon and the realization that I live in a city full of good people, please understand that I am almost certainly speaking for every citizen of this metropolis when I say that even though we know we could have had it much worse, we do not want to live through another hurricane.

We were poor bastards, not for the first time and probably not for the last. But if I learned anything last September when the trees broke and the power lines snapped, it’s that if you must be a poor bastard, this isn’t a bad place to be one. In Houston—even in a hurricane—you always know what’s coming.

Jennifer Mathieu is an English teacher and freelance writer living in Houston. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Going Alone: Women’s Adventures in the Wild, and the Dallas Museum of Art’s “Texas Bound” reading series.

Jennifer Mathieu is an English teacher in Houston. Her debut YA novel, The Truth About Alice, will be published in June 2014 by Roaring Brook Press.