Our experience escaping the hurricane taught me that as God’s children, all men are truly brothers. I saw the face of Jesus many times in the faces of our rescuers: people of widely differing life experiences, and of various colors and faiths.
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
—Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”
Awaking Sunday morning, August 27, I jumped out of bed and looked out the window to our backyard. It was raining heavily, yet aside from a small puddle forming near the back fence, there was no standing water to speak of… and this despite the large drainage pond just yards beyond our property line. Hurricane Harvey had come ashore the Texas coast on Friday evening, and yet by Saturday evening, we had experienced so few effects of the storm in Richmond, a suburb just west of Houston, that we had enjoyed a convivial dinner with neighbors, during which we joked about the storm and congratulated ourselves on the fact that we had all purchased houses built outside the 500-year flood plain. “This neighborhood will be fine,” my neighbor down the street assured me. “Nothing to worry about.”
He seemed to be right. “Well, this was much ado about nothing,” I said to myself, as I walked toward the front of our newish, one-story, three-bedroom house, which we had just purchased in June. When I looked out the front door, however, I was alarmed. Our street already had three or four inches of standing water in it. Forecasters predicted several more days of rain: hard rain, some 25-50 inches to come. If the street was already failing to drain, what would happen later today and Monday?
I told my wife—pregnant with our second child—that we needed to be ready to act. Where would we go if our one-story house flooded several feet? Not the attic, of course; we knew better than to get trapped up there. I envisioned us on the roof with our almost-one-year-old, awaiting rescue for… how long? Hours, days? It was a frightening proposition. The neighbor who had assured me that our development would not flood offered his second floor to us; but he has a wife and five young children of his own to take care of, I thought to myself. All of us jammed together on a second floor with a single toilet that would surely stop working? OK, it’s better than the roof. But the water is rising quickly now, and soon the trek a hundred yards or so down the street will become a risky proposition. What to do?
Our next-door neighbors… so glad we went over to meet them one time in July when they were sitting on their driveway. Middle-aged empty nesters, Phillip and Debbie seemed to be warm people. I put on my Harley-Davidson boots and a hooded, black windbreaker and walked out to the front porch looking for them. There was Phillip out front, building a levee of bricks and plastic garbage bags against his front door. “This is pretty bad, huh? Makes me nervous having only a one-story,” I said to him, not wanting to ask these almost-strangers if the new people on the block could bunk with them if things got desperate. “You can come here if you need to,” Phillip offered without hesitation. A wave of relief swept through me. I told my wife the good news and urged her to get ready.
Emily, though, was stoic, typically downplaying the danger we were facing. It seemed that the more I urged her to get ready to flee, the more she dragged her feet. Phillip helped me build a levee at our front door (he had Army engineering experience), and he gave me a pair of waterproof, knee-high hunting boots to use. I went about filling suitcases and large, blue IKEA bags with clothes, toiletries, food, and water bottles. After what seemed like hours, my wife finally got out of her pajamas and got dressed. OK, I thought, we are ready to escape if we have to.
It was now mid-afternoon, and the water had now risen to perhaps 18 inches high in the street. Somehow we still had power and Internet service, and the weather forecasters on TV were showing that our county was experiencing a particularly heavy band of rain that was stalled over us. We would be getting three inches of rain an hour for the next several hours! I knew now that we would have to go to Phillip and Debbie’s house. We could no longer make the longer trip down the street to the other neighbor’s house. Not only was the flowing water too high and treacherous, and bacteria-laden, but we knew that there could be snakes, alligators—even floating mounds of fire ants—in it.
Evening approached, and the water level, which seemingly had stabilized over the previous few hours, suddenly and steadily started rising. I watched as the water began creeping further up our driveway—maybe half-way up now. The blue fire hydrant directly across the street began to disappear under the water, all but its white cap. The side yard between Phillip and Debbie’s house and ours—the distance between our front porch and their garage is perhaps 25 feet—was filling quickly with water.
It was time to go. I waded across the thigh-high water to Phillip’s house and knocked on his front door. “I think it’s time for us to come over,” I said to him. My wife—who had given herself a facial mud treatment just a short while before (“This is how I am dealing with the stress” she said)—was ready. She wrapped a jacket around our boy Simon and held him tightly against her chest. I threw a diaper bag over my shoulder and escorted her and our boy to the safety of Phillip’s house. Phillip returned with me to our house to help me get the suitcases and bags—and our dog.
We spent the night in a second-floor bedroom. Simon was battling a cold and was fussy but finally went to sleep in this unfamiliar setting. Awaking the next morning, we were surprised to find that Phillip and Debbie had opened their home to another couple, who also owned a one-story house on our street. The water’s rise had slowed, but the rain continued to come. My neighbor down the street texted me to let me know that, through his church, he had secured a rescue boat of some kind, which was on its way to evacuate his family. Did he want me to send them to us once they were safe? “Yes,” I said.
We packed again. This time I condensed our belongings to two suitcases… then to one. Will our rescuers even allow that? And what about the dog? A text comes through on my phone… the boat is on its way to us. I look at Emily: “What do you think, sweetheart? Should we take the boat?” “I don’t know,” she replies. I look down at my child sleeping peacefully on the bed and think of waking him to take him out into the wet, cold, raging storm, with an uncomfortable shelter affording little privacy as our destination. I wonder, how long will we be there? What if little Simon slips into the water? If we stay at Phillip’s, what happens if the first floor is submerged in water? What if the water comes up to the second floor? We had already seen reports on TV of houses nearly submerged in the northwest suburbs of Houston.
I decide: “We should take the boat.”
Soon, the roar of the fan boat approached. “Let’s go!” I yelled to my wife. She grabbed Simon and the last of our belongings as I signaled to the three men aboard the boat, who were attired in rain gear. “Texas Game Warden” was the black lettering on the silver side of the boat. “Are you the one with the pregnant lady?” shouted one of the men. “Yes, yes!” I replied. “My wife’s pregnant, and we have a one-year-old too.” They steered the boat toward me, as my wife and son came out the front door. One of the Game Wardens looked at Emily, then back at me, seemingly only now convinced that I was telling the truth. “You have no idea how many women are suddenly pregnant,” he quipped. “Can we take the suitcase? The dog?” I asked. “Yes, yes” was the reply. The men helped us all into the boat. We were safe… for the moment.
The fans on the boat roared to full speed—quite a deafening sound—and we began moving across the water and out of our neighborhood. The two Game Wardens sat on the two raised seats of the boat, piloting; my wife sat in one of the lower seats next to a county deputy sheriff who seemed to be in charge. The noise of the fans attracted neighbors, who came out to their front porches to watch us. I gave the thumbs up and waved at some, and some waved back, as if we were saying good luck to each other. But then I felt foolish, as if my signals might be interpreted incorrectly as rejoicing over our sole good fortune. This feeling was confirmed when two older men we passed began shouting and gesticulating desperately and angrily from the porch of a house where the floodwaters were lapping against their feet. Though I couldn’t hear their words over the sound of the fans, it was clear that they wanted to get on the boat. There was certainly room for a few more people, though I suppose that the deputy’s priority was pregnant women and small children first; stopping to load more people would cost valuable minutes.
It was then that it dawned on me that we were perhaps seeing people who would die in the flood. The same thought must have occurred to Emily too; for the first time since the storm descended on us, she began to cry. I reached over to comfort her, and as I did so the deputy—I couldn’t see his name badge under his raincoat—motioned to me to move from the front edge of the boat where I was sitting to take the seat next to Emily. He simply crouched, uncomfortably, next to the seat. A small gesture perhaps, but one for which I was immediately grateful and which said something about the largeness of this man.
The boat came to a stop in shallow water on a major road—I couldn’t tell which one—where several police vehicles were parked. A few people who seemed to be volunteers helped Emily and Simon onto an air mattress and ferried them to the dry road. I lifted the dog onto my shoulder and waded once again through thigh-high water. A police woman seemed surprised to see us. “What do we do with them?” she wondered aloud, seemingly to no one in particular. She looked at us. “Here, you can sit in the back of my car. It’s not comfortable, but it will keep you dry.” We climbed into the hard plastic rear seat of a police SUV and sat there stunned, trying to take it all in. Weren’t we headed for a shelter? It struck me how haphazardly people were forced to act in a crisis of such magnitude. There was no coordinated plan to get us from Point A of our house to Point B of our shelter. The Wardens and deputy on the boat had simply gotten us out of immediate danger. They were headed now to rescue someone with a medical emergency (we heard them discuss this while on the boat). We were in the hands of others now.
After a couple of minutes, the police woman opened the door. “C’mon, I’ve got a ride for you.” We were hustled out of the car—wet dog and all—and guided to a civilian pickup truck, driven by a young man and his friend. We got in the back seat next to a mother and her daughter, who was perhaps seven or eight years old. Several other people rode in the open bed of the truck with suitcases and bags, exposed to the elements.
As we drove over roads that were flooded in places, we quizzed the young men helping us. “Why are you doing this?” “We came to rescue my sister,” said the man next to the driver. “We couldn’t find her. But we decided we weren’t going back home without helping someone.” Though I didn’t voice it, so as not to upset Emily, I knew these brave young men were putting themselves in continued danger. And that meant that we were still in danger. There was no assurance that the roads we were carefully navigating would not flood at any moment.
“We’re almost there,” the driver said after a journey that seemed to last much longer than the half-hour or so that it probably did. “Do you want to stop at the convenience store to get some food?” Though I assumed there would be food at the shelter, who knew how much they would have. We hadn’t been able to bring any food in the one smallish suitcase that we took with us. The woman next to us said she wanted to stop. “Uh, my wallet’s packed away in the back,” I said half to Emily and half to myself. “Hey, no worries,” the driver interjected, handing me a $20 bill from his wallet. “Here.” “Thanks,” was all I could say.
Arriving at the shelter (the local high school), my feelings were mixed: We were relieved and grateful to be alive, but we were apprehensive at the idea of having to spend an extended period in such cramped and uncomfortable quarters, surrounded by strangers. Some 2,000-3,000 people were crowded into the place, and we traipsed down the long hallway of the school, which was lined with cheap plastic chairs, hauling Simon, the dog, our suitcase, and a few plastic bags of food and other items. We walked by hundreds of unfamiliar, stunned faces, until we found a couple of empty chairs that became our little camp site.
I soon struck up a conversation with the man next to us, a divorced biker in his mid-fifties, who seemed quite alone in the world. He was rough around the edges, cussing openly in front of my wife and child, but he soon proved to be solicitous of Emily and Simon, making sure that they got the water, food, toys, blankets, pillows, diapers, and other supplies the many volunteers who came by were passing out. Though the food consisted mainly of the junk variety—we did get one slice of Pizza Hut pizza at one point—it was enough to keep us going, and we were grateful.
After a few hours, those of us with pets were moved to the nearby junior high school building, where the animals were at last separated from us humans. Dogs and cats were put into crates—where the crates came from I don’t know—in a locker room, while people were sent to the basketball court. This was an improvement. It was much quieter and less crowded, and much less smelly, as the wet animals were no longer within nose-shot.
My wife then received a text from a friend at her church: There was a family nearby that was willing to shelter us; their (grown) children could be on the way soon to pick us up. (None of our other friends who offered to come get us could find a passable route to the shelter.) “What do you think?” Emily asked. “Yes!” I replied without hesitation. Soon, twenty-somethings Nick and Cristina arrived in their truck to take us to their parents’ middle-class home. There we were treated like dear, old friends. Nick gave us his bedroom, while Cristina gave hers to another couple for whom they were also providing shelter. The patriarch of the family—a warm, witty older man—and his energetic wife attended to our every need, from hot coffee to wonderful meals to warm beds to delightful conversation and faith-sharing. This family was far from well-off, and yet they refused our every attempt to buy food or pay for anything. “What a gift it is to have you here,” the father effused. “And Simon! Do you know that he is a direct link to the Almighty? You see, he is an innocent, and his Guardian Angel is right here next to him, and that angel is always in the presence of God. Thank you, Klugewiczes, for bringing this wonderful little boy to us!”
After two nights with this family, Emily’s sisters were able to pick us and up and take us home. Miraculously, the floodwaters had never entered our house, despite the rain that fell for another twenty-four hours after our escape on the fan boat. We realized how blessed we were.
And we were blessed for other reasons too. Despite the anxiety and discomfort of our adventure—it was the only time in my life that I was able to contemplate for an extended period that I and my loved ones might imminently die—we had seen the best of human nature. Our experience escaping the hurricane taught me in a way that only such a crisis could that as God’s children, all men are truly brothers. It is during such trials that the true heart of the individual is revealed. The thin veil of civilization is torn away, and there are no more masks to wear. In some cases, as with looters, the dark visage of the Evil One is shown. But that it is not what we saw. We saw the face of Jesus many times in the countenances of our rescuers: people of widely differing life experiences, and of various colors and faiths.
We are white, and my wife is Lutheran. I am Catholic. Our neighbors Phillip and Debbie are African Americans; the deputy sheriff in command of the fan boat was Hispanic; the two young men who drove us from the boat to the shelter were Muslims of Middle Eastern ethnicity (my wife overheard them talking about whether their mosque was flooded); the friend down the street who sent the fan boat to rescue us is Baptist; the friend who arranged for us to stay with the family is Lutheran; the family who gave us shelter, Catholic, their house filled with images of Jesus and the Blessed Mother; the volunteers at the shelter were as diverse as the city of Houston itself, in terms of age, ethnicity, and presumably religious belief.
But these differences made no difference during our crisis. We never sensed that anyone whom we encountered cared about our political or religious beliefs or ethnic background. And we certainly gave no thought to theirs. Though it may sound trite, everyone seemed to believe that we were all brothers and sisters under One Father.
Some political observers have lately wondered if a nation as diverse as ours can survive over time, our cultural differences inevitably dividing us and pulling us apart. I have tended to share the pessimism of these nationalistic commentators. But the hurricane gave me hope that perhaps goodness itself runs deeper than these differences. Perhaps this daring American experiment in multiculturalism might work out after all.
That is what I found in the flood waters.
Note: The author has changed the names of those who helped him and his family in order to protect their privacy.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay. The images within the essay are courtesy of the author.