God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State (9 page)

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IN EARLY
AUGUST 2017,
an atmospheric formation known as a tropical wave stirred into life off the western coast of Africa and began its journey across the Atlantic Ocean. By the time the disturbance neared the Lesser Antilles, on August 17, it was designated a tropical storm and named Harvey. Two days later, Harvey bumped into a wind shear in the eastern Caribbean, and it subsided once again into a wave. The National Hurricane Center stopped providing advisories as it appeared that the storm with its rather amusing name had simply petered out.
The Texas Gulf Coast acts as sort of a catcher’s mitt for the tempests that are hurled across the sea. And yet, with all the predictions about global warming generating more frequent storms of increased severity, we hadn’t had a direct hit since Hurricane Ike hit Galveston in 2008. Ike was rated only a Category 2 hurricane, but it was one of the most destructive storms in Texas history, bringing a twenty-foot storm surge and killing eighty-four people. Many of our complacent political leaders doubt that the climate is changing—or if it is, that human activity has anything to do with it. In light of widespread scientific consensus on these matters, it is difficult to read the political resistance as anything other than abject submission to the oil and gas industry, which is headquartered right in the Gulf Coast hurricane strike zone.

The depleted storm named Harvey lumbered across the Yucatán Peninsula into the Gulf, where it gathered enough strength to be termed a tropical depression—meaning that it had winds of thirty-eight miles per hour or less. Suddenly, in the space of fifty-six hours, Harvey exploded into a Category 4 hurricane, thanks to abnormally warm waters in the Gulf.

Harvey made landfall at 10 p.m. on August 25 at Rockport, a little fishing village and art colony north of Corpus Christi, with sustained winds of 130 miles per hour, wiping out city blocks in Rockport and leveling smaller towns in the area. But it wasn’t the wind that would do the real damage; it was the rain.

As the storm veered northwest, toward Houston and Beaumont, meteorologists began to panic. “All impacts are unknown beyond anything ever experienced,” the National Weather Service tweeted on August 27. William Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), predicted that the storm would be the worst disaster Texas had ever seen.

Governor Abbott urged residents from Corpus Christi to Houston to evacuate, but Mayor Turner and Judge Emmett quickly overruled him. “You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road,” the mayor said at a press conference. He referenced Hurricane Rita in 2005, when an evacuation order had been given. About 2.5 million people fled inland, creating the worst gridlock in Houston’s history. Steve Harrigan got his eighty-five-year-old mother out, and it took him nine hours to drive to Austin, usually less than a three-hour drive. His brother-in-law left two hours later, and the same trip took thirty-two hours. People who were stranded on the highway died of heat stroke. There were traffic accidents. Fights broke out. A bus carrying evacuees from a nursing home caught fire. More than a hundred people died in the thwarted exodus. The uncomfortable truth about Houston is that there is no escape in the face of a major hurricane.

Harvey had become indolent; it just sat on top of Houston and the surrounding region, pouring more rain than any storm in U.S. history—measuring 51.88 inches at Cedar Bayou, just east of Houston, a record. An estimated 34 trillion gallons of rain fell on East Texas and western Louisiana. Nearly a hundred thousand homes were flooded, and as many as a million vehicles were destroyed. Dr. Joel N. Myers, the president and chairman of AccuWeather, predicted, “This will be the worst natural disaster in American history. The economy’s impact, by the time its total destruction is completed, will approach $160 billion, which is similar to the combined effect of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.”

AS IT HAPPENED,
I was supposed to be in Houston rehearsing a new play. I had planned to drive down on Sunday, August 27, but Harvey got there before me. All the roads were blocked. My actors had already arrived for costume fittings, and they were marooned in the hotel. I had a video chat with them on Monday, and they kept looking away from the screen to the window, where the storm continued to rage. Their eyes were filled with awe.
My play is called
Cleo.
It’s about the making of the movie
Cleopatra
. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are the main characters. Their illicit romance began on the movie set in Rome in 1962 and became the most scandalous love affair of the twentieth century. I was radiated by their romance, which happened to coincide with the onset of puberty. I have been working on the script, off and on, for twenty years. Bob Balaban, the actor, is our director, and we had a reading at the Alley Theatre in January 2016, on the little Neuhaus stage downstairs. The audience was wonderful, and after the reading, Gregory Boyd, the artistic director of the Alley, offered us a production.

The roads to Houston were just beginning to open up when I drove down on August 30. The Colorado River was well over its banks, and the sodden fields under the heavy sky appeared unnaturally lush, like an Irish landscape. Some of the access roads were still flooded. I saw an eighteen-wheeler trapped under an overpass; only the top of its cab was above the waterline. I wondered what had happened to the driver. There were only a few cars on the interstate, including some freelance rescuers towing swamp boats. Nathan Rott, a reporter for NPR, ran into a bunch of guys with oversized four-wheel-drive pickups who were forming up in Columbus, seventy miles from Houston. One of them told Rott, “It’s moments like these—and only moments like these—that America truly appreciates its rednecks.”

When disaster strikes Texas, one of the most effective first responders is a local chain of grocery stores, H-E-B, which dispatches a convoy of fifteen vehicles, including mobile kitchens that can produce 2,500 meals an hour, fuel tankers, portable generators, and Disaster Relief Units that contain pharmacies, ATMs, and business services equipment. By the time Harvey made landfall in South Texas, the convoy was already on the way to Victoria and Rockport. Over the next several days, various units headed to Houston. On Thursday, August 31, the Beaumont emergency management coordinator called H-E-B to say that the city was marooned. There was no water pressure. No supplies were getting in. And the state wasn’t able to help in a timely fashion. The H-E-B convoy charged through. That’s my idea of enlightened Texas capitalism.

As soon as I got into Houston, I went over to the theater. It’s on Texas Avenue, in the heart of the Theater District, only three blocks from Buffalo Bayou, which marks the northern edge of downtown. I had seen photos and videos that cast members had sent me during the storm. Texas Avenue had essentially merged into the bayou. The water was five feet deep in front of the theater. When I arrived, the streets were mostly dry, with jumpable puddles along the curb. The storm had moved off to Beaumont, but the wind was still gusting through the canyon of skyscrapers. I was prepared for the worst, I thought.

The Alley had its first performance in 1947, in an unheated (and certainly uncooled) dance studio on Main Street that accommodated eighty-seven people. A sycamore tree grew through the roof. A high-school drama teacher named Nina Vance was the founder. That same year, director Margo Jones created America’s first nonprofit resident theater in Dallas. Until then, theater outside New York was largely made up of touring Broadway productions, but it is because of visionaries like Vance and Jones that the flow reversed. Most original works—such as
Cleo
—now start in regional theaters, where they can be developed and find an audience.

The Alley opened in its current, brutalist-style building in 1968. It looks to me like a fifteenth-century Venetian fortress, with turrets that have also been compared to anti-aircraft emplacements. It’s not the kind of building to concern itself with hurricane winds. On the street in front of the theater was a vacuum truck, a sort of tanker that is used in the oil fields to suck fluids and slurry out of fracked wells. It had been going for twenty-four hours, the driver told me, but so far had only gotten two feet of water out of the theater.

I followed the suction line inside, where the chief engineer, Daniel Naranjo, greeted me. Daniel’s regular flashlight was out of batteries, so we relied on my iPhone. Upstairs was the recently renovated 774-seat Hubbard Theatre, where
Cleo
was intended to be staged; it was untouched. We could have put on the play that afternoon, except for the fact that the utilities were all drowned.

We headed down a spiral staircase toward the little theater below, but we only got a few steps before the water greeted us. The Alley had been flooded before. The previous high-water mark came from Tropical Storm Allison, in 2001—the worst rainstorm to hit an American city until that time. Harvey eclipsed that mark by a solid two feet. Below the submerged stage was a basement, which contained the dressing rooms, restrooms, laundry, wardrobe department, and about a hundred thousand props from the seventy years of the Alley’s existence, all of it buried under millions of gallons of water like a sunken ship.

It would take ten days to drain the theater before the demolition could begin. The main problem, Daniel explained, was the electrical panels, which were custom made, and would require at least six weeks if not several months to replace.
Cleo
was supposed to begin performances in three weeks.

One had to wonder at the wisdom of rebuilding. Initially, it was thought that the water had gotten in through the subterranean tunnel system that underlies downtown Houston, as had happened during Allison. Since then, submarine doors had been installed, which worked during Harvey. This time, the floodwaters rose high enough to enter through an air vent the size of a sewer drain and blew out the reinforced concrete wall leading to the power vault. That sheared off a sprinkler head, which added another million gallons of water to the gusher coming in from the street.

Hanging over our rehearsal was the obvious question of whether we would actually have a production. Alternative venues were either damaged or booked. Bob Balaban was stuck in New York since the Houston airports remained closed. We were waiting for the ax to fall.

THE NEXT MORNING,
I walked over to the George R. Brown Convention Center, where eight thousand refugees had taken shelter.
The initial chaos of the first days of Harvey had subsided into an impressive sense of order and gentility. The giant halls of the convention center were divided into dormitories for families, families with animals, single men, and single women. There was food in every aisle. I spoke to Scott Toncray, an official with the Red Cross. “I did Katrina with FEMA,” he said. “This one is a whole lot calmer.”

The death toll from Hurricane Katrina, which wrecked New Orleans in 2005, was estimated to be over 1,800 people, but no final tally has been made, since 135 people are still listed as missing. Looters took over the streets. The New Orleans police disgraced themselves with their civil rights violations. Doctors at one hospital became so desperate as they waited for rescue that they intentionally hastened the deaths of their patients. FEMA was unequal to the urgency and scale of the disaster. In one of Governor Rick Perry’s finest moments, he opened Texas to the refugees, and a quarter million of them came to Houston. As many as forty thousand of them became Houston citizens, aided by a multimillion-dollar resettlement program the city put in place.

I walked past a line of people waiting to file claims with the dozens of FEMA counselors. Volunteers were sorting mountains of donated clothing. Actors in Disney costumes (
The Lion King, Frozen
) wandered around, looking for children. There were phone-charging stations, a table full of consuls from South and Central America, massage therapists, face painters, and yoga instructors. It was almost like a street fair.

Rhonda Wilson, a Houston police officer, observed that, when she first got to the center during the storm, “it was a sea of helpless, desolate victims.” Seventy-seven people had died, but that was a fraction of those who had been lost in Katrina and even less than the figure for Rita. “There are still people being evacuated, and the rivers keep rising. I’m living my life in twelve-hour shifts,” Wilson said. The night before she had finally gotten a chance to turn on the television, and she had broken down. Like other police officers, her badge was masked, in memory of their colleague Sergeant Steve Perez, who drowned in the flood while trying to report for duty.