Glasscock Harvey Stories: Making Sense of Life When Life Makes No Sense

One year later, members of the Glasscock School teaching community reflect on their experiences during Hurricane Harvey.

Aug 23 , 2018

Evacuation. Photo contributed by Elizabeth White-Olsen.

 

Making Sense of Life When Life Makes No Sense: Reflections on Hurricane Harvey from a Writer, a Photojournalist, a Psychologist, a Meditation Teacher and an Environmental Engineer

As we approach Hurricane Harvey’s one-year anniversary, Cathy Maris, assistant dean for Community Learning and Engagement, asked Glasscock School instructors from across disciplines to tell us how the storm affected them personally and how their professional expertise helped them “make sense of life when life makes no sense,” in the words of instructor Elizabeth White-Olsen. Read on for insights from a writer, a photojournalist, a psychologist, a meditation teacher and an environmental engineer, all part of the Glasscock School teaching community.

 

Elizabeth White-Olsen, writer and creative writing instructor

“The only way I was able to get through Harvey was by writing about what happened and helping people. This is still what I am doing one year later as I keep trying to knit myself back together.”

Elizabeth White-Olsen was among the 100,000 Harris County residents whose homes flooded as a result of Hurricane Harvey. She describes leaving her home and the role writing, teaching and supporting others played in coming to terms with Hurricane Harvey.

How did Hurricane Harvey affect you personally?

Image of Elizabeth White-Olsen and friend.Elizabeth White-Olsen and friend. Photo contributed by Elizabeth White-Olsen

“Hurricane Harvey drastically altered my life. We lived in an apartment in west Houston and were evacuated by canoe on Wednesday, August 30, after our building flooded due to the Addick's Reservoir releases. I'd never been in a situation in which the basic necessities of life, such as having food, were threatened. Seeing elderly people on walkers and babies being evacuated terrified me. One year later, I still regularly have nightmares about flooding.

Our entire complex was flooded--750 units, likely around 2,500 residents--and everyone had to move. Every building was overcome with mold, including ours. Luckily, our apartment complex let us out of our leases, but we had to move in five days. It was painful to have life change so suddenly, to have a home we loved taken from us. But, the kindness people showed went a long way to helping me feel cared about, rather than expendable according to the forces of nature.

I suggested to my husband that we find the silver lining by fulfilling our longtime dream of buying a house together. Bringing a joyful goal before us lifted our spirits. After ten weeks of living with friends, we eventually found a home we liked and could afford 15 miles north of downtown. We were desperate to belong somewhere again, to have an address, to have privacy, and to not feel homeless.

When it was time to teach my fall Glasscock School Developing Stories for Children and Young Adults class, I wasn't sure how to proceed without my beloved children's book collection. But, Korin Brody found a copy of “Charlotte's Web” I could borrow for day one. I was delighted to be back in the classroom discussing literature, because books help us make sense of life when life makes no sense. Teaching with the Glasscock School was my respite from the storm during this period.”

How did your professional experience as a writer help you respond to or make sense of Harvey?

“Writing saved me during Harvey. I almost never post on social media, but during each increasingly more traumatic day of the storm, I posted photos and prose about what was happening. It helped to have my friends from around the country who were in sane, dry places express their shock and horror, because it reminded me that this was not normal, that there was a normal world out there and that maybe someday we would return to it.

Since Harvey, I have written around 100 pages of memoir about the storm and its aftermath. I have submitted work to the Houston Flood Museum and am leading a writing workshop at Writespace to help others write about what happened one year ago, both to help them heal personally and to help Houston as a community not forget what happened, so that policymakers will listen and make holistic, long-term decisions, rather than ones that bring about an immediate profit, but endanger people.

The only way I was able to get through Harvey was by writing about what happened and helping people--bringing beans to our single next door neighbor, checking on a neighbor with a walker to see if she needed anything, loaning our gas grill to neighbors when we lost power. This is still what I am doing one year later as I keep trying to knit myself back together: writing about what happened and helping people.”

 

Image of rescue during Hurricane Harvey.Downtown Houston from the University of Houston-Downtown. Photo by Daniel Kramer

 

Daniel Kramer, photojournalist and photography instructor

“My job is to document horrors. If it has happened, I want to take pictures of it. I can show how serious a problem is so, hopefully, people will be helped.”

On August 25, 2017, photojournalist Daniel Kramer watched Hurricane Harvey unfold from the safety of his second floor apartment in the Galleria area of Houston. That evening, he received a call from the Agence France-Presse (AFP) wire service with an assignment to photograph the aftermath of Harvey’s landfall between Houston and Corpus Christi. As the storm continued to lash the region on August 26, he and a friend drove southwest in a downpour, chronicling the destruction along the way.

How did Hurricane Harvey affect you personally?

Daniel Kramer expressed gratitude for his safety and emphasized “I wasn’t hurt by Hurricane Harvey at all.” Yet, the devastation he encountered was “overwhelming.” He also had a close call with the floodwaters on August 26: “On the drive back from Corpus Christi after midnight, the rain was coming down so hard I could barely see. I fell in behind a police car on the highway. As I exited 610 at San Felipe, the water was pretty high. I was white-knuckling and scared. The worst part was the last 20 feet. Water was lapping over my hood. I didn’t know if I would make it.”

Fortunately, he did make it home safely. But, the next day “the phone was ringing off the hook” with new assignments. Mr. Kramer shot extraordinary images for AFP, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Mail, Vice Magazine and Sierra Magazine that showed the world the magnitude and human impact of Harvey. On August 27, he saw a semi-truck “bobbing in the current down the 610 frontage road” and captured the driver’s rescue by two good Samaritans. The photo was featured on the Wall Street Journal website. He also spent a significant amount of time taking pictures at the George R. Brown Convention Center emergency shelter.

In addition to the photographs, Mr. Kramer made this video of numerous curbs piled with debris on his way to help friends clean their flooded Meyerland home on September 16. “It was something else to see piles and piles of debris for miles and miles. I’ve never seen anything like that before and I’m a photojournalist.”

Image of rescue during Hurricane Harvey.610 frontage road rescue. Photo by Daniel Kramer

How did your professional experience as a photojournalist help you respond to or make sense of Harvey?

“Hurricane Harvey was the second major hurricane I covered as a photojournalist. The first was Ike in 2008. At first, it was almost an adventure to take these photos because I didn’t see the human toll. Then, we walked into people’s homes. I saw the water line at five feet and children’s toys overturned. It was horrible, overwhelming and crushing.

My job is to document horrors. If it has happened, I want to take pictures of it. I can show how serious a problem is so, hopefully, the government will allocate money and people will be helped.”

 

Michael Winters, psychologist and psychology instructor

“I was safe, but I saw my community drowning. What was it that I could contribute? What was demanded of me in this disaster?”

As a psychologist, Michael Winters is used to helping people navigate difficult circumstances. While his family was not harmed by the storm, even he initially felt overwhelmed by the scale of Harvey’s destruction. Asking “now what?” led Dr. Winters to volunteer at the George R. Brown Convention Center emergency shelter. His story illustrates how focusing on the individual people affected by a disaster can convert a feeling of paralysis into empathy-fueled action.

Image of shelter during Hurricane HarveyGeorge R. Brown Convention Center. Photo by Daniel Kramer

How did Hurricane Harvey affect you personally?

“I was safe, but I saw my community drowning. I went to volunteer at the George R. Brown Convention Center with family and friends. Let me lay out the scene for you: think 18 football fields laid out three deep and six long in five giant rooms. Each room has hundreds of cots laid out in the middle and on the outside rim stations for blanket distribution, clothes distribution, water, and food distribution, a large play area for kids, a large screen projector showing TV coverage of the storm, a medical section (think MASH - except there are not tents but curtains separating sections- ambulances can bring those who are not severely wounded, but not healthy either).

I was one of the few mental health professionals who had volunteered. They told us to walk the floor and look for people who may be in need. I focused on looking for older folks who needed help. I met Bob, an 81-year-old man. He reminded me a bit of my father. He said his knees did not work that well, and he did not yet have a place to sleep. I went and found a cot in a section that would allow him easier access to bathrooms. I went back to where he was sitting and remembered only then to ask - are you alone? “No, my wife Jenny is here,” he said. I asked what Jenny looked like so I could see if I could find her. Eventually, we did find Jenny. Jenny told me how humbled they were through this experience. No history of flooding at their house - but their house had three feet of water in it and their car was not drivable. I confirmed that their children knew that they were safe. Of their six children - some lived in parts for Houston - none had been able to reach them. I got some water and brought it back to Bob and Jenny. I apologized for the chaos and Jenny hugged me.”

How did your professional experience as a psychologist help you respond to or make sense of Harvey?

“My initial response was informed more by my gut and feelings rather than by my training as a psychologist. After a brief emotional paralysis, I knew I needed to help if I could. As time went by, I was able to come to terms with the inability to understand ’Why?’ Harvey devastated so many, and focus more on the ‘Now what?’ What was it that I could contribute? What was demanded of me in this disaster?”

 

Alejandro Chaoul, meditation instructor, assistant professor and director of education in the integrative medicine program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

“It was a time when meditation was crucial to feel grounded.”

Meditation teacher Alejandro Chaoul’s street flooded, but his home did not. As soon as the water receded on August 26, Dr. Chaoul volunteered at MD Anderson Cancer Center’s inpatient Palliative Care unit, driving or riding his bike to the hospital each day, as the road conditions permitted. He explains how meditation brought peace to very sick patients and how a cup of tea helped transform the experience of one woman undergoing outpatient treatment who was stranded in her hotel during Harvey.

How did Hurricane Harvey affect you personally?

“The hospital was not accepting any new patients and was much emptier than usual. It had a very different feel, almost like a ghost town. On top of their significant symptoms, some patients in the Palliative Care unit felt stress from the storm. But, it was a very supportive atmosphere. I spent time with patients by the bedside, just being with them and teaching them basic meditative practices.”

How did your professional experience as a meditation and mind-body expert help you respond to or make sense of Harvey?

“It was a time when meditation was crucial to feel grounded. I noticed that it helped others, too.

My favorite anecdote of that time was from an outpatient MD Anderson patient from California who got stuck here during Harvey. As she told me, she freaked out, and found herself in a closet of her hotel. Luckily, she had a cup of tea in her hand. After a while, she remembered our meditation and tea class, and used the tea as a source of inspiration for her meditation. She says it transformed her mood and brought a new perspective on how she engaged with the situation. She excitedly called us at Integrative Medicine, telling us how our work and the meditation and tea class had helped her in her time here during Harvey.

These are the gifts that I relish the most.”

Philip Bedient, Herman Brown Professor of Engineering and director, Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, Rice University

“Harvey was so widespread, it hit everybody. So, finally, it’s started to resonate with everybody. There’s been a lot of movement of money, ideas and connection and discussion between the powers that be and the general public. It will take a lot of time and a lot of money, but I’m optimistic that we can finally make real progress on flood control in Houston.”

Few people better understood the enormity and destructive potential of Hurricane Harvey than Dr. Philip Bedient, an environmental engineer and director of Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center. An internationally-renowned flooding expert, Dr. Bedient was one of the lead engineers who developed the Texas Medical Center (TMC) flood warning system and advised on engineering solutions after Tropical Storm Allison caused billions of dollars in damage to the TMC in 2001. He describes how it felt to watch Harvey unfold and offers insights on how Houston can harness the hurricane’s impact to make lasting inroads in flood control.

How did Hurricane Harvey affect you personally?

“I live in Sugarland. We weathered Allison well, so I felt pretty confident going into the storm. We were trapped for three days but we got out on the fourth. Sugarland fared extremely well. We had 32 inches of rain but minimal flooding because of the strong drainage criteria and plenty of green infrastructure. Harris County, unfortunately, had more than 100,000 homes flooded.”

How did your professional experience as an engineer and flooding expert help you respond to or make sense of Harvey?

“All during that fateful Saturday night when the deluge hit, I was up most of the night watching the Rice/Texas Medical Center flood warning system. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I thought for sure the Medical Center would flood. But, magically, it didn’t. I was very, very pleased that the Medical Center held. It was one of the positive stories to come out of Harvey.

After Harvey hit, the phone calls started to come in. I had 80 interviews in six weeks. All of the national media called—the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time Magazine, media from China, Japan, all over the world. I spent much of September and part of October doing interviews. The outpouring of interest was really amazing. The media was interested in many different topics--preparations, emergency response, long-term policy implications, what would Houston do and how we would address flooding in the future.

We learned a lot about how to protect the Medical Center from Allison. There was $2 billion in damage to the Medical Center in Allison. With funding from FEMA, I was actively involved with a team using computer modeling to advise on solutions and advanced flood warning. They redid Kirby, Hermann Drive, MacGregor and Cambridge and added 75 gates and doors. All of that work, money and investment paid off in a big way in Harvey.

There needs to be an expanded view of flood warning systems. They are straightforward, inexpensive and relatively easy to deploy. I don’t understand why there’s not more support for expanding our flood warning systems. We did get funding for one on White Oak Bayou, but we need to add flood warning systems on Addicks and Barker reservoirs and on eight to 10 other major watersheds. They are designed to predict water flow and help ordinary people and first responders get to high ground and protect people and property.

It takes time. It took eight years to rebuild the Medical Center. No matter what they approve after Harvey in Houston, it will take years to rebuild the necessary infrastructure."

As a flooding expert, do you have any new perspectives on Harvey a year later?

“I think the response has been great. There’s been a lot of movement of money and ideas and connection and discussion between the powers that be and the general public. It’s not been perfect, but it’s been real progress.

Maybe three storms is the charm. Finally, it’s started to resonate with everybody because Harvey was so widespread, it hit everybody. Did you know that the Harris County Flood Control annual budget for capital projects is only $60 million? Now billions of dollars in state and federal support are pouring in. But, even this may not be enough money to secure Houston’s long-term needs. With enough funding, we will have a real chance to do something serious about flood control. It will take a lot of time and a lot of money, but I’m optimistic that we can finally make real progress on flood control in Houston.”


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We are honored to have such a remarkable community of instructors at the Glasscock School, all outstanding experts, educators and human beings! Join us for our fall courses to study with these and other exceptional Glasscock School instructors.

 

About the Author

Cathy MarisCathy Maris, Assistant Dean for Community Learning and Engagement, Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.