The vultures on the roof greeted us as we pulled up. When we evacuated Houston over a week ago, I was so grateful that we had a place to go, my in-laws’ house in Bastrop, just outside of Austin. My mother-in-law sent me a text to warn me that two vultures had set up shop on their roof, and not to be alarmed. I just hoped they weren’t an omen. I am not sure my mother-in-law has ever really made peace with the Bastrop house. My father in law bought it as a surprise to be their retirement home close to Austin. Surprising a woman with a house is rarely a good idea. She didn’t want to leave her neighborhood outside of Houston. The compromise? Keep both. My husband and I are glad they did. Not only has the Bastrop house been a family gathering place, it has been a point of refuge for us for the last 12 years.
We have fled to Bastrop for two hurricanes, one fire, and the occasional weekend when we all needed a change of scenery. There is a room set up for the granddaughters and one for my son, their only grandson. There are TVs, wi-fi, and lots of room for the dogs to roam. It made it easier for us to decide to get out of harm’s way. Our first evacuation was twelve years ago. Many people forget that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Houston was threatened by Hurricane Rita. Before the storm hit, thousands of Houstonians, on edge from Katrina’s reverberations in their town, took to the roads to evacuate. The result was the largest traffic jam Houston has ever seen, and that’s saying something. The trip between our house and Bastrop usually took under three hours. That day it took us eight. My husband was away on business and I was a newbie to this natural disaster stuff. I attempted to tape windows, carried rugs upstairs, and took pictures of everything. My infant son and I waited half an hour for a shopping cart to buy water at Sam’s and I struggled to find gas.
Having just watched a documentary on the famous Hurricane of 1900 that wiped out Galveston, I went through the prep in a surreal daze, hearing the voice of the narrator: “At noon the day before the storm, Anne Kennedy and her infant son went about their business just like any other day. Little did they know of the disaster to come.” I remember packing up the car with our desktop computers, papers, our wedding album, a few valuables, and even urn containing the ashes of my dog, Shelby. There were about 14 of us in the Bastrop place that time: friends and family, someone just released from prison, along with a dog that had recently been attacked by bees. Once we heard the storm was not that bad, we all relaxed. The house took on a festive atmosphere, as we took turns preparing meals and taking trips to the outlets in San Marcos, while waiting for gas supplies to be restored to Houston. While at the outlets, my mother-in-law bought a ceramic chicken for every family that had weathered the storm in Bastrop.
When we looked at houses in Austin, I purposely selected a community on very high ground, thinking my evacuation days were over. I never wanted to go through that again. Then, the fire broke out in our neighborhood and, once again, we packed up the kids, dogs, hamsters and hermit crabs to head to Bastrop, where the fire was much worse but there was no mandatory evacuation order. We watched the smoke get closer and closer, but luckily, we were on the other side of a lake from it. My stomach was a fist of anxiety for three days, as we waited for the news that we could return home. We watched the governor helicopter in to our evacuated neighborhood to give a press statement. I asked my husband if there was any place in Texas where we could without having to evacuate every few years.
When Hurricane Harvey popped up on the horizon, I knew immediately where we would go. Having learned a thing or two, when my daughter expressed anxiety two days before Harvey made landfall, I did not hesitate. We had the car packed and ready to go in thirty minutes. This time, I didn’t bother with papers, the ashes of dead pets, or the wedding album. We all packed up laptops, tablets, phones, water and food, and LOTS of chargers and extension cords. Ironically, we were the only ones at the house this time, even though the storm proved much worse than we expected. We have been in purge mode a lot around our house lately, so I can’t say I would be too upset about losing anything specific, but losing our home itself would have been devastating. Twelve years after my first evacuation, I was amazed at how much easier it has become to leave everything behind. Have our priorities changed or have we just become used to leaving?
The other big change in the last twelve years has been rise of social media and the way it can keep us connected. During Rita, we fielded phone calls and sent emails back and forth with a few friends. This time around, friends could check in safe on Facebook. The rise of Catholic social media communities offered a tremendous support for those affected. Pictures, videos, and prayers were updated hourly. Our pilgrimage group, the local Blessed is She community, and even the Facebook page for this year’s Edel gathering, kept everyone updated on our sisters and their families. I am sure it will play a big role in recovery, too. My husband noted that we were getting updates faster from each other than from the news. In addition to packing up, I have learned to turn to prayer faster, too. Maybe all of these drills in leaving everything behind are paying off.
We are lucky to be home now, safe and dry, but it will take a long time for the community to recover. I have complete faith that it will. What I have learned is that, while you can get out of harm’s way, you can never really escape disaster. At some point, you have to come home and face things. But not alone. The day before we returned to Houston, the vultures returned to the Bastrop house. It wasn’t exactly a dove with an olive branch, or even a ceramic chicken, but I’ll take it.