The Survivor in the Guilt

In the days after Harvey, I volunteered to muck out homes in a North Vidor neighborhood which had sustained extensive flooding. Many of the homes had gotten a jump start on the process – knowing full well the quick advance of mold and the danger of that spread.

But many homes were still in their post-flood state. Rank with river water and ruined belongings. Their owners staring blankly into the aftermath of a flood that had ruined everything but left the mess behind for those affected to clean. A cruel trick. A street of perfect houses with disaster inside, memories-turned-debris left on the curb.

One such owner in hunger, I walked the street to a house on the end where a hastily written sign announced, “Free Lunches.” The owners of that house sat outside in the shade, sweating in the still, moist heat of a Southeast Texas September, their belongings airing out in the sun like everyone else.

When I requested a free meal for their neighbor, they apologized that the free lunches hadn’t arrived that day. They only had a few sandwiches, some spaghetti and other miscellaneous hot meals. I took a sandwich, and was offered a giant bag of chips and treats as well. They informed me that the gas station down the street had boxes of toiletries, free for the taking.

Given their generosity and the haphazard nature of the flooding, I felt comfortable inquiring about how they’d survived the flood.

“Oh, we lost everything,” One of the homeowners said, before continuing to apologize that they couldn’t do more to help.

When friends and family asked me how I was doing in the Harvey aftermath, this is the story I wanted to share. The beautiful and sad message of Vidor in the face of tragedy.

The recollection still makes me cry.

Months later, our town is still reeling with changed greetings. The inevitable question: “How did you fare?” My range in answers from honest luck to humor.

“What did I lose?” I’d say. “Only my sanity.”

Our lives intact but our city in ruin, comparing tragedy seems like an easy way to claim our good fortune. Flooded, but alive. Car ruined, but home dry. Dry on all fronts, but a week without water.

And those that can claim the real tragedy never seem interested in winning the battle. We all suffered, homes empty of drywall, or not.

But a week ago, I drove through a neighborhood in Nederland that flooded. Trailers and storage pods had popped up on their front lawns. A door open, I could see the inside of one house was still bare as a skeleton. Waiting for real life to begin.

In the face of true trials others haven’t fully conquered, it’s hard to admit that Harvey was rough for me. It was an emotional strain from which I haven’t recovered. A week of stress followed by a week without power and water.

Was it only two weeks? Looking back now, it feels like both a day and an eternity.

Do I really get to own my stress? Was it something I suffered, unearned? Is my pain some form of collective trauma that I’m somehow tapping into? Or is it anxiety accelerated by a pace of recovery that hasn’t stopped since the “return to normal?”

Anyways. I’m not sure if it matters. I’ll take care of myself – I always do. Even if it means indulging in my secret shame: that I was affected by Harvey, even though I stayed dry.

 

Writer’s Note: This piece has been a long time coming. The kind of writing that sticks in your throat and makes you cough. The kind of emotion that can only be released on the page. It’s not everything, but it’s a start.

 

Background:¬†On August 25th, Hurricane Harvey made landfall between Port Aransas and Port O’Connor, Texas, as a Category 4 storm. It lingered over the Texas Gulf Coast for several days, following my worst-case-scenario track of pulling back into the Gulf of Mexico before coming back at my residence in Beaumont, Texas. While Beaumont was spared most of the wind damage (Harvey made re-landfall in Louisiana), flooding across the Southeast Texas region was terrible. My apartment was without power and water for a week. I evacuated when Beaumont lost water, making a harrowing trek on I-10 East – the only route out of town – before even that escape was shut down due to flooding. Luckily, my apartment, car, and the lives of those I love were spared.

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