Hurricane Harvey: My Story

I survived Hurricane Harvey, one year ago today.

Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf coast on August 25, 2017, and brought flooding and destruction to the coastal cities. I happened to be in Houston for my second NASA internship when the hurricane hit and was one of the thousands of evacuees from that weekend. I wrote this story a few weeks after the hurricane hit Houston as part of my internship at Johnson Space Center (JSC) and it is published internally on JSC’s safety website.

I have changed the names of the individuals involved for privacy reasons, but I am very appreciative to everyone who helped me during that tumultuous time.

Here is my story. It’s a long one, so settle down and grab some water and a snack.

A “Series of Heroes”

The Personal Experience of Hurricane Harvey from Emmalee Mauldin

It was lucky that night that I decided to stay up later than I normally would. Call it fate or happenstance or what have you, but it may have saved my life and those around me.

The night of August 26th I called my best friend at 11:23p.m. because the raging Hurricane Harvey outside my window kept me from sleeping. The lightening was strobe-lighting the house, thunder was shaking it, and rain pounded on the roof non-stop for the past three hours. I remember making a joke that I thought I saw a plastic trash can float past my window but it was hard to believe because I couldn’t imagine the water rising that much in a matter of hours. The previous night, Friday, had brought more rains and lifted the bank of Dickinson Bayou 20 or 30 feet up towards the house, but it had receded over course of a non-rainy day.

After ending an hour-long phone call with her, I called my uncle. He and my grandma (who was staying with him at the time) had been texting me all day for updates about the storm, because we both kept the Weather Channel on our TV’s all night. I remember thinking about taking a shower to calm me down and when I checked the tub, brown water began to come up through the drain. I ran to the front door and opened it, which I had been doing for the past few hours to monitor the water levels outside. It was at my doorstep.

A few minutes later, it began to seep underneath the door. I ran to grab towels and I noticed that the floor started to warp and bubbled upwards – the water was underneath my floorboards. I hung up the phone to wake up the couple (renamed Meredith and John for privacy purposes), who I was renting my apartment from. My uncle later said that he didn’t sleep at all that night. Neither did I.

At around 1:15a.m. I texted and called them both. My message to Meredith was, “Hi! Are you awake?? The water is at my doorstep” but they had turned off their phones because the obnoxious “Hurricane,” “Tornado,” “Flash Flooding,” and “Tropical Storm” watches and warnings continuously alerted our phones. I ran to their bedroom and said, “I’m sorry to wake you, but water is coming through my front door and I don’t know what to do.” Looking back on it now, I find it funny that I tried to be so polite about the beginning of the most chaotic night of my life.

Meredith told me to grab towels and put them at the front door, which I had already done, and then she left. A minute or two later she came back and said that water was coming through their front and back doors as well.

At that point, Meredith and John told me to start gathering my stuff so it wouldn’t get wet, and to also prepare a bag to leave. I ran back to my apartment and found that more water had come up underneath the floorboards, making it difficult to walk, and water was covering my kitchen floor.

What happens next is more of a blur. I shuffled around the apartment, picking things up off the ground and throwing clothes and shoes in my suitcases. I knew that I couldn’t save everything but I was trying.

I remember yelling that we should unplug all of the electronics and turn of the power to the house, and then I began unplugging any and all electronic devices. I lit a candle and turned on a small portable lantern in my room. The water was to our ankles when Meredith turned off power to the house.

Once I felt that I had my belongings situated, I helped Meredith and John. We started with some of their things, such as pictures and important documents. Then we moved to their pets, two dogs and two cats; we gathered food for them and I made sure that they were safe.

At 3:15a.m., two hours after the water first came into the house, the water was at our knees. At one point in the night the front door flooded open and water rushed in, but I scrambled to it and managed to get it closed and locked again. Looking out the front door, the water was at least two feet higher than what was in the house and in the backyard it looked even higher.

At 3:30a.m., we decided to get to higher ground. We knew that we weren’t supposed to go to the attic, however, if we had opened the front door, water would have rushed into the house even quicker. And if we were even able to get to the roof it was still down pouring, there was still lightening, and it was pitch black outside. So to the garage attic we went. John had a plan to bust out through a ventilation system hole on the side of the attic roof.

I went back through the house to my apartment to grab my bag and found water beginning to seep through the windows. The water was still rising. The couch and bed were already floating, and then the refrigerator came crashing into the wall behind it as it too began to float. It startled me and I squealed. Walking through my apartment was hazardous because the floorboards broke apart and were free-floating on the surface of the water, making walking difficult on the sharp and uneven levels. I decided to make any final adjustments and then abandon ship.

We gathered up what we could and put it in the attic. Then it was the animals turn. The poor dogs had been put on the couch to stay out of the water but then the couch began to free-float and it became a balancing act for them. The cats went into the attic first, then I gathered one pup in my arms and crept up the ladder. The other dog followed in John’s arms. In the garage, the water was up to my hips since it had a lower floor level. (Note: the cats and dogs do not get along.)

Shortly after, all seven of us got settled in the attic. So close to the roof, the rain and thunder were incredibly loud. John began hacking away at the hole that we would escape through, Meredith comforted the animals, and I either assisted John by holding the flashlight or laid down. At 4:30a.m. we called 911 but they weren’t making any rescues yet so we were put on the list to be rescued at daybreak. Meredith said I should call my mom but I refused because I didn’t want to wake and worry her until I knew I was “safe.” It was freezing where I was in the attic, close to the hole, and Meredith and I measured the rising water levels using the rungs on the ladder to the attic: it rose one entire rung while we were up there, which was probably little more than a foot.

We listened to the dying screams of our cars when we were in the attic. My car, parked out in front of the house, was the first to go. The alarms went off and it honked and honked for what felt like forever. Eventually it stopped and when it did, I knew that my car was unsalvageable. My first car had died after serving my family for 15 years. Meredith and John’s cars weren’t as dramatic. They just began glitching — the lights turned on and off, the windshield wipers started, and occasionally one of them would honk.

I remember promising my mom before the storm hit that I wouldn’t be one of those people on their roofs, surrounded by water, being airlifted out by helicopter. I was able to keep my promise, but it was close.

At around 7:30a.m. a neighbor came to the house with an empty kayak and offered rescue. I was dubbed first to go. The water levels outside the house were so high it came up to the roof of the garage, so I only had to step off the roof and onto the kayak. The neighbor’s house was around the corner but luckily in the flow of the water. We steered around or under trees and kept an eye out for mailboxes and street signs. As we passed the front of the house, I saw my car, which was very nearly overwhelmed with water – there was only a few inches until the water went over the roof.

20170831_115604
This is the hole that we busted through in the attic.

It was absolutely terrifying to kayak in that water. I hadn’t kayaked since I was a kid and the water was deep and fast-flowing. The rain had momentarily stopped but began again as we were halfway to the neighbor’s house. Talking to him after the flood, my kayak rescuer said he was actually terrified that entire time we were in the water.

Finally we reached the house, which was two stories but still flooded on the first floor. I was given a room on the second floor and quickly changed into clean, dry clothes. John, Meredith and the animals arrived on another neighbor’s flat-bottomed boat a few minutes later. The cats went in my room and the dogs in the room for John and Meredith – the poor pups “messed” in the house.

Once we settled in the new house at around 8a.m., it was time to make a new plan. It was tentatively to make it to the freeway, where we could be taken to a shelter, and then be rescued by a friend. I let them make a plan and tried to nap in the bedroom, but I hardly slept. I called my mom, who was grumpy that I had called her so early, and finally told her what happened. She told the rest of our family so I could save phone battery and because, honestly, I didn’t have the energy to keep talking about what was happening to me.

At around noon Meredith and John were worried about the integrity of this old two-story house in the flood and flagged down a boat. There were so many private citizens going house-to-house rescuing people and bringing them to the freeway, and that’s exactly what we did to get to the freeway.

The freeways were flooded. We were basically stranded on a concrete island surrounded by rivers of water only crossable with raised vehicles or boats. Supposedly these “magical” buses would pick us up and take us to a shelter, however, in the three hours we were there we only saw four buses or so. They took families with children and the elderly first, which is as they should have done. The more promising option for us were the private citizens and companies that brought their elevated vehicles and began ferrying people across the water to the other side, where there were more rescues to shelters. (Apparently our location was one of the more difficult areas to reach.) People hitched rides on tow trucks, garbage trucks, carrier trucks and the like. One tow truck came back and brought water for evacuees on the freeway, which was much appreciated.

Finally, one of John’s friends had a truck who could take us to his dry house, if we could find a way to reach him. So, John flagged down a particularly high raised truck owned by this rather muscular man, and other evacuees loaded up as well. He was driving us north across a floodwater river when he got a call – his daughter was going into labor and needed to be taken to the hospital. He dropped us off at the opposite edge of the water and left to get his family.

We hitched a ride on another truck that could take us even further north and, finally, John’s friend was able to meet us at the freeway to pick us up.

He took us to his house and I went upstairs to take a shower. Right after I got out, my NASA mentor called and said that he had arranged for a fellow NASA employee to house me for the next few days and she was already waiting out front.

She and her husband housed and took care of me for the week. My life flew into a frenzy of calling and texting friends, family and NASA employees. I don’t think that I have ever had that many phone calls or people checking in on me in my entire life than in those first few days after the floods.

Finally, the rains stopped and the water in our area receded back into the sea.

The days after the flood

On Wednesday, August 30th, I volunteered at the NASA “Recharge and Refresh Station” for JSC employees at the Gilruth Center. The volunteers were not evacuees and had no idea what it was like but were feeling helpless, which inspired their decision to volunteer their time. It was encouraging to see so many people wanting to help in any way they could, from donating their time to donating supplies like food and toiletries. I was the only evacuee volunteering so, naturally, everyone came to talk to me about my experience.

On Thursday, August 31st, John, Meredith and I went back to the house to clean it out and see what we could salvage. Thankfully, most of my clothes were okay. My makeup ($250+ worth!) and car, which had insurance, were destroyed.

Meredith and John didn’t fare as well and lost many of their possessions. They did, however, have a huge support group of around forty people at the house to help clean it out, including many of John’s famous NASA friends (ie, astronauts! I was trying not to fangirl too much since I was covered in muck and we had a job to do.). The volunteers took out furniture, clothes and other belongings, and even ripped up the soggy carpets. I can’t describe to you how badly the house (and my car) smelled. It was a hot and sunny day in Houston, and everyone and everything was cooking in the heat.

They all went back to the house the next day to take out the drywall. The house was taken down to the studs and rebuilt over the course of a year. It is still not completed.

20170831_133234
All of the flooring was taken out of my room at this point.

Three months after the flood

The overwhelming support I received from the community around me was astounding. It spanned from my family, to the NASA community, to my friends back home in Tucson. The two most common phrases I heard were, “Wow! You’ve got quite the story to tell now!” and “Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” From complete strangers to the people closest to me, I was offered new places to live, cars, money, and things as simple as clothes or pots or linens. I was, and still am, very appreciative of this amazing support.

When I returned to JSC, my project was switched from writing safety mishap investigations to telling the story of Hurricane Harvey at Johnson Space Center. I had complete creative freedom on how I wanted to tell the story and so I decided to write a series of articles titled “Life with Harvey.” Featured in this series are tales of flight controllers sleeping in the International Space Station’s Mission Control Center and eating junk food all weekend; four inches of water intrusion in the Sonny Carter Training Facility, which houses the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory; and major roof leaks in the control center where the James Webb Space Telescope was undergoing cryogenic testing in JSC’s Chamber A. It was a true test of the spirit of NASA and I am proud to have been able to tell the story.

I honestly think that I was in Houston for a reason – to tell the story of Hurricane Harvey at the space center. I was able to report the heroics of a community despite enduring the worst flooding in United States history. My experience in Houston is something that I will never forget and I am very appreciative of everyone and everything that helped me on my journey in that amazing city.

Finally, we are and always will be “Houston Strong.”

Now

I’m thinking about posting an update of how the hurricane continues to impact me, so please let me know if that is something you are interested in, but this is the story of how I spent my weekend one year ago.

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Thank you for reading! I felt like this story needed to be told and Harvey’s one year anniversary seemed appropriate.

Please let me know in the comments below if any part of my story reverberated with you and like this post if you remember Hurricane Harvey.

Xoxo’s

Emmalee

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