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Secondhand Hurricane

What it’s like to watch your city get pounded from 200 miles away

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Everything about Hurricane Harvey—the water, the wind, the destruction, the panic—I’ve only experienced from afar.

Last Wednesday evening, one night before I was supposed to head back home to Houston, I was in Los Angeles for work-related things when I began getting texts from my wife, Larami. I was sitting in the audience at a theater as some of my colleagues from The Ringer prepped for their upcoming live Talk the Thrones show.

Without any context or explanation, Larami asked about my flight information, saying she was worried that she and our sons—twin 10-year-olds and a 4-year-old—were going to be trapped in the house by water. She said that she was thinking about driving to my parents’ house in San Antonio. I had no idea what she was talking about. I’d been on the road in one form or another for already a week by that point, and during the couple of hours that all of the storm news started happening I’d been away from my phone. I texted her back, “Wait, what’s happening down there?” to which she responded with only a screenshot:

I wrote back, “Whoa. Yeah, y’all should go.” (That, in a nutshell, is our relationship. She tells me something, and when she does so, she is fully informed and already has a plan in place; I just say back to her a less articulate version of what she just said, and then she pretends like what I said was insightful and my idea and not hers.) She said that she didn’t want to leave without me, and that if I was flying back to Houston the next day then she’d just wait for me and hopefully we’d all be able to get out before the storm hit.

Larami and I have lived in Houston together since 2004. Since then, the area has been evacuated three different times, the most grueling of which was 2005’s Hurricane Rita scare. More than 2.5 million people tried to leave the city as that storm approached. It caused one of the worst traffic jams in U.S. history. Over 100 people died on the roads, most from heat exhaustion or dehydration. I remember reading a particularly heartbreaking story about how a bus filled with elderly people caught on fire, ultimately killing 24 of them. The whole thing was just awful. On a normal day, it takes about three hours to drive from Houston to San Antonio. On Rita Evacuation Day, it took many over 20, and that’s if you were lucky enough to avoid all of the forms of catastrophe that were threatening to gobble everyone up. At any rate, that was the first thing I thought of when she said she’d wait for me.

I told her to just go to San Antonio, that I’d ask to get my flight changed. That was at 8:03 p.m. She responded immediately with, “Cool. If it helps your case any, the governor just declared a ‘state of disaster’ status for Houston.” Half an hour later, I responded to her with:

Insecure is a very good TV show on HBO. Molly is a character on it. She’s played by Yvonne Orji, who, it turns out, is a big Game of Thrones fan.

(This, in a nutshell, is also our relationship. The whole of Larami’s energies goes into making sure that everyone in the family is safe all the time and I just wander around, aloof and oblivious to all of the parts of the world that aren’t immediately affecting me in that moment.)

I met Larami in San Antonio the next morning. She picked me up from the airport, then we drove to my parents’ house. From there, which is where I am right now, we have watched the most devastating flood to ever touch America pound and pound and pound away onto the heads of everyone in Houston and its surrounding parts.

It’s a strange feeling to be so mentally connected to a place (our children were born in Houston, our home is in Houston, our friends are in Houston, Larami’s family is in Houston, our lives are in Houston) while also being totally physically disconnected from it. We have watched everything unfold as it’s happened via Facebook and Twitter and various news outlets. We have watched our friends’ homes get destroyed. We have watched our neighborhood, always a flood risk, get turned into the ugliest swamp. We have watched lives get turned upside down, and lives get lost. It’s awful and devastating, absolutely, but it also makes us ask, “Is this really real? Is this really happening?” Part of that feeling is survivor’s guilt, but part of it is this new thing which I’m not sure there’s an exact name for. (There’s a chance that it’s not a new thing. There’s a chance that it’s just an amplified version of survivor’s guilt, what with social media providing you access to a constant stream of what’s happening.)

I haven’t seen the destruction with my eyes. I haven’t felt the rain on my face or in my shoes. I haven’t smelled the flood water, which has a very distinct smell—I can assure you, because right around this time in 2015, our neighborhood flooded from rain and we were trapped there, and then right around this time in 2016, our neighborhood flooded from rain and we were trapped again. I haven’t experienced any of that this time. But I also haven’t not experienced it, if that makes any sense. Sorry. I’m sure you understand what I’m saying.

I tried to make it a point to be active and loud on Twitter for anyone that needed it as the storm moved in (this basically consisted of me retweeting distress signals from people as well as tweets from people with boats who were hoping to rescue people, in hopes that more people would see it and connections would be made; also, some impromptu fundraising that blew my mind). I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to do. I thought that would help me stay involved, help me feel what everyone in Houston is and has been feeling. But I don’t think it’s worked.

I mean, it’s helped me stay involved, yes. But mostly, I’m just here, stranded in San Antonio, watching all of my friends, and people I don’t know, sort through the ruination and turbulence. As I write this, it’s still too dangerous to try to get back to the area of town where we live, and even that presents its own issues. Because while I’ve not yet seen the inside of my house, I’m told that, through some kind of miracle, it’s one of the few houses in our neighborhood that the water chose to avoid.

And what’s strange is I am absolutely happy about that. How could I not be? But also, I can’t shake this odd feeling of embarrassment or guilt. Because how did that happen? Why did it happen? Dozens and dozens of houses near us, by us, next to us, and around us were obliterated. One woman, a fantastically charming teacher and mother of two who lives nearby and with whom my wife is especially close, has had her house ravaged by flood water each of the past three years. Not us, though. Not once.

What do we say to her? What do we say to anyone? How is that fair? What are we to make of the fact that not only were we able to leave in time, but also our house has not experienced any significant damage? We should probably feel lucky—AND I DO—but I also feel this mixture of shame and sheepishness. I feel sad that all of these terrible things have happened to so many people where I live, but I don’t know if I’m even allowed to feel sad about that because I was one of the ones who was spared—shouldn’t I just be super fucking happy? I don’t know.

Houston is going to rebuild itself because that’s what Houston does. I can’t wait to watch it happen, and I can’t wait to get home to help. I just want to go home.