Sylvester Turner made the first call. The Astros were camped out in Florida, half of their six-game homestand already thrown nearly a thousand miles east to Tropicana Field by Hurricane Harvey and the floods that followed, and they were prepared to stay in St. Petersburg through the weekend and host the Mets there. But the mayor of Houston called Astros owner Jim Crane and asked him to bring his team home as soon as possible, to help the devastated city return to normal.
So the Astros did, and on September 2, they kicked off a doubleheader against the Mets in front of a raucous home crowd. The Astros jumped all over the opposing starting pitcher—Matt Harvey, in a grotesque coincidence—to the tune of seven runs in two innings, en route to a 12-8 victory that wasn’t even that close. Their 1-2-3 hitters didn’t make an out until their fourth time through the order. They won the second game, 4-1, behind two hits and some spectacular defense from Marwin González.
It wasn’t quite normal. The tea kettle heat of the Southeast Texas summer, knocked down to a chilly 70 degrees during the height of the storm, wasn’t quite all the way back, for starters. The announced crowd of 30,319 was maybe half that size, and the pregame ticket lines, which usually stretch from gate to gate, were limited to clumps of a few dozen. Turner donned an orange Astros jersey and threw out the first pitch to applause as loud as the limited audience could muster. (He bounced it and later blamed a wet baseball.)
Manager A.J. Hinch addressed the crowd before Game 1. During his remarks, he pointed to a small blue patch the Astros will wear for the rest of the season. It’s the Astros’ logo, a capital H inside a star, above the word “strong.” It recalls the “Boston Strong” slogan that became popular after the marathon bombing in 2013. “Boston Strong” typified the defiance David Ortiz expressed when he stepped into a role of impromptu civic leadership exactly like the one Hinch found himself in last weekend, and famously exclaimed, “This is our fucking city.”
The George R. Brown Convention Center is a big, white, boxlike building with blue trusses and curved red vents that make it look a little like a steamship sitting in downtown Houston. It currently serves as a shelter in the aftermath of the flood, and so it’s now surrounded by TV satellite trucks and makeshift police cordons. You pass through a metal detector to enter, and are greeted by a wide concourse full of activity. The convention center contrasts with the red brick and mint-green steel of Minute Maid Park, which sits two blocks to the south.
Inside the convention center on the day before the game, I passed Hinch as he stood within a cluster of people in that front hallway, outfielder Josh Reddick and pitcher Joe Musgrove in tow, as Orbit, the team mascot, sat in a crowd of children. Musgrove took a pair of spikes with him and got evacuees to sign them, then wore them for Saturday’s doubleheader.
The signage in the convention center, temporary home to 10,000 evacuees at the peak of the crisis, isn’t as refined as the Astros’ new patch. Every single sign is black ink on white printer paper, advertising the locations of phone charging stations, medical services, volunteer intake centers, showers, ballrooms turned into dormitories, and the other essential components of a place Musgrove described as “its own little city.” Music and the laughter of children echo through the front hall, as actors and actresses dressed as superheroes and Disney characters keep the kids busy while their parents and grandparents look for clean clothes or a ride home.
“No one really knew what to expect going in,” Musgrove said, “but you walk in and they’ve got everything from food and beds to barbers giving people haircuts for free, and everything for the kids—entertainment, a playroom for them, they had dogs in there for kids to play with—they’re just doing the best they could to make it feel like a home.”
Families pulled cots together to carve out a little personal space, and with colorful blankets, children’s toys or whatever other bits of home they could salvage before they had to leave, no two setups looked the same. Most people kept their belongings in neat piles underneath their cots; staying organized saved space, killed time, and brought a little order to a room full of thousands of people.
One man, left short of breath by a chest cold, insisted on carrying his own bags, and upon arriving at his spot made sure his clothes were folded neatly before he even sat down. Another couple who’d been assigned to move to the next room over declined volunteers’ offers of help. “We’re fine,” they said. “Go help someone who needs it more.”
Other evacuees seemed absolutely thrilled just to be alive. A man named Kevin, who’d carved out five cots and 200 square feet of floor space for four generations of his family, was all smiles. I told him that, having spent most of my life in New Jersey, I’d never experienced anything like this before.
“Yeah, but y’all had 9/11,” he said. “That was way worse.”
The Houston metro area is home to about 6.5 million people—about as many as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Iceland put together. Harris County, the third-most-populous in the United States, is home to 4.5 million. In a city that big, it’s possible to simply not have any family or close friends who lived in one of the estimated 136,000 homes that flooded. The water in my neighborhood never got more than a couple of inches over the curbs. As a recent transplant who works from home and has no ties to the area, I have a small social circle, and almost everyone I know came through the storm without even losing power.
So once the sun came out last week, I looked at that number—136,000 homes damaged—with a measure of detachment. Surely the tens of thousands of first responders and National Guard members, backed up by aid workers and tens of thousands of volunteers, backed up by hundreds of millions of dollars in donations, would be enough to get us back to normal if everyone pitched in where they could.
Then I talked to Kevin and his family, who were just happy they were all safe. Then I multiplied them by the thousand or so other people in the convention center ballroom and multiplied by the three other rooms full of people waiting for a more permanent place to stay. Then I multiplied by the thousands of others at the Toyota Center, and NRG Stadium, and dozens of schools and houses of worship from here to Corpus Christi to Galveston, plus thousands more who’d taken shelter with friends and relatives, and I just shut down.
There’s a reason we empathize with suffering on the individual level and turn large-scale disasters into statistics—seeing the forest and the trees at the same time is like opening a window on an airplane. It’s terrifying and disorienting. It makes it hard to see and breathe and think. It makes a recovery process that will be accomplished one day, one nail, one meal at a time look impossible.
“[The worst part] was probably the unknown,” said Astros reliever Will Harris. “We were in Tampa not knowing what the situation was back home, if our houses were underwater. Just being here and not being able to see it. Driving in when we landed on Thursday was surreal, driving through the city and seeing the aftermath of the storm.”
For Harris, a Louisiana native and LSU alum, Harvey is a reminder of the different, but similarly awe-inspiring, destruction that Hurricane Katrina visited on New Orleans in 2005, and the long road to recovery.
“It was my senior year of college, and my roommate’s family lost their house in New Orleans and lived with us that whole school year,” said Harris. “You see the resiliency of people. You kind of do what you have to do after it’s over. You put your head down and keep living and work your way back. It’s not easy, but people do that.”
Part of that process is figuring out how to make it through the day without being reduced to tears by the scale of human suffering in this city. Houstonians are starting to eat out again, not only to help small businesses and service industry workers who rely on tips or hourly wages recover from a week of zero income, but to make it seem like the world isn’t about to end. It’s why Turner insisted that the Astros come home early.
“We hope that we can provide a break from what’s turned into some rough days for a lot of people,” Hinch said during the press conference. “We’re a baseball team. We provide entertainment, we try to make the city proud, and we wear ‘Houston’ across our chests, and we will represent this community very well. I hope it provides a smile or two. I hope it provides a break from what’s going through these people’s minds. To keep it in perspective we’re a baseball team. We’re going to do our part. We’re going to try to help return to normalcy and a normal weekend in September has a lot of Astros baseball involved.”
“Normalcy” was a touchstone for Hinch, Crane, Turner, and Harris, because they all understand that while momentary comfort is of immense importance to a city where hundreds of thousands were just left displaced, baseball won’t rebuild people’s homes.
“You always try to do as much as you can on the field, but now it’s important for us to do our part off the field,” Musgrove said. “We have such a big influence in the city, to kids and people here — we’re doing everything we can, from donations to foundations and charities getting set up. At this point we’ve got baseball to play every day, so we can’t physically help out, but if we can help some people find homes or help get people back on their feet, that’s going to mean a lot to us.”
Hinch spent much of his time at the shelter talking about baseball with people who’d lost everything.
“That stuff almost feels silly to talk about when you’re sitting across the table from a guy who’s trying to find socks for his kids,” Hinch said.
After the flood, the path to recovery involves projects as small as finding socks and as large as rebuilding roads and schools and houses, and taking steps to make sure the next storm isn’t as devastating. Storms like Hurricane Harvey are becoming more common thanks to climate change, and its impact was magnified by the way this city was constructed.
The city of Houston is a monument to what might charitably be described as Texan determination or less charitably as unbounded human arrogance. It’s a band of asphalt and concrete that was supposed to make what used to be a marsh impermeable to water, in an area where heavy rain and even hurricanes are common. A lack of zoning laws means that everything is where it was cheapest or most convenient to build it at the moment it was built: Many of the homes lost when the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in West Houston had to be let out to avoid a catastrophic dam break were built within what the Army Corps of Engineers considers to be the boundaries of the reservoirs themselves. And while the volunteers at the shelter were a racial and economic cross section of the city, the evacuees were mostly black and Latino, because 88 percent of the city’s drainage ditches run through majority-minority neighborhoods.
These things are within our capacity to change, but the Astros can’t fix everything on their own. While Hinch wants to provide a distraction for the city, he wants his players to remember the flood they’re distracting people from.
“I don’t want it out of their minds,” he said. “I want them to think about it this week, I want them to think about it next week, I want them to think about it next month, and for six months and whenever people need something and we have time and energy and money, I want them to think about it.”
From outside the city, it’ll be tempting to look at an Astros pennant—and that’s a distinct possibility since they traded for Justin Verlander and sit 14.5 games up in the division— as the return to normalcy, the end of the story, just like when the Saints won the first game at the Superdome after Katrina, or the Yankees made the World Series after 9/11. The Astros are under no illusions about the limitations of that line of thinking, particularly considering that several players’ hometowns are currently under threat from Hurricane Irma.
“No matter when in the year a national disaster happens, there’s always a sports team that’s local,” Harris said. “When a natural disaster hits, I just think people are looking for that normalcy, that routine that they had before the storm hit. It doesn’t take away from what’s happened, and it doesn’t make what they have to go home to any easier, but I just think it can give them a little bit of their normal routine back.”
That’s the matching puzzle piece to what the Astros can offer—not salvation, not a solution to problems that look too big to solve or suffering too great to alleviate, but a momentary respite from a cataclysm too disturbing to contemplate for very long.