Friday, September 1, 2017

I Left My Heart in Houston

Full color photo on a cloudy day

Ever since I took my Girl Scout troop on a trip to Houston at the beginning of August, I've been meaning to tell you about it. But this isn't the happy post I was planning on writing. With all the catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey this week, that fun trip seems like it happened an eternity ago.

Houston is my hometown. It's where I grew up. It's where I went to university. I met and married my husband there. He's a Houston boy, too. My parents and in-laws are there. My mom-in-law was born in Houston back in the 1940's and has witnessed so much change in that time. Thankfully, they've been spared from the flooding. My husband's aunt and all his cousins have not been as fortunate. Their homes may be flooded, but at least they are safe.


Houston keeps reinventing itself.
The very cool McGovern Centennial Park is only 3 years old.

Houston has been through hurricanes and floods before. Houston is strong. Houston will recover.
But my heart is breaking seeing all the photos on Facebook from my friends and family there. I wish I could be there to help. These past few days, my mind has been in Houston. If the roads are passable, we're driving there over this upcoming long holiday weekend. Then, I can be there both in body and spirit.

I strongly believe that travel is an important component of personal development. It expands your world view and lets you experience first-hand how other live. However, I don't think you necessarily need to grab a passport to get the benefits. Sometimes, all you need to do is hop in a car and drive to a place that's different than wherever you call home. That's why I wanted to take my troop of 11- and 12-year-old girls to Houston which is a mere 3-4 hour drive from Austin, Texas where we live. We hit different parts of the city — not just the pretty, visitors bureau-approved sites.


One of the many chemical and petroleum refineries in Houston

Unlike the rolling terrain of the Texas Hill Country that extends west of Austin, Houston is flat. Flat as a pancake flat. Back in university, I was driving around Houston with my friend from Pennsylvania. As we reached the top of one of its massive freeway interchanges, she looked at the landscape surrounding us and commented, "Wow. I didn't realize just how flat Houston is." All that flatness makes it hard for Houston to drain. I never saw a rushing river when I grew up in that town. Just miles of lazy bayous and creeks.

Houston is flat.
McGovern Centennial Garden in Herman Park


On our troop trip, we stopped on the west side of town to pick up delicious and cheap food from The Original Marini's Empanada house. That restaurant is now just beyond the edge of the Mandatory Evacuation Zone a full one week after the torrential hurricane rains started falling. Our little caravan continued east on the Westpark Tollway heading into town. At one point in the drive, the road dipped down under another freeway, and the other chaperone commented on the flood level marker by the side of the road. These handy rulers let you know how deep the water. Looking at how it reached up to 14 feet high, she asked in disbelief if it ever got that bad. In Austin, the only problem areas during floods are low water crossings — never a main thoroughfare freeway. Thinking back to the 2015 Memorial Day Houston Flood, I assured her that it really was a danger. From photos that I've seen this past week, some roads must have had water 12 feet deep. I'm hoping that flood level marker saved a few lives. As they keep saying on the news, "Turn around. Don't drown."


Happy days feeding the sea gulls

The Girl Scout troop spent one day in Galveston Island. As part of their trip prep, I asked them what was the significant event that took place there in 1900. The answer is the Galveston Hurricane which still holds the record for deadliest natural disaster in US History. A 15-foot storm surge wiped out numerous buildings and homes on September 8, 1900, killing an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people (counts vary). To guard against a similar calamity in the future, civil engineers came up with a plan to raise the city by 17 feet and constructed a seawall to protect against high waves. The design has, for the most part, protected Galveston, but it still endures floods when Category 4 or 5 hurricanes score a hit. For lunch, we stopped at Star Drug Store which was the first desegregated lunch counter in Galveston. The girls noticed that the high water mark of a more recent hurricane was a few feet above our heads. At the time, it was hard to imagine that much water inundating the island.


Looking out from  the top of the San Jacinto Monument at the Battleship Texas,
refineries and the Houston Shipping Channel.

On our last day, we headed out to the San Jacinto Monument which marks the battlefield where Texas won its independence from Mexico. Many people remember the Alamo which the Texian army lost, but few who are not required to study Texas history remember San Jacinto. The monument overlooks the Battleship Texas which last saw duty in World War II and the 50-mile-long Houston Shipping Channel. Our lunch table at the Monument Inn gave us practically front row seats to watch the massive container ships and barges making their way to and from the Port of Houston. The port is 25 miles long and is the busiest port in the USA measured by tons of foreign cargo. Most Volkswagons and Audis sold in North America are unloaded here. After lunch, we drove along the Pasadena Freeway which is lined with one petrochemical refinery after another. (It's also the opening sequence of John Travolta's Urban Cowboy movie.) We passed one small neighborhood which The New York Times had that weekend featured in its Daily 360 as "A Toxic Part of Texas" and called "one of the most polluted neighborhoods in America."


Pastries, cakes and bread from El Bolillo

Our last stop in Houston was El Bolillo bakery. What a place! Our eyes practically popped out of our heads at the self-serve display cabinets on every wall filled with Mexican pastries.  It felt like we had been transported to Mexico. We were the only non-Hispanics in the building, and the sound of Spanish filled the air. One girl from my troop asked how much the churros were, but the 6 weeks of Spanish instruction they had received last year in middle school was not enough for the troop to figure out what the employee replied. This very same bakery made the news during Huricane Harvey. Trapped inside the building for 2 days by flood waters, four employees kept their mind off their worries by baking 4,400 pounds (1996 kg) of flour into pan dulce (sweet breads). When the owner was finally able to rescue them, they brought the abundance of baked goodies to various emergency shelters in Houston. (The girls have wondered what happened to the tiny stray kittens we found in the parking lot. I have optimistically claimed that they've all been rescued.)


Underground passageway at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

I feel like I left part of my heart in Houston. I spent last weekend worried about my family there, especially when Facebook posts by childhood friends mentioned a tornado that touched down a couple miles from my parents' home. One of my husband's cousins posted pictures of wading through chest high water to rescue their dog, and another one shared a video of rescuing their cats in a small boat. I'm hoping that we can be of help when we visit.

If you are looking for a way to aid the people who have been impacted all over Texas by Hurricane Harvey, please consider making a donation to my fundraiser page at Austin Disaster Relief Network. They are partnering with the Red Cross to provide immediate assistance to evacuees, and they also have a program to help with the long-term recovery of these hard hit areas.

Click here for Fundraiser page for Austin Disaster Relief Network


At the very least, I hope that you keep all the people who have been affected by this hurricane in your thoughts. 




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