A Houston Chronicle

PAUL REACHED FOR his phone. His heart sank. The Houston Reservoir Water Commission, headed by Vince Parks, had watched the rain come down for two days now. He’d alerted Paul to be ready to open the flood valves. This call would open man-made abuse on top of nature’s wrath. He picked it up.

“Yes, Vince.”

“Our data says you’re going over the banks in five hours. Open them up, Paul.”

“What’s your rate of fill?”

Vince sounded somber. “Not sure the locks will do it.”

Paul said “Shit! Starting now.” He hung up, punched buttons on his console and started the process.

Operations Manager Paul Graves had the mostly boring job of overseeing the Addicks and Barker Reservoir’s flood control dams for Buffalo Bayou. Really a meandering river, it drained a five hundred square mile prairie that formed 18,000 years ago northwest of Houston.

Population grew to fill the low-lying areas encompassing the region and as Houston isn’t much over one hundred feet above sea level with a lot of it closer to sea level, it historically suffered from lowland flooding. The city planners built the dams to alleviate uncontrolled flooding. Paul had the job on August 25th, 2017 when Hurricane Harvey arrived.

Paul knew what it would mean. Already Harvey had dumped a trillion gallons of water on Houston along with hundreds of square miles surrounding it, and it kept coming. The planners were as prepared as they could be.

For days a tropical storm in the Gulf, weather forecasters at KTRK tracked the oncoming hurricane. They watched it gain strength and just before landfall blossom briefly into Category Four.

Its winds diminished quickly as it swept over the people below, but as an engine for pulling Gulf waters over southeast Texas, it had no match.

Before Harvey arrived, Houston’s Mayor advised all residents to stay, prepare, shore up and ride it out. Those who wished to leave before the event should leave immediately. Houston had many roads out of town, but the idea of telling seven million people to evacuate three days before an oncoming hurricane he rejected. He pictured highway gridlock that could be far more dangerous and deadly than letting people ride out the storm.

No one, not engineers, planners, residents or government believed one storm would drop more than fifty inches of water over their city, but it did.

Of the thousands of acts of heroism Harvey brought out in the people of Houston, thousands of desperate situations also existed, some with sadness beyond measure.

Renee Perez lived in the Second Ward on Estelle Street. Her husband Chris had just finished his conversation with Renee, put on his baseball cap and prepared to leave for work.

“Chris, you aren’t listening. The rain. It’s too heavy. I know your boss said come to work. You should have said no.”

“I can’t, Nee. The stuff that’s been going on at the plant…never mind. Look, if I don’t get there the boss will have my head. I’m backup and I can’t say no.”

“Honey…”

“Gotta go. Mayor says we’ll be good. We’re stocked up. You should be fine. I’ll listen to the radio on the way in. If the Mayor says shut down and go home I’ll be back quick. Kiss.”

Renee gave her husband a pouty kiss and her shoulders slumped.

“Take care of Baby.”

A tiny smile crinkled the corners of her mouth. Chris called their six month old daughter Katie that so often it suited her better than Katie.

“I will.”

Fated words.

Chris left and drove away in his truck. The streets looked okay and the lawns in the home packed community were green. Rain pelted everything. Chris shouldn’t have much trouble getting to work, she thought. No street traffic I can see.

Baby played with her toes in her crib. She gurgled when Renee looked over the crib top at her daughter and smiled.

“You and me, Baby,” she chortled. Renee took a seat in the rocker they’d left in the room. She could nurse in pleasant tones of pink and peach with the door closed if Chris wanted to watch TV after supper. With Baby’s next feeding an hour away, Renee thought to grab her copy of Patterson’s book, Step on a Crack off the small table nearby. She began to read.

The baby’s crying woke her. Her watch said two hours had passed.

“Oh, God,” she exclaimed. Now Baby’s feeding would be off. How could she! She got up briskly, gathered the baby in her arms and brought her back to the chair. She sat, uncovered a breast and let Baby find her nipple. Fifteen minutes later she burped the child and laid her back in the crib, fast asleep.

Walking into the living room, she listened to the staccato drumming sound of hard rain. That’s what put me to sleep, she thought.

Then Renee looked out her picture window and her heart stopped. The light-toned cement Houston street and green lawns were gone. She saw dusky leaden water everywhere, its glinting surface disturbed by thousands of drops from the windy gray sky. She heard a small sound and looked at their front door. She gasped. Water gurgled in, spreading as she watched. Chris! Why didn’t he call?

Wait, she thought, I turned the ringer on vibrate. Then I went and sat with Baby.

The cellphone rested face up on the coffee table. She turned the ringer back on. I better call Chris. He won’t like it, but…

As she brought her finger to punch the speed dial, the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Renee, get the baby and get out of there. KTRK just had the Mayor on. They’ve opened the flood control locks. They’re trying to keep the reservoirs from collapsing. Buffalo Bayou is off its banks. You’re in danger.”

“But…?”

“Why didn’t you answer the phone before? I’ve been calling and calling.”

“I had the phone off…feeding Baby. I read a little and fell asleep.”

“Never mind, with the reservoirs emptying, you need to get to higher ground right away.”

“I’ll get stuff…”

Chris broke in, “NO! I can’t get to you. Get out now. Take nothing. You and the baby. Hurry!”

Renee’s confused mind tried to get up to speed. Energy surged and panic followed. Water now covered the floor and crept onto her slippered feet. She stood in it. It felt cold, very cold!

Her mind in turmoil, she breathed, “Got to get the baby. Got to get out.” She focused on Katie. Where will I go?

“Chris, I’m going. I’m hanging up.” With that she ended the call.

A niggling thought. Get away from the bayou a quarter mile away. But it’s flat. No high ground anywhere nearby. Run; have to run!

Galvanized, Renee sprinted to their bedroom, tossed the cell on the bed, shed her robe and slippers and put on jeans and a long-sleeved top. She grabbed some money off the dresser, put it in her pocket and slid the cell into her back pocket.

Water above her ankles, she struggled a pair of sneakers on, her feet too wet to put on socks. Need raincoat. Need sweater. Now for Baby.

She wrapped the baby up snug in a white and pink blankey and carried her to the front door. Raincoat in front closet. She put the baby on the coffee table, retrieved her rain-gear and donned it.

The door opened hard against the oncoming flood, but she got through it. Again she gasped. Water everywhere. No place to go. The roof? They didn’t have a ladder, but the Perkins’ next door did. Chris borrowed it once, years ago.

Renee slogged through deepening water, now up to mid-thigh. She held Baby tightly, a burden she wished she could set down for just a moment. She found the Perkins family shed locked, but the wooden ladder lay on hooks on its side. She could get it down. Where to put the baby?

The locks were open. How much time did she have before the surging water began to deepen? Would she keep her feet? So cold.  One-handed, she lifted an end of the ladder and dropped it into the water. She went to the other side and released it. It fell with a huge splash.

Pelted by driving rain, she watched the ladder disappear beneath the water. Didn’t wood float? The ladder’s side settled on her foot. Lifting a leg, her foot cupping the wood below her, she reached into the water, grabbed a rung and with effort, brought one end above water.

She felt the push of a current. The water rose to her waist.

That’s it, she thought, the final flood is here. Survive, Renee, you have to.

No way could she raise the ladder with one hand onto her own roof. Perkins’ shed, then. Sobbing with effort, she manhandled the ladder upright and laid it against the side of the shed.

Holding Baby she began to climb. So awkward, one handed. Two rungs up she felt a crack and a sudden give as the rung broke. Renee fell back with a cry. She and Baby went under. Disoriented, Renee thrashed around and came up sputtering, her arms empty. She stared at them.

“Katie,” she screamed. “Katie…Baby…Help! Anybody… help me,” her only answer the wind whipped rain.

She searched. She moved back and forth in ever widening circles. She moved her feet hoping to come up against a fold of cloth, any lump that could be her baby.

“Oh, my God, help me. My baby!” Renee stood for a moment as the gravity of what happened hit her.

“No, no…God no!” she cried. She tried again.

Her foot hit something. She reached into water now up to her chest and brought up a bundle of soft white with pink patterns. Tearing at the piece covering her child’s face she beheld her baby.

Her child. Chris’s child. Katie…gone. An anguished sound rose from Estelle Street, wavered and died, and in the same moment the light in a mother’s eyes went out.

In another part of the city, Vince Parks called Paul Graves. “The dams are holding, Paul. Another day and we’ll be good. Nice work.”