Hell and High Water
In Houston, we have a saying that every citizen is expected to know: “real chili has no beans.” But we have another saying that’s more germane to the topic at hand, “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.” We see it on the traffic signs all around town, and every time there’s a major storm, we see the results when our fellow citizens fail to heed this simple wisdom: don’t try to drive through high water. Every time, vehicles are totaled by the hundreds, motorists are stranded or have to be rescued, and all to often, people die–tragically yes, but as we are all quick to add, also needlessly, foolishly, presentably.
Except that isn’t always true. Not at all, in fact.
Houston calls itself the Bayou City because it was established around the confluence of the Buffalo and White Oak bayous in the 19th century by merchants dependent on those waterways for transport. But if the name conjurers in your mind soothing notions of lazy summers, sunning alligators and Southern gentility, you may not realize what a Bayou actually is. It’s a muddy, slow-moving river. It’s muddy because of the clay soil, and slow moving because it drains prairie and the coastal plane. And the plane across which it meanders has been subsiding for a century as American know how pumped fresh water and petroleum from beneath it. Today, Downtown Houston sits 50 feet above sea level, and so close the the vast Houston ship channel that the Buffalo east of downtown is now a tidal river.
Buffalo Bayou discharges more water than the Allegheny River, the Connecticut River, or the Hudson, and when a tropical storm system drags moisture up from the gulf, only 50 miles away, it can swell to ten times its normal size. It can do so in the span of a few hours, and the fourth biggest city in the country lies in the way of every rivulet and tributary.
Harris County has invested billions in reservoirs and impoundments along area waterways. These to act like capacitors in an electric circuit, giving flood waters somewhere to safely cool their horses while major storms roll through the area. It helps, and it’s getting better, but it can never solve the problem. To reach an impoundment basin, water must first reach a bayou. To reach a bayou, it must first reach a storm drain. Land developed in the last decade is required to impound storm water on site to temper the effects of increasing surface paving and the resultant increase in the velocity with which water dropped on point A rushed downhill toward the watershed. But this is only a finger in the dike. No storm drain can accommodate five inches of rain in a to hour period reach unless is has a vast empty holding basin in which to temporarily dump water–and except for a few of the newer neighborhoods and more recent construction, none do–or can. Fundamentally, we are too large a city spread across too flat a surface, and nothing short of pumps and powerplants or elevated infrastructure will ever stop the deluge. The entire Houston metroplex is an arroyo, just waiting for a good rain to send flood waters flashing across the roads…as I found out Thursday, September 19th, 2019, as I was packing to drive to Dallas for Fencon.
Tropical Storm Imelda had made landfall Wednesday, and the region–still recovering from the devastation of Harvey–had reacted with caution. By Thursday, we had dodged the bullet. The schools were open. Weather related change freezes were lifted in datacenters across the county. We all headed off to what promised to be a muggy, wet, but typical fall Houston day.
By a stroke of luck, I was working from home. I had to take my eldest to a doctor’s appointment after dropping the youngest at the Park & Ride to catch the bus downtown where she attends college. On the way home we stopped at McDonalds for breakfast, and I was soon home, logged in and working on a change delayed by the weather. At 11:30 I ask my eldest if she wants to go out for Thai, but she’s working on homework. I return to my screen to find a clutch of emails from my boss and her boss and her boss’s boss urging employees to exercise judgement with the coming weather. But those are from yesterday. I page past them. No one is asking for anything so I return to my task…
11:50 am. The phone rings. My wife is on her way home. The college she works at north of town had cancelled classes and sent employees home. I pull up my daughter’s college website and find they too have cancelled classes. I compose a text to my youngest, telling her to leave immediately on the first…
But there will be no bus. Or train. Or anything.
A banner across RIDEMETRO.ORG says all bus and rail service is suspended. Impossible. When a storm is coming, Metro diverts all resources to downtown to carry commuters home. The whole city revolves around the Park & Ride system, without it, 100,000 people have no way in or out of Downtown. With those extra cars, the barely adequate highway system would grind to a halt. In inclement weather, Metro helps everyone get out ahead of the storm and if necessary moves assets to aid with emergency response. They can’t just suspend service without warning. Not across the whole system. Impossible. It’s a mistake, but just in case, I grab my keys and a drink and head for the door, shouting to my eldest as I leave.
12:00 I text my daughter: All classes cancelled. No bus or rail. Stay put. I am coming to get you.
It takes time for the watersheds to fill up. If you move when you see rain coming, you can get home before things get bad. I have to drive all the way downtown and all the way back, but surely the folks at Metro are just being over cautious in the wake of Harvey. I should be able to make it. I know that part of the city well. y daughters will have to cancel evening plans because by then the road will be impassible, but the situation is manageable.
I call my wife and tell her I’m en route. I call Metro, and after three minutes on hold, I’m told it’s no mistake. All service has been suspended due to active flooding. Wha….?
As I wait to turn onto the highway, I open my trip navigator. At noon on a rainy day in Houston, no one is driving downtown. I make good speed–for all of six miles.
1: The trip navigator tells me to exit without offering any explanation. This is odd, because the stupid computer usually insists it’s faster to sit in a traffic jam than try to get around a crash. But this is no crash. A mile ahead, it’s raining–or the aliens have finally arrived. Every single car is braking to a stop. Or backing and turning around. A brand new section of one of the biggest highways in the country is under water ahead of me.
I check the mirrors as I move over all five lanes from the fast land to the ramp, just barely making the ramp. And by the time I’ve checked my mirror to merge unto the feeder, I glance ahead. Gray sheets of obscurity curtain the road. SUV’s twice my size are backing and turning around. Shit. I can see the water across the road. With the rain and the backing vehicles, it must be rising. As flat as Houston is, I’m only inches above it, and I’ll be boxed in by traffic in seconds.
This is now a life-threatening emergency.
2: Emergency stop. There’s a raised parking lot to my left. It doesn’t lead anywhere, but all the cars ahead have already veered to the left out of the water, blocking any further movement. I wait for a car to pass and veer up into the parking lot and back the way I’ve come, but this is just a turnaround. If I stay here I’ll be safe–there’s a business here and power and phones and the structure should survive the flood–but I might lose my car, I won’t be able to reach my daughter, and I’ll miss my trip. I have to drive back up the feeder.
3: Two cars block my way–motorists who took my same escape route but haven’t thought it through. Correct options are: 1) Park here and shelter in place, 2) flee back along the feed. Choose. Go. Now. Every second, more traffic pours in from the left and the water advances from the right.
I shout, “Go left! Go left! go left! Come on, THINK!” I have one hand on the shift lever and the other on the door handle, ready to go shout it in person, when the fist car pulls out. They pull across the feeder and stop on the raised wedge at the bottom of the ramp. If the water gets this far, they just bought themselves a lovely inch. They were far better off up here with me. The second car follows–making the wrong choice–turning right toward the water.
But now I’m clear. Lights on. I pull up and look left. Traffic is approaching, slowing, but no one’s in the outer lane yet. I go–left–the wrong way up the feeder.
When they say “turn around, don’t drown”, this is literally what that means.
When they say “turn around, don’t drown”, this is literally what that means. The cops are not going to ticket me. The cops are very, very busy elsewhere.
4: There’s water on the feeder around me now. I flash my brights and accelerate up the outer lane. One car changes lanes to avoid me, but they all see the water. They all are slowing to stop. And then I’m back up into another parking lot. Great. Get away from this highway. From the glutting traffic. From the water. Get to high ground.
5: Silly me. There is no high ground. I follow a pickup around the Goodwill and it plows into water up to its running boards. I can’t drive through that, and I’ll be pinned here the second someone turns off the feeder behind me.
6: I wheel around and onto the service alley behind the strip mall. This one lane track takes me to a street filled with rushing water, but not so deep I can’t drive through it-if I drive NOW.
7: I turn left, away from the highway, up the grade, but I’m soon blocked my abandoned Metro buses, all packed into a little turnaround in front of a facility I never knew was here. The water it too deep to get around them and I don’t know where that would lead (to a locked steel gate, it turns out.) so I have to backtrack.
8: Back the way I came, around and back up into the parking lot where I’m safe. The water is clearly rising. I’m not sure I can cross this next street until a large SUV drives across. This rushing water is deep, deeper than I would ever ordinarily risk, but it’s the only way out and it’s getting deeper by the second. I’m going. I give my little CR-V enough gas to clear the road even if the engine stalls, but the mass of the water stops me dead before I quite reach the other side. The engine doesn’t stall though, and I’m able to heave up into another parking lot, and this time skirt all the way across the strip mall, sticking to the lanes in front of the stores that haven’t flooded quite yet. That was too close. I have no idea just how deep the tailpipe of a CR-V can get before the back pressure kills the engine, and I don’t want to find out.
I drive past this second strip mall to the next street where I’ll try again to flee up hill. I’m half a block from the street signs and don’t know exactly where I am, but if I drive up grade, I know there’s a highway along the railroad tracks, that will lead me home or down to I-10 toward downtown–though I-10 and the smaller road I use to skirt its many jams and crashes must all be under deep water by now. I’ll worry about that later. Water is rushing down the street, deeper and faster than I’d care to wade, but it’s confines to the gutters and not going to float my car. I turn, drive a block, and find water too deep to cross. I swerve between the medians into the wrong lane and go another block, then back into my lane. Another half block and more deep water. I pull to the median, unsure if I can make it. A nice Japanese lady in an Escalade pulls up and asks if it’s safe. I say maybe for her but not for me. Then a truck passes us both and I can see it’s not as deep as it looks–this is a light industrial area and the water is gray and filthy. I tell her to go. I follow. Two blocks later, we’re both up onto the smaller highway by the railroad.
1:26 PM. I text by youngest: “I cannot reach you. Cousin trying. Call me.”
It had taken an hour and a half to drive ten miles. Though the land to either side of this highway was completely flooded, the lanes I need to return home are clear. I just have to wait behind a few hundred other fegugees who would not normally be on this road any more than I would. Along the way I see cars flooded out in the other lanes. I see SUVs turn around at the lights and I wonder what the see ahead. I see a car rip its fenders apart trying to ford high water at highway speed. I see railroad crossing after railroad crossing blocked by car perched on the high ground like turns nesting around a seamount. The road never became impassable though, and the lanes and ramps I hoped would be high enough to remain passable were, and in another hour I was home and dry and packing as if nothing had happened.
My daughter, after watching Netflix and the Democratic debates from a seventh floor lounge of her college was finally able to take a train to meet her cousin who fed her sushi and put her up for the night. 300 of her classmates slept in the school, and the school administration had to call its employees and ask for volunteers to return and staff the kitchen.
Though the events were a bit of an exciting adventure, I never felt myself to be in any real danger. My biggest problem was that I never opened my drink because I didn’t know when I’d be able to reach a bathroom. Time was of the essence, but I never panicked or put my car in any position I didn’t know I could get it out of. But had I not turned around, had I hesitated like those two cars in front of me and had conditions been just a little worse…
Turn around. Don’t drown. Or stay put and shelter in place.
Every city has its peculiar dangers. Know what yours are and be prepared for them.