Photo: A home in the Harvey floodwaters; photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
The rains start gently, tentatively, as though they need to practice after months of prolonged drought. Over the next day or two, they build into steady showers — not unwelcome, mind you, since they bring the cooler temperatures of fall after a hot, dry summer.
We are sitting, my mother and I, out on the lovely Spanish-style patio in the courtyard of the famous Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center in Gonzales, Texas. Founded on the banks of the San Marcos River in 1937 during the height of the polio epidemic, Warm Springs got its name from the artesian well of healing mineral waters nearby, which not surprisingly in Texas were discovered during drilling by Producers Oil Company of Houston in 1909. Over time, Warm Springs built a national reputation as one of the most comprehensive rehabilitation and treatment centers for victims of traumatic injury in the country.
I had flown into South Texas from Connecticut in an emergency a couple weeks earlier because my Mother, who still lived in my hometown of Victoria, had suffered a massive stroke. She was totally paralyzed on one side, couldn’t speak, and barely able to recognize me when I arrived at her bedside. It was devastating, and distressing, and overwhelming; I promptly had to exercise her power of attorney, take over her life, and take a leave of absence from my own.
Initially, I had been told that my mother would probably need custodial care for the rest of her life, but now here we were, barely three weeks later, sitting outside on a cloudy October afternoon. The road back was destined to be a long one, but “come hell or high water,” we were determined. Even though she couldn’t speak or read or write yet, she was getting the intensive therapies she needed at Warm Springs and would, hopefully, be able to go home at some point and resume her life. But now, with the clouds thickening and the rain beginning to fall again, she frowned and pointed upward as we moved inside. I knew she meant I needed to get on the road for the 70 mile drive back to Victoria before the skies opened up.
And open they did, into rain that lasted for days, though most of the 22-30 inches that fell did so in less than 24 hours. Ultimately, the floods in South Texas of the Guadalupe and San Antonio River basins between October 17-31, 1998, became a national disaster — this after the area had already been declared a national disaster due to drought earlier that summer. How could that be? There wasn’t even a hurricane!
But in fact, this “atmospheric event” of a low-pressure trough with high water vapor was caused by hurricanes far, far away, one near Baja and one near Acapulco. The rains fell, the rivers converged and over-flowed, and the earth was just too parched to absorb it all. The results were catastrophic: record flash flooding, which most forecasters missed, turned into $750 million in damage; the Guadalupe River in Victoria crested at 33.8 feet above flood stage, putting much of that city’s downtown totally under water, and completely flooding many neighboring small towns and surrounding farmlands. Remember the famous photograph of the cow stranded on a rooftop above flood waters?
Of course Warm Springs on the banks of the San Marcos River flooded, as well, and I got a call in the middle of the night that my Mother had been airlifted by military helicopter from the roof and evacuated to … parts unknown. I located her eventually in Halletsville, TX, but it was several days before the water receded and the roads were clear enough for me to go get her. Ultimately, we survived through “hell and high water,” but it took months before she, and I, could return to our lives.
That was nineteen years ago. Mother still lives in Victoria and I have now retired and live in San Antonio, which is a little over two hours away. Three weeks ago, one of her neighbors called to tell me that Mother had had “an event.” He suspected stroke, called EMS, and she was rushed to the hospital. I arrived as fast as I could; when I saw her in the ER, I thought that was it.
When we walked into her room the next morning, however, she was sitting up in bed. “Hi,” she said weakly. She had a major infection, along with some fluid on the lung, and probably several TIAs along the way, but she was going to make it, according to her doctor. “I feel good about this one,” he said. Three days later she was moved into the hospital’s Rehab unit; that old “come hell or high water” determination resurfaced.
With her settled in, I returned home for a weekend to grab what I needed to stay in her house in Victoria for however long I needed to. I would, once again, have to resume power of attorney and manage her care and affairs. She was doing well in rehab, getting physical, occupational, and speech therapy every day, though she tired easily and needed to build strength. Now the frantic search was on for a skilled nursing/rehab facility to which she could be transferred after Medicare’s allotted twelve-day stay was up.
A couple days into the week, I made a trip to the local HEB (a huge supermarket chain in Texas) to buy some things I preferred to cook and have at her house, rather than the Pringles and cheese sandwiches she favors. Wow! Welcome to madness! The parking lot was full, there were no shopping carts, and inside looked as though the place had been looted. The bread aisle was bare, the dairy was depleted, and people were searching area stores on their cell phones to find available water. “What on earth is going on here?” I asked a guy in front of me with a cart full of Budweiser in the very long, quick-checkout line for those with fewer items.
“A hurricane is coming,” he answered. “Haven’t you heard? Better stock up. They’re even running out of beer!” He eyed the wine in my own basket and smiled. Tsk, tsk, I thought. These people must not be real Texans, to let a little tropical storm in the Gulf get them all in a tizzy.
The very next day, on Thursday, August 24, I’m at the hospital for a team evaluation meeting that doesn’t take place. The hospital is going on half staff, and the rains and winds have begun. I try to talk to people to make some arrangements, but everyone is in “hurricane mode.” The doctor in charge assures me that he will not put my Mother out on the street with an umbrella, and says, “Go. Get back to San Antonio before the roads flood. Your mother is safe here, we have generators.” Once again, South Texas is coming off a severe drought. This strikes me as “deja vu all over again.”
The rains don’t start gently this time; they come in squalls. At her house, the neighbors help to move her patio furniture, board all the windows, and secure things that might blow. Now the rain is torrential, in sheets; I drive back to San Antonio late in the day. Harvey hit the next day as a category 4 hurricane directly into Rockport, Texas, which is directly south of Victoria on the Gulf; the eye of Harvey lingered over Victoria for a couple days thereafter, before moving on up the coast to Houston. (Ironically, we had just been down to Rockport with my Mother two weeks earlier to shop and have our usual summer seafood dinner there at Charlotte Plummer’s restaurant.)
And then, of course, I got that phone call again two days later, late at night, that Mother was being evacuated to … San Antonio … Austin …? It ended up being to Gonzales. I had a meltdown, because Gonzales is exactly where she had been airlifted from 19 years ago. Sort of like muscle memory… or PSTD. Or “deja vu all over again.”
But she landed in a lovely country hospital all last week. I wish she could have stayed; she seemed to thrive there. But then, late Thursday night, she was moved back to Victoria, where there is still city-wide contaminated water (though the hospital assures me that they are chlorinating), where there are still areas of no electricity (including her house), where there is considerable wind damage (including her house), and where there are shortages of food, water, gasoline, and other essentials. We went down on Saturday, after waiting three hours in line in San Antonio for a tank of gas to make the trip (while the price per gallon was being raised as even we sat in line). Victoria is in a shambles. So am I.
This saga will continue for a while, I fear, but I am headed back down to Victoria tomorrow. I have enough gas to make the trip, though I have nowhere to stay until the electricity gets turned on. But hey, I drive a Cadillac. I can get wi-fi and sleep in my car.
“Come hell or high water.” This time I have both, again. Cosmic symmetry?