The morning after my hometown started drowning, I tried to divert myself from the images that were filling me with dread. Helplessness is the feeling I’m least equipped to handle, and the worst kind of helplessness is watching someone you love being hurt or in danger and being unable to do anything.
So I joined a few friends and went to an international festival in St. Louis. It was a gorgeous day here. The sun was shining. Everything was dry. It felt completely surreal.
I was glued to the updates on my phone. My social media feeds filled with pleas for help and dire alerts that things were only going to get worse. When I received texts that my parents were in their kitchen pantry taking shelter from a possible tornado in their Houston neighborhood, I left the festival immediately.
There were two different worlds that day: a normal -- dry -- life around me, and the one hundreds of miles away where my parents, relatives and childhood friends could be submerged under water at any moment. When a catastrophe unfolds in a place you’ve lived, when the people being rescued are your relatives and friends, when you’ve driven down all the roads that have turned into rivers, your heartbreak and disbelief are commingled with fear and guilt.
Those who have lived through a natural disaster know how hard it is to make sense of what is happening around you. One minute your house is there; the next minute, it’s uninhabitable.
It was impossible to tear myself away from the crisis unfolding 800 miles away.
I watched videos on Facebook of my friend and her newborn being rescued by good Samaritans on kayaks. I posted on Twitter when a relative and her two children were trapped in her home with rising water. First responders from the sheriff’s department got them to safety. Another friend swam out of her house and down her street with her children in life jackets.
And the rain wouldn’t relent.
“Now I have an idea of how Noah felt when everything drowned in front of him,” a friend posted.
When so many people you know have lost so much, where do you begin to help? Besides the scale of devastation in our country’s fourth-largest city, the prolonged sense of crisis sets this storm apart. Harvey dumped nearly a year’s worth of rain in a matter of days over the city, and each day, new threats emerged -- whether it was tornado warnings or reservoirs overflowing or power failures. People were being told to evacuate without any clear idea of how to do so, when so many roads and highways were impassable.
We watched on live television as millions of Americans remained trapped and desperate for help for so long.
All we could do from afar was make donations to organizations helping on the ground, share that information and encourage others to do the same. The constant sense of urgency during those days made it even more infuriating to read tone-deaf, heartless tweets while so many struggled to survive.
Those idiotic tweets were overshadowed by the countless ordinary people who performed heroic acts of courage to save strangers. Thousands of lives were saved by people who rushed toward rising waters to save someone in trouble.
The best of humanity reveals itself in our darkest moments.
Reports suggest that more than 80 percent of the homeowners affected by the floods in Texas do not have flood insurance. Among those who lost everything will be some who lived through the same nightmare 12 years ago in Hurricane Katrina. Most people will need to rebuild their lives with very little.
The rest of us may have felt our hands tied during this epic catastrophic disaster. But now the cleanup begins.
It’s time to get all hands on deck.
Want to help Hurricane Harvey’s flood victims? Here are some reputable organizations:
-- The Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund: ghcf.org/hurricane-relief
-- The Houston Food Bank: houstonfoodbank.org
-- The Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group: CoastalBendCan.org/CBDRG
-- The Texas Diaper Bank: texasdiaperbank.org
-- The Coalition for the Homeless: homelesshouston.org
-- Portlight: portlight.org