My mom got a stomachache almost every time it rained. Considering we lived in Houston, with its humid, storm-happy climate fed by the Gulf Of Mexico a mere 45 miles away, she had a lot of stomachaches. The rain usually came, not with a gentle patter, but in torrents shot like rifle rounds from deep gray, almost black clouds so dark the street lights would turn on in the middle of the day.
The rain would fall so hard and so fast that storm drains on my street couldn’t keep up. The water traveling along the curbs would slow down, then deepen and spread out, creeping slowly toward the middle of the street. If the rain kept coming, the water accumulating on opposite sides of the street would eventually merge. By that point, the water would be at the top of the curbs, 6 inches or so deep.
Most of the time, it never got that far. But to live in Houston is to live in fear of the day when the water won’t stop. Wondering if this was one of those days would twist up my mom’s stomach every time a bad storm hit the city. She had reason to worry: Our house flooded four times in 11 years.
In August of 1981, our house took in about 5 feet of water. I was 5 at the time and spending the rainy day inside Lollipop Daycare when my distraught mom picked me up. The kindly woman who ran the place comforted her before mom and I reunited with my family on some dry ground near our neighborhood. I still remember seeing what looked like a lake filled with houses and not quite understanding what it meant. That went for my parents, too: They soon learned that our entire neighborhood lay in a flood plain—the disclosure of which wasn’t legally required when they bought our house in 1977—and that home insurance didn’t cover flooding.
The next floods followed in 1989, two within the space of a few months in the late spring and summer. The first one hit while I was in middle school about half a mile from my neighborhood. I distinctly remember being in math class when a harried student came in carrying a fist full of hall passes. We all knew what it meant if our name was called. When Miss Bayless announced mine, I hustled to the office, where my mom met me. She and my dad had taken an airboat out of our neighborhood. A couple months later, while the house was being repaired, the second flood struck.
The next one arrived on Ash Wednesday of 1992, which I only remember because my Catholic high school forced us to attend mass. Walking down the long breezeway that separated school buildings, I saw an enormous pool of water in the big grassy area where students usually hung out. By 16, the anxiety had developed inside me, too. I knew what was coming. This time, mom didn’t pick me up. Roads were impassable and cars were abandoned all over the city. Neither she nor my dad could reach me. Over the phone, she told me to go home with a friend and await instructions. I didn’t see my parents until the next morning, when we returned home to begin our grimly familiar routine of cataloguing the damage.
By that point, my parents were pros. My mom would be on the phone with the contractor before the water had receded. She’d be the first one to call our insurance agent to get the claims process rolling. We would rebuild, again, because my mom loved that house. Besides, who’d want to buy it if we tried to sell?
Our subdivision, Arbor Oaks, sat on the northwest side of Houston directly adjacent to White Oak Bayou—one of the many slowly moving mini-rivers that snake through Houston—and a tiny stream called Vogel Creek. We treated White Oak Bayou like primitive villagers who thought a vengeful god lived in a nearby volcano. Search “White Oak Bayou” on YouTube and you’ll understand why: During bad storms, it’d go from a babbling brook only 8 feet deep to a fierce monster of raging brown water. This past Sunday, the National Weather Service measured it at 39.54 feet, more than 7 feet above flood stage.
White Oak Bayou would occasionally spill over its banks and dump water into my neighborhood (along with water moccasins, as my neighbors discovered in their house during one flood). But that wasn’t the only problem. Arbor Oaks lay in a natural depression, which meant water from the surrounding area flowed into it. The place had flooded from the beginning. Doing some research a few years back, I discovered that Arbor Oaks even flooded while it was being constructed in the early ’60s.
In effect, we were cursed from the moment my parents happened upon a four-bedroom ranch-style house on Cypress Grove Lane. It had been under contract with another buyer, who backed out when they heard a black family had purchased the house next door. Apparently my dad wasn’t racist enough (for once) for that to bother him, not that those prejudices held in the face of a common threat. When the water came, everyone helped: relaying information, moving stuff to high ground, getting out when it was time, keeping an eye on each other’s places when looters inevitably cased the neighborhood.
Houston has made great strides in the past 20 or so years to mitigate flooding. The city has replaced insufficient drainage pipes, widened bayous, and built retention ponds—giant empty spaces that fill with water during excessive rain. Those retention ponds dot the landscape on the northwest side where I grew up, including the old golf course near my house. (The flood map included in that article helpfully notes that my old house stood in a floodway, 100-year flood plain, and a 500-year flood plain.) But Houston didn’t seem to take flooding seriously until the ’90s. By that point, my mom and dad had formed a neighborhood task force to prod the city into improving the situation. During that time, they learned that a design flaw in our sewers caused water to back up.
I began to wonder if Arbor Oaks had a Poltergeist situation. Did greedy developers build over an old cemetery and just move the headstones? If only. Moving a couple hundred corpses would’ve been easier than solving Arbor Oaks’ myriad problems.
Our house flooded four times while we lived there. Aside from flooding during construction and who knows how many times before my parents arrived in 1977, it flooded at least once more after my parents moved out in 1999. By that point, the city had improved the problems plaguing the area, and Arbor Oaks had gone a full seven years without a flood. My mom didn’t want to leave, but our neighborhood and area around it had deteriorated. Concern about crime eventually supplanted flooding.
They relocated three miles west to a gated community that had (supposedly) never flooded. Flood veterans understand that parenthetical: In Houston, nothing is safe, especially a place that claims to be—just because it hadn’t flooded in the past offered no future guarantee.
In 2001, a tropical storm named Allison parked over the Houston area for four days and dumped an amount of rain on the city that was unprecedented, the worst it had ever seen—until Hurricane Harvey arrived this past weekend. Allison brought flood waters to unexpected places, like my parents’ new house, and caused billions of dollars in damage.
After living in fear of flooding for more than two decades, my parents had finally escaped, only to realize that, living in Houston, you never escape. Because life can be a huge dick, this all happened while my mom was sick with inflammatory breast cancer, an especially vicious type that isn’t known for its high survival rate. My sisters and I convened in Houston one weekend to help my parents put stuff in storage and move to a temporary apartment; we learned the following Monday that my mom’s cancer was terminal. My parents would make it back to the house by the end of the summer, but my mom would be dead by the following spring.
Arbor Oaks was dying, too. It endured the worst flooding since 1981, and many people never returned to their homes. FEMA finally had enough and started buying people out of their houses, albeit with typically arcane rules: Homeowners needed to have flooded twice to qualify. Never mind that the subdivision had flooded at least half a dozen times since construction workers broke ground 40 years earlier. You had to live through two floods to get out.
Still, most people did. Houses quickly began to disappear as the government turned a subdivision of roughly 200 homes into what eventually looked like a weird park with houses randomly strewn in it. The first couple of years after my mom died in 2002, I visited Houston every few months to see my dad and sister. I would always drive through the old neighborhood to see our sad, empty house as Arbor Oaks slowly vanished.
Then one day, our house was suddenly gone. I mean, it wasn’t sudden; its fate was sealed decades prior. But my stomach dropped all the same. My sisters and I stopped the car and walked around, trying to figure out where different parts of the house or garage rested on a lot that was now covered in grass. I wanted something to remember the 17 years I’d spent on that spot, some remnant that survived even after the last, fatal flood. In the grass I found a piece of floor tile, a flood-resistant Spanish variety my parents had installed throughout the house. I wiped the dirt off and stuck it in my pocket.
Today a volleyball net sits where our family room was. The house to the right of ours has, against all odds, remained, and whoever lives there has annexed the space for recreation. They have plenty of room to spread out. Maybe a dozen houses remain in Arbor Oaks; it feels like a ghost town that hasn’t been fully abandoned.
I have spent a lot of time over the past few days looking at photos and videos from Houston and searching for any information about where I grew up. I have no family in Houston anymore and only a few friends from high school, and nobody lives near my old neighborhood. I still want to know how it’s doing. Growing up as a flood kid in Houston will always haunt me. It’s probably no coincidence that I haven’t lived on anything lower than a second floor in 20 years.
I haven’t lived in Houston in 23 years, but seeing the photos and videos from Hurricane Harvey takes me back there instantly. Looking at a terrifyingly flooded White Oak Bayou from the bridge on Antoine. Trudging through disgusting brown water hoping I don’t run into fire ants, snakes, or some other danger hiding in the murk. Getting a sandwich from a Red Cross truck, because my otherwise middle-class neighborhood is now considered a disaster zone. The acrid smell of mildew that remains after the water recedes.
And I think of my mom, who loved Houston with all of her heart. Her stomach would be in knots right now.