Aside from the fact that our daughter was freakishly tall (well, long) and had a lunatic for a mother, everything was fine.We stepped out of the office into the lobby of her OB/Gyn's office, located just west of the 288/610 interchange in Houston, Texas. The lobby is a large atrium, capped with a skylight four stories above and ringed with balcony walks in turn lined with office doors. The skylight usually bathed the atrium in warm sunlight, but not today. Not the waning reddish light of a Texas sunset, not the cool gray light of a thunderstorm, not even the green hue of an approaching hurricane. The sky was black. The glass ceiling a roiling chaos of flowing water. Individual raindrops couldn't even be made out, it was as though God had turned a hose on the roof. We watched for a minute.
"I'll get the car, you two just wait here inside the door."
"No, honey, I'm pretty sure that's my line," and took the keys from her hand.
I darted out to the car. I wasn't out in it for more than a few seconds, but I couldn't have been more wet if I had spent an equal amount of time in a swimming pool. It was coming down hard. I pulled up and herded my family into the car.
"How bad is it supposed to be? Can we just wait it out?" Houston is in a subtropical climate. It's right on the coast. It used to be a salt marsh. When it rains in Houston, it rains. And with the terrain in Houston, there's almost no way to prevent flooding, other than to prohibit building on or near flood-prone areas. Ever tried to tell a Texan what he can and can't do with his land? Good luck. To the typical Texan, land is a family member, and her honor shall be defended at all costs.
The alternative is to just build one hell of a drainage system, in true Texas style. The city is crisscrossed with bayous; wide cement lined rivers, fed by a system of tributaries and drains. Each one dumps into the ship channel, which penetrates deep into the industrial eastern side of the city. The result is rapid, severe, and localized floods. Water will fill a bayou in minutes, sometimes up and over the bridges crossing them. It will just as rapidly fade when the rain stops or slacks. Hence the choice: Go now, or just wait until the water subsides? If you go in the middle of the worst of the storm, you brave all the dangers of flooded roads, limited visibility and idiots on the road just to have the sun burst through the clouds as you get home, and the streets to be filled with happy children minutes later. If you wait, you run the risk of having misjudged just how bad that storm was going to get.
Tropical storm Allison had whipped through the city a few days before. There were the (generally ignored) announcements of voluntary evacuation, the scaremongering in the news, etc. It tore through the area at warp speed, drenching us and knocking down a few limbs. No big deal in the grand scheme of things. Rough storm, but not that bad. It headed towards Arkansas and out of our lives to dissipate on the hills.
Or so we thought.
Unbeknownst to us, there was a high pressure cell somewhere around Oklahoma, and as Allison ran into its fringes, the storm system slowed....then stalled...then.....holy fuck, it's tuning around. We, however, were in the throes of caring for a newborn and studying for a bitch of a biochem exam. We didn't know any of this. All we knew was that there had been a storm a few days ago, and it was gone now.
She craned her neck and looks up at the black sky, "It looks like a tropical storm....there wasn't another one behind that one from the other day, was there?"
"Nah, they'd have been all over that." There is no point in listening to weather news in Houston. It's always the same thing. Sunny day? Heat Wave? We're all gonna die! Drops below 60F? Cold weather brings city to standstill! We're all gonna die! A little rain? Floods! Animals fleeing to large boat! We're all gonna die! Snow? Unknown white flaky material falling from gray clouds! Apocalypse? Manna from heaven? God's dandruff? Doesn't matter which, we're all gonna die!
"It's coming down pretty hard. Maybe we should just come back and get my car tomorrow," and so we went. We avoided the places we knew lay low...288 going under the loop, Old Spanish Trail, feeder roads. We finally made it to the elevated paradise of highway 288 and headed out of town, towards home. The rain fell in a steady sheet, coating the windshield with a continuous stream of water against which the windshield wipers were completely ineffective. I focused on the other drivers, bracing myself for a skid, a hydroplane, a fishtail, or, God forbid, brakelights. You never, never, NEVER hit your brakes on roads like this. If you need to stop, let the water stop you. Once your wheels stop rolling, the tread won't pump the water out from under them anymore and you'll wind up skiing, completely out of control.
My wife watched the baby and the feeder roads. "They're under...wow, that's a tractor trailer down there..." I glance just in time to see an abandoned tractor trailer on the feeder road...
I must have been mistaken. I just looked quick, that must be it...."Was that truck....?"
She nodded nervously and glanced back at the oblivious sleeping baby. The water had nearly covered the wheels. Just a bit of tire poked out of the water, and the water was flowing like a river.
"Just get us home, OK?"
I nod silently and grip the wheel.
Getting home took a lot longer than it usually did. I couldn't go faster than 30mph, mainly because nobody else was. There's a low point at an intersection just before the cul-de-sac we used to live on. A Texas-style big ass pickup truck was stalled out at the intersection, the water stopping just below the windows. No way in Hell our little Saturn coupe was going to make it. I parked the car in a school lot nearby, the rain was finally starting to subside. I found the highest spot in the lot and stopped the car.
"Damn...guess we should have waited."
My wife just looked at me and shook her head, "I don't think it's over." Never doubt the intuition of a new mom when it comes to danger.
I turned around and wrapped my raincoat over the baby carrier. We stepped out into what was now merely a downpour, rather than something requiring Biblical adjectives. My wife took the umbrella and we started out into the parking lot, towards the lake that had formed at the entrance to our neighborhood. The sidewalks are raised, and there's always a grade leading up towards the houses. We stayed as close as we could, and wound up through only knee deep water. The street was almost dry in front of my house. Puddle deep.
Little girl slept through the whole thing. I got them home, changed, and settled, then waited for the waters to recede. About 8PM, they had dropped enough for me to go get the car. I put it in the garage and collapsed on the couch with a prayer of thanks just as the rain came back for a second assault. Dinner, baby down, turn on the weather, take out the trash (it's Friday night. Habits are hard to break)...damn.
There wasn't even that much wind. The noise from the sheer volume of rain on the roof woke me. I lie awake, listening. I looked at the clock....1AM. I drifted off. An hour later, an increase in tempo woke me again. Holy crap....is it still raining that hard? I went to the front door, switched on the porch light and opened the door to blinding white light. My porch was sheltered by an overhang, resulting in about 3-4 feet of protected concrete patio before the walk to the driveway started. I was standing behind a cascade, the porch light reflected off the droplets, obscuring anything behind it. I switched off the porch light and my jaw dropped. The street was full.
The water was over the curb and in our lawn. The trash bags I had set out earlier that evening were floating. Oh, crap...those are diapers... I waded out into the flood to collect them, putting them in the garage. Across the street was parked my neighbors brand new Mustang, water already at the bumper. Screw the time. I phoned him....no answer. Shit. He's not going to be happ- oh CRAP my car is up at the med center! No time...let's worry about the house first. The backyard was a lake, the front yard a rising, slowing river....slowing? No, no, nonononono!
I could do nothing but watch and wait. There was a shelter that had been set up at the school up the road, it was high ground. I packed a few bags...just in case. I set the computers up on the counter. Moved some things into garbage bags. Just in case....just in case.
The water stopped at my doorstep, literally. It was kept out by the doorjamb, that's it. The entry hall got sloshed a bit, but it was ceramic tile. The garage got some water in it. I lost the lawnmower. No biggie, it was old as hell anyway.
8AM. My front lawn. Knee deep in floodwater, shouting across the street to neighbors, finding out what we could do to help each other. The flooded houses up the street were evacuated, living with family members on higher ground. We had spent the morning watching dramatic video from around the city. Highway 59 was filled, tractor trailer tucks completely submerged, invisible under the water. Houses up to the eaves, rescues from rooftops.
My wife came out, holding the phone. "It's Dr K. He wants to talk to you." K? He was the chairman of the department. What the hell?
"Alvin, this is Dr K. I couldn't get a hold of Mike (my boss), and you were next on the list."
"Yes sir, he's out of town. Went to see some family in Tennessee."
"Ah. Well. Uh...Alvin, are you sitting down?"
I glanced down, my legs invisible from the knee down in the still, muddy water. "As much as I can , yes sir."
"The med school is flooded. There are three feet of water standing on the first floor. There is no power."
"Wow, three fee-" the realization hit me like a train, loaded to capacity with both trucks and bricks. "The animal facility..."
I was silent.
"Alvin? You there?"
"Yes sir, sorry. I'll get up there as soon as I can. My street has about 5-plus feet of water on it right now."
"Don't worry about it. Nobody can get in the building without a HAZMAT suit anyway."
The animal facility at the University of Texas was in the basement, so was the loading dock. Trucks got to the loading dock by way of a ramp, leading down some 30-40 feet. The doors there were century flood rated, watertight. But Allison actually redefined the century flood level for Houston, nearly 40 inches of rain had fallen in just over 24 hours. At the time of failure, there was probably over 25 feet of water sitting on top of those doors, exerting tons of force on them. When they gave, they gave catastrophically. A wave of water rammed through the facility, knocking out walls, doors, cages, animals. Nothing survived. Some didn't even get the chance to drown, they were killed by the force of the water, crushed.
It took weeks. After four days, they let us in. They had an area for us to park, and I had to walk the last mile. Pumps were working furiously, emptying the basement. I climbed the 7 flights of stairs to my lab in the dark to retrieve notebooks and hard drives, and see what could be salvaged. All the samples were toast. Hot, humid and dark. Even the bacteria had succumbed to natural selection. Water was pumped out of the basement, into drums, and taken to hazardous waste disposal. The loading dock was the holding area for outgoing biological, chemical, and radioactive waste. And it had been under water for three days, along with a few thousand rotting animal carcasses. Most of them weren't even recognizable by species anymore.
Allison hurt us bad. Our lab worked heavily in genetically modified mice, and most of them were lines we had made ourselves. Many had been shipped out to other labs interested in collaboration, and we got breeding pairs from them. One serendipitous line was completely lost. One guy in another state had a pair of elderly females, and Mike got in his car and drove to Jackson Labs in a fruitless effort to salvage them from their ova. We even sent tissue off to try and get it cloned, but no dice.
Twenty-three people, over five billion dollars, thousands of animals, and decades of research were lost in one night. Personally, I was set back to zero. A year of work as a grad student, years of work as a tech in that same lab, all gone. It was six months before I could get back into the lab. Two more before I had limited access to animals. It took me a year and a half just to get back to the point where I could start to recoup my losses. But I was lucky. My house was unflooded. My family was OK. Several houses on our street had to be abandoned years later, as the families fell ill and black mold was found in the recesses of every wall.
Oh, and the car? It was fine, but I couldn't get to it for couple of weeks. It was bone dry, that lot just so happened to be the highest point in the med center. Unfortunately, both FEMA and the Red Cross knew this, and my car was surrounded by support trucks.