When I moved to Galveston in 2013, there were strange gaps in the skyline and empty lots next to bustling shopping centers. But many cities have empty lots and jagged skylines. I learned later that those gaps and barren places all had the same origin - Hurricane Ike. After awhile, I realized that islanders I met had a tendency to divide time into two ages, "Before Ike" and "After Ike." And of course, when I went down into the strand, folks were sure to point out a small plaque to me, a plaque that marked how high the water had gotten during the deluge.
I understood academically what had happened to Galveston and her people. But it wasn't until this weekend in Houston when I finally viscerally knew why that plaque was on that building in Galveston.
Because the scars that water leaves on you are invisible.
My husband are enroute to our wedding anniversary vacation, and it has been an emotional experience so far. I keep seeing 18 wheelers filled with supplies headed south; I keep watching military convoys and fleets of ambulances racing towards the pain.
But what I don't see is any water.
From Saturday on, the world was made of water. The rain was relentless and the floods kept growing and the bayous spilled into houses and cars were drowned in the murky depths of Harvey's wrath. In the solitude of my house, I grew to understand the primitive association between a storm and an angry god. At a certain point, after a second sleepless night listening to shrieking winds and rain, I wondered if Harvey was angry, if Harvey was alive and bent on our obliteration. The world was made of water, water that hungrily swallowed up my city, water that could not be contained.
Then the storm moved away from us, toward more helpless cities. The sky emerged, the clouds turned white, the roads dried, and and we moved out of our houses blinking painfully in the light we had lacked for an eternity that lasted 4 days. The waters receded for many of us (not all of us). Out here on the road north you would never know that the fourth largest city in the country was held thrashing beneath the depths.
In time newcomers will arrive to Houston. They will see empty lots where businesses once were and houses being renovated, and they will not know WHY. They will remember the news stories of Harvey, but they will not understand why so many of us flinch when a flash flood warning goes off. Water leaves invisible scars on the people who managed to survive it.
Now I am one of those individuals for whom a storm has fractured time into distinct pieces. Now my city will be the place where empty lots are haunted places, but only for the ones who know what used to be. Now I am part of a people that be bound tightly together by the memory of a shared tragedy.
I have no doubt that sooner rather than later, plaques will be placed around the sprawling and beautiful mess that is Houston, defiance writ in metal and stone that the waters tried to swallow us and we endured.
Because a waterline is not just a memory. A waterline is an invisible scar made manifest.