I have a bad habit of taking spontaneous road trips. Sometimes after work I get in my car and drive down to the Gulf Coast and make a loop back up to Galveston before heading home. Normally I check the weather. In fact, I’ve recently developed a habit of constantly checking the weather. Living in Houston, you always know that we’re only one bad storm away from an actual state of emergency. That storm came this Monday.
This time I hadn’t checked the weather before heading down I-10 to surprise my friend working in Austin for the summer. Austin isn’t very far away from Houston, at most 3 hours with good traffic. Expecting unremarkable weather, my friend Noah and I got in my Ford Focus hatchback and headed on out. The skies looked ominous ahead of us, but we kept on going, eventually getting on TX 71 to make it to Austin. The second we got on 71 we got weather alerts on our phone that there was a tornado warning and we should take shelter immediately.
We kept driving, waiting to find a gas station or rest stop to pull into. Finally we got off in La Grange and took shelter inside a Whataburger for two hours. While inside the restaurant we heard that 71 West was now shutdown and to top it off, the dam in Bastrop State Park had failed. Time to head home.
We drove through bad storms all the way back to Houston but we made it. Even as we passed submerged cars on I-10 I was certain we had gotten through the worst of it. We were back in the city, not stuck in a small town on a rural road. Even when I saw that I-45 was now closed (the highway I take to get home) I figured we would still be able to find a way back to where I live near the Medical Center.
I got off the highway in the Heights area of Houston. In order to get back home I would have to go through the Montrose area, which floods pretty badly during major storms. Just over a month ago I had nearly gotten stuck in rising water on my way home from the Montrose but I made it out of there unscathed. At worst I thought we’d have to pull over into a gas station and wait for the waters to recede. If I could just make it to Montrose I would be fine. As it turns out, the roads to Montrose were basically impassable, as were the side roads to others routes.
Unable to make it on my usual roads, I took to the side roads. In the dark it’s hard to tell what is deep water and what is passable water. I drove into the water quickly realizing that this was not the kind of flooding I could power through. The car actually started to tip to the side but I kept my foot on the gas. There was an office building right next to us with a mostly dry parking lot. We made it up to the parking lot, where an off-duty police officer was waiting for a tow truck, his car nearly submerged.
Instead of staying parked in the dry area of the parking lot I decided to see if there were any safe ways to get out of the lot (which was filling up with more water) and get to the parking lot of a nearby grocery store. If I jumped the curb I could maneuver over to the nearby railroad tracks.
Of all the narrow sighted things I had done that day, this was probably the stupidest one. With the amount of water the street had taken on, I should have realized that the area over the curb was not a sidewalk, it was a ditch. As I jumped the curb my tires got stuck in the mud and despite my best efforts I couldn’t reverse out. The car was out of commission. In order to avoid being flooded Noah and I tried to push the car back over the curb. In my attempt to push it from the front I fell into the ditch. Water up to neck, unable to find any ground. I grabbed onto the front of the car and Noah pulled me out. I was soaking wet, but I was safe.
I called AAA to get a tow truck and foolishly believed that maybe they would come for us that night. The earliest tow couldn’t get there until 8:30 AM. It took me a while to accept that they weren’t coming. We spent the next 6-7 hours outside under the awning of the office building. The storm came in waves, each lightning strike more terrifying than the last. We made friends with the off-duty cop, protected packs of cigarettes and electronics from the rain (I kept my phone dry by using sanitary napkins I had in my purse), and tried to stay dry.
Around 5 AM we saw bright headlights from down the street. It was a guy in a huge truck helping his friend try to tow her car out of another ditch. We walked through the nearly waist-high water, purses and bags on top of our heads, and he gave us a ride back home. I don’t know his full name or where he lives or works, but I am forever grateful for his kindness and good humor.
The next day my mother drove Noah back to his apartment, and she and I went to go see how my car was. The street was completely dry, my car stuck on the curb. It was like the rain had never happened.
In the daylight I realized how close I had come to serious injury. If my car hadn’t been stuck in the mud I would have gone head first in the ditch. My car was towed and it looks like the curb protected it from any serious flooding. My engine should be fine and my carpet is being replaced. I was extremely lucky.
I’m also extremely lucky to have the resources to fix my car, and have reliable transportation to and from work until my car is fixed. Elsewhere, people’s homes were flooded, their cars completely wrecked, and there are a number of people who lost their lives in the flood, and still many people unaccounted for. A boat from the Houston Fire Department capsized, and three people were swept away, including a couple in their 80s. The husband was found yesterday in the part of the bayou I look down on from my apartment.
The city towed cars blocking streets, which will cost the driver $252.50 for the first day, $20 extra dollars each day the vehicle is impounded. Some people can’t afford that, or the cost of essentially replacing a wrecked car. In the aftermath of this swift and sudden tragedy there’s sure to be a renewed conversation about the city’s infrastructure. These storms come so swiftly that it’s hard to prepare.
While I was extremely lucky, I’m still shaken. I know I avoided the worst of it but it’s going to take me a while to feel safe in a car again, especially in the rain. I shudder to think what would have happened if my tires hadn’t stuck in the mud, if I’d fallen into the deeper part of the ditch, if Noah hadn’t been there to pull me out. Just as swiftly as the storms come, they leave. The next day the sun is shining and roads are dry. But they leave behind marks that some of us can never forget.