It’s 2:30 a.m. on August 26, 2017, and here I squat on the tool box of my truck holding onto the ladder rack for my life. The water level is up to the tool box and three-foot waves are crashing into my back driven by 140 mph winds. Hurricane Harvey is at its peak now, just coming on shore. I’m on the nasty side of the storm, the right front quadrant, and the outer edge of Harvey’s eyewall band is lashing at me with all his fury.
Heavy rain is pelting my backside, cold and stinging my skin even through my shirt, alternating with warm waves breaking onto me and into the side of the truck. Debris carried by the water is hitting me in the back and head frequently. A constant stream of water runs down my face and the scream of the wind drowns out all other sounds. There is nothing I can do but hope this will all work out for the best.
An hour earlier, I was trying to sleep in the hallway, the strongest area of my home. I was setting my alarm every thirty minutes so I could check the water level outside. At 1:30 there was no water in the yard other than a small puddle from the rain. At 2:00 there was five feet of water and waves lashing at the side of my house.
I had no fear of 140 mph winds blowing my home down. I built it with my own two hands and made every effort to make certain it would stand up to any hurricane. I had no fear of rising water because I built the house to take flood waters, but what I did fear was the waves hitting the outside wall. Tons and tons of water slamming against the wall could, and I feared would, take the wall down much like having your feet kicked out from underneath you. I did not know how much higher the water would rise, but even a couple of feet could collapse the wall—the place would fall like a house of cards and I would most surely die. That is what I thought was going to happen. So I decided to leave.
I grabbed a duffle bag, quickly threw some clothes in, stuck my phone in my pocket, picked up a portable LED light, and made my way to my truck parked in the driveway. I cranked her up and turned the headlights on. The water was halfway up the driveway and I headed to the road to the main highway and higher ground. I have been through many floods over the years and the water had never been up to the Guadalupe River bridge on Hwy 35. I would park and ride out the rest of the storm there.
I estimated the water on my roadway to be about one and a half feet deep and I would be driving downwind to the highway and safety. No problem I imagined as my truck has a diesel engine and could take deeper water than if it had a gasoline engine. I had driven through more than this on at least a couple previous occasions, back in 1967 and again somewhere around 2002. Both times the water came all the way up to the windshield of the vehicle and I made it out on those occasions, so I wasn’t concerned over even a couple of feet of water.
As I turned the corner out of the driveway to the road up to the main highway, however, suddenly everything disappeared. All I could see was water—the water on the road and the water spray from 140 mph creating a fog-like mist thicker than any fog I had ever seen and I’ve seen some dense fog in my life. I stopped.
I knew the general direction I wanted to go, but if I continued, I would be driving blind. There were no waypoints—only water and mist. If I were to go left, I would end up in eight feet of water. If I were to go right . . . I don’t know, but still not good.
I think for the first time in my life, I panicked. I laid my phone, which was on my lap, on the console between the seats. When I did, somehow the phone dialed my son who was in Guam on a job at the time. I managed to tell him ‘I’m in the water and I made a mistake—I’m going to die’. At this point, the phone went dead and I tossed it on the dash.
I don’t recall exactly what I did after that, but I was not getting anywhere fast. Suddenly, I saw one of the cypress trees I have on either side of my driveway. My yard-ornament tractor, a seventy-year old Farmall I used to mow mesquite brush with, was nearby, as was a power pole, but I could see neither of these. All I saw was the tree. All I had to do was to back around the right side of the tree and up the driveway to the house and relative safety.
I put the truck in reverse and backed what I thought was around the tree, but I ended up on the wrong side of the cypress. Maybe when I turned, a wave picked the rear end of my truck up and turned me around. I backed into the yard between the tree and the old tractor in water deep enough that it was now up to my door window. I was in deep shit and I wasn’t going anywhere. I quickly rolled the electric window down so I’d have a portal through which I could escape, just before the batteries shorted out in the water.
I climbed out the door window, onto the tool box, and held on to the ladder rack. This would be my home away from home for the next eight hours—eight hours to think how stupid I was; how I was going to die a miserable death; how I had scared my son to no end; how glad I was that Ellen, my significant other, was safe and sound in San Antonio; and how sad it would be for her to have to identify my body.
The little LED light I had placed on top of my duffle bag inside the truck was still shining and giving me a little light. Otherwise, I would be in complete darkness. Thanks to this little light, I was able to see the old tractor up against which my truck drifted. I picked a spot on the tractor and watched the water level rise slowly for the next hour, then it stopped rising, but it would be a while before it started to recede if it didn’t rise more. The water only came up a few more inches and held steady.
Before Harvey hit, I had tied the 150-gallon propane tank used to fuel the tractor to one of its wheels so it wouldn’t float away. As I sat, my mind searching for a solution to my dilemma, I thought of floating with the propane tank to the highway. If the water continued to rise, that might be a decent option. There was a strong current in the water on both sides of the truck. What if I were carried into the river? What would happen then? There was also a wire fence along the highway. What if I got tangled up in that? My garden and its fencing was between me and the highway too. I could get tangled in that as well. My options seemed dismal at best. The best option seemed to be to stay with the truck.
Finally, the water started to recede slowly, but the wind was still blowing very hard. I was not out of danger yet, but with the water now going down, if I were to sit tight, I would likely live. At that point I got mad, first at myself for getting into this situation, but also mad in general. I yelled some lines from Forest Gump over and over— “You call this a storm? Blow you son-of-a-bitch, blow!”
Daylight came and I could finally see more than a few feet. The current around my truck was still quite strong, as was the wind. I couldn’t traverse the current to higher ground a mere twenty feet away, though I so much wanted to do so. I kept thinking I could still die if I did something stupid again!
After six hours of lashing by the wind, rain, waves, and debris, I was one wet and tired rat. I needed to get out of the storm. The water had gone down about a foot and if I could open the door to the truck, I could crawl inside. I busted the small center slider glass of the back window so I could reach inside to unlock the door. I then mashed the trash which had accumulated between the truck and the tractor down so I could open the door. So much trash (weeds, limbs, etc.) had accumulated inside through the open driver’s side window that there was just barely enough room for me, but I made it work. The wind was still blowing through the open window and I pulled my wet duffle bag up to the top of the pile to help shield me from the wind and rain whistling through the cab of the truck. It wasn’t great, but it was better than outside.
By 10:30 a.m. the water was down enough that I just walked away and back to the house. My legs were like jelly and I was sore and achy, but the relief was out of this world. I would be okay, but my cell phone was dead and I couldn’t let anyone know. I found out later that my son had gotten hold of my cousin Phillip locally and he sent someone to check on me. About an hour or so later, the wind and rain had died down significantly and Crazy Mike came by and found me alive and well. He relayed the news back to my cousin who let everyone else know I was all right.
I stayed the night with my cousin Phillip and his wife and slept for about twelve hours, then went home. I felt much better with some sleep and a good meal, but my ordeal was not over yet. I learned first-hand what PTSD was. I knew what it was, but with several brushes with death over the course of my life, I had never felt it. I was feeling it now though.
My body had been stressed and I felt that of course, but what I didn’t expect was the stress on my mind. My brain felt fuzzy—I had difficulty thinking, I couldn’t hold a thought for long, my memory failed me constantly, and I seemed to be in a fog. I didn’t know what was going on at first, until Ellen pointed out that I had PTSD. I know now that was exactly what I had, and that it probably wouldn’t last forever. I rested as much as I could, but there was an overwhelming task ahead of me—the clean-up from the storm.
So as not to be overwhelmed by the clean-up task, I focused only on individual projects and when completed, moved on to the next in order of importance. After a week, my mind began to return to normal, or at least close for me. As I’ve said many times, I will never consider myself to be normal.
Two weeks later, and I’m doing okay. I’ve juggled gas cans for the generator, which I wired directly into the breaker box on the service pole, to keep minimal electricity going; I’m keeping the septic system functional; I’ve installed a new water pump and tank; the house is probably cleaner than before the storm and organized again; and thanks to the power company, I’ve had air conditioning for 24-hours now. I feel better and life will be good again, however, it will be months before the yard is back to anything close to what it was before Harvey.
The hardest challenge has been met and dealt with, and by springtime, this will all be history as the trees and Ellen and I get ready for a new year. Harvey was tough, but I’m tougher. Good riddance you son-of-a-bitch!