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I’m watching from SLO helpless as floodwaters destroy my hometown

People walk through floodwaters on Telephone Road to help others evacuate their homes Tuesday in Houston.
People walk through floodwaters on Telephone Road to help others evacuate their homes Tuesday in Houston. AP

Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States.

It’s home to an incredibly diverse population, the second-busiest port in the United States, acres of chemical refineries, the best medical care in the country, world-class fine arts, ribbons of labyrinthine freeways, aggressive drivers, the best restaurants you’ve ever eaten at, and some of the best people you will ever meet.

It is a city of cities — the distance from Texas City in the south up to Conroe in the north is more than 80 miles. It is sprawling and populous.

Houston is my hometown. And it is damn hard to watch your hometown get destroyed.

Harvey started developing last Wednesday. By Thursday, it had jumped quickly to a Category 3, which was concerning, but we’ve done this many times before. From past experience, the storm is never as bad as the meteorologists say it will be, or it doesn’t hit where they say it will. Most of the people I talked to were more worried for folks in the Corpus Christi and Rockport area, where Harvey made landfall.

You can’t predict, nor can you prepare for, something you can’t imagine.

People stocked up on groceries and essentials and prepared to wait out the storm, as they’ve always done. I checked in with my family and friends on Saturday, after the storm made landfall. Everyone was a little soggy, but OK. I stopped worrying.

But Sunday brought a different story. I woke up and my Facebook feed was a stream of despairing storm news, people asking for help to get out of their homes, posting photos and videos of the flooding, sharing stories of leaving in the middle of the night to find higher ground. News outlets posted videos of unprecedented flooding. Emergency lines were inundated, with people sharing stories of waiting on hold with 911 for hours.

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Gabby Ferreira. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

I worked on Sunday, and because my job is the news, I could not escape the pictures of a sunken downtown Houston, the pictures of the bayous I’ve driven by so many times swollen above their banks, the footage of people wading through water with their kids and possessions.

It was hard to watch, and I cried at my desk more than once. My solace was that my loved ones were all safe.

It reminded me of the tense and upsetting days after Katrina, 12 years ago almost to the day, when we huddled around the television with friends and family that had been evacuated from New Orleans.

And Monday morning, when my mom texted me from her home in Dallas that our old neighborhood was under mandatory evacuation as the Brazos River rose higher and higher, I felt like I was in a waking nightmare. Our area, Sugar Land, has never been prone to major flooding. All over social media, people asked how they were supposed to leave when the roads were impassable.

The woman who now lives in my old home, a mother of three young kids, posted an emotional message on Facebook to let people know her family had finally made it out of the city after hours of navigating flooded roads.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve done as a mom to tell them — we have to leave,” she wrote. “So many questions and I had no answers.”

A friend of my mom’s who has two children told her that she was afraid to leave the house to go to the grocery store, though they were beginning to run low on food. Two sisters I knew from high school tried to evacuate three times between Monday and Tuesday but were stopped by flooded roads. They finally made it out, guided by strangers who stood on street corners and told them whether the roads ahead were clear.

One of my best friends is waiting out the weather on the second floor of her house with her parents and their combined seven pets, as they decided it would be safer to stay home than risk it on roads that may or may not be flooded with either water or people. They are in a voluntary zone, but close to a mandatory zone. They are OK for now. I hope with all my heart they stay that way.

It is indescribably difficult to put in words what it feels like to see people you’ve known all your life, not to mention countless strangers, asking for help on social media and knowing that you, hundreds of miles away, can’t do a thing about it other than monitor the situation and donate what you can.

But I see rays of hope everywhere. A newscaster who flagged down help for a trapped truck driver. People, including teenagers, using their own boats to save others from the rising water. Neighbors opening their homes and checking on each other. A grassroots armada from Louisiana, the Cajun Navy, swooping into town to help with rescue efforts.

Houston has always helped others in their hour of need. When Katrina hit, the city welcomed as many as 250,000 refugees, among them my grandparents and uncle. We took in 200,000 Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and continue to take in more refugees than any other American city.

I haven’t lived in Houston for six years but it will always be my home and a place where many of my loved ones live. It’s hard to make people here understand the sheer amount of damage and devastation in Southeast Texas, as far removed as we are on the Central Coast.

As the rain continues to come down, levees are breached and people hunker down in their homes or try to get to dry land, it’s difficult to predict the extent of the recovery to come — in many ways, this is just the start of a long road. But Houstonians are strong, generous, tough people. We need to open our hearts to them as they have done for others.

Gabby Ferreira: 805-781-7858, @Its_GabbyF

You can’t predict when disaster will strike, so make sure you have a plan. Here are nine things you can do to prepare for a future evacuation.

How you can help

Here is a list of just a few of the groups helping in Houston. To learn more about charities, visit GuideStar, which offers reports on nonprofits so you can make an educated decision about donating:

▪  Red Cross: You can donate through the website, www.redcross.org/hp/harvey2, or text 90999 to give $10. With such widespread, catastrophic flooding, the organization is also in need of volunteers.

▪  SPCA of Texas: The group is helping to care for animals displaced by the storm. Go to www.spca.org/give.

▪  J.J. Watt’s fundraiser: Watt, the Houston Texan defensive end, has established a YouCaring campaign that has already surpassed $3 million. Visit www.youcaring.com.

▪  The Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services: Donate by calling 800-SAL-ARMY or visit www.salvationarmyusa.org.

▪  BakerRipley: The community development organization serves neighborhoods across the Houston area and will be helping Harvey victims through the recovery process. Visit www.bakerripley.org.

▪  Houston Food Bank. Donate at www.houstonfoodbank.org.

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