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Karen Harradine: Fear, chaos and the kindness of strangers in the eye of Hurricane Harvey


We’d booked a trip to see the solar eclipse in Nashville. My husband worked there many years ago and wanted to show me around. We thought it was a good idea to follow this with a short break in Galveston, Texas.

After two lovely days there I woke in the early hours of Friday, August 25. Staring out of our hotel window, I saw Hurricane Harvey bending palm trees and churning the sea right past the shoreline. We had decided the night before to pay heed to the voluntary evacuation notices and risk driving to Houston International Airport before the storm got any worse. I naively thought we would be able to catch our flight out the next afternoon. The next 48 hours were a lesson in patience and compassion.

As we slowly drove the 50 miles towards Houston I spoke gentle words of reassurance and encouragement to my husband while he navigated the car through cascades of rain. It was only after we arrived at our airport hotel on Friday afternoon and found out that our flight had been postponed to early Sunday morning that I felt my heart rate increase.

Houston was still relatively functional on Saturday. Our hotel was overbooked by stranded flight crews so we took a taxi to another one and, like most Texans that day, obsessively watched the Weather Channel wishing for a respite from the storm. We slept for a couple of hours and then at 4am went down to the hotel lobby hoping to book a taxi to the airport. But Hurricane Harvey had completely unleashed itself on to Houston during the night and the highways we had driven on the day before were now under water.

Thunder and lightning raged outside as we sat there, hoping that the hotel’s shuttle bus driver would be able to get us to the airport in time for our flight. I could feel my face tighten with panic and my body hunch over with stress.

As I curled into a foetal position and tried not to scream with frustration, a beautiful African-American woman asked me if I was ok. She was working as a baggage handler at the airport and told me that her house was flooded but at least she and her family were alive. She offered to pray with me if it would help calm me.

I realised then how we humans narrow our focus during a crisis of survival, becoming selfish and needy. But it just takes one sympathetic word and a reassuring hug from a kind stranger to shift away from such self-centredness and find the strength to cope. My own petty concerns melted away. I felt courageous again and resolved to emulate my new friend’s unselfish and moral fortitude.

At 5am four of us climbed into the shuttle bus. The hotel manager, a Syrian Christian, said we stood only a 50/50 chance of getting to the airport as most of the roads had been closed during the night due to flooding. He told me I must trust God’s will. The freedom to mention God and pray without being mocked was comforting.

And so I prayed again as Pedro drove us for three miles in darkness along saturated roads. When the first deluge of water rose to cover the roof of the bus I asked him if he was ok. This macho Hispanic man murmured very quietly, ‘No, I am not ok. I am not ok at all.’ I knew then that if the bus stalled we were all at risk of drowning. But thanks to Pedro’s Texan perseverance we made it to the airport – only to find out our flight had been cancelled yet again.

The airport was virtually empty as most flights in and out of Houston had been cancelled. We managed to rebook on a flight to Phoenix for later that morning. Like most other passengers there that Sunday, I didn’t care where I went as long I could get out of Houston. During those long hours as we waited to flee, when our flight was cancelled yet again because the flight crew could not be located, I marvelled at the calm and cheerful attitude of the Texans I met, from the food servers who had slept over at the airport to ensure they were able to get to work, to the airline staff who helped us book one flight after the other. None of them complained or showed an ounce of self-pity when I asked them how they were. They just shrugged and smiled as they told me their homes had been destroyed but they were happy to help us. With true Texan kindness and fearlessness they ignored their loss and consoled stranded passengers over and over again: ‘We will get you out of here.’

Despite seeing many faces drawn with anxiety I did not hear one raised voice while we all waited together for hours by the gates, not knowing if we would be able to fly out before the weather forced the airport to shut completely. I knew that if we did not leave, we would be stuck at the airport for the rest of the week because the storm was getting worse and flood waters were rapidly rising. As the endless rain continued and the wind howled outside, most of the few remaining flights were cancelled. People responded not in anger and fear but with smiles of resignation at each other, and offered their food to strangers. I heard a voice say in that wonderful Texan drawl: ‘Don’t worry, mama, we’ll figure this out’ – a mantra of reassurance and compassion which summed up the sweet nature of the Texans I was lucky to meet.

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Karen Harradine
Karen Harradine
Karen is an anthropologist and freelance journalist. She writes on anti-Semitism, Israel and spirituality. She is @KarenH777on Twitter.

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