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A 2:15 am Facebook update from my friend in Houston reads, “The rain continues.” Flooding thousands of homes and pummeling the area with over four feet of rain, Harvey is relentless. Rekindling memories of Katrina are harrowing images of people stranded on the rooftops of their homes or wading chest-deep in filthy floodwater; and then the heartbreaking stories of Manuel Saldivar, 84, his wife Belia, 81, and great-grandchildren, Daisy 6, Xavier 8, Dominic, 14, and Devy who drowned while trying to escape floodwaters in a van or of the little girl rescued after she was found holding on to her unresponsive mother in the floodwaters of Beaumont, or Houston Police officer, Sergeant Steve Perez, who drowned after becoming trapped in high water as he was driving to work.

Unprecedented, Hurricane Harvey landed in Texas with a vengeance, bringing with it winds in excess of 130 mph and, in Harris County, 1 trillion gallons of rainfall in four days – enough to run Niagara Falls for over two weeks.

At a loss for words and graphics that would adequately convey the storm’s fury, The National Weather Service could only issue a dire warning that its impact would be unknown.

Five days later, we know more. We know that it is still raining, that Harvey has claimed at least 31 lives and destroyed close to 50,000 homes, and that thousands of people are still stranded, waiting to be rescued from rooftops and stalled cars and second-floor windowsills, waiting for the water to recede.

(Photo: Bernice Emerge, of Houston, teared up while praying during an evening service at Woodlands Church, which is being used as a shelter. Credit Barbara Davidson for The New York Times)

My friend’s Facebook updates continue: “This will be a long, long night. I don’t usually ask for prayers, but that’s really all that anyone can do for us at this point. We cannot leave our town – everything is flooded. They are predicting .5-1 inch of rain per hour. Please keep us, Friendswood, surrounding areas and the entire city of Houston in your prayers.”

From afar we watch, horrified, desperate to help, but unsure what to do. We send prayers and donations of blood and money. We stop to count our blessings that we are safe in our homes and wish we had enough room for those who are soaked and scared, having lost everything. We find our better selves as Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy explained in her response to the earthquake in Haiti, that poetry is as powerful as prayer, that its language is where we find our humanity and perhaps when there is nothing else we can do:

Poetry is the music of being human. We turn to poetry at intense moments in our lives ~ when we lose people, or are bereaved, we look for a piece of music or a poem to read at the funeral, or when we fall in love we turn to poetry, or when children are  born. And I think that can happen at moments of public grief too, as well as personal. It is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is. It is the perfect art form for public or private grief.

Learning that Harvey has made landfall in southwestern Louisiana, I am reminded of last year’s deadly storm, also unprecedented but unexpected, arriving like a hurricane with neither wind nor a name, but a relentless, record-breaking rain that over the course of four days wreaked havoc in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  According to Scientific American, it was a “once-in-a-1,000-year event” that killed 11 people and displaced tens of thousands. “Everybody in Baton Rouge knew somebody whose home got flooded.”

I am reminded of Sondra Honora who lost her home in the Louisiana flood, the home of her dreams and for which she saved for years. She started out dependent on government subsidies and used Section 8 vouchers to live in apartments and rentals, until in 2012 she could finally afford her own garden home with three bedrooms and a fireplace – her American dream off Old Hammond Highway. Getting the keys to that house was the best day of her life, and now it is gone.

Honore and her daughter, Ciera, are bus drivers for East Baton Rouge Parish. They have no flood insurance, no home, and no livelihood now that the buses are flooded as well. A poem, a prayer for her – forever –  from poet Sara Cress:

HOME SWEET HOME

I saved.
Not a penny spent
on frivolous things,
I forgot the taste of candy.
And when I walked in that front door I said, “finally!”
That floor under my bare feet was sweeter
than ten years of spun sugar.
Funny how it dissolves
like that
like one second
atoms switch around
and you fall right through.
They’re so nice here,
we don’t hear the rain,
they’re bringing us fruit,
and I laugh with the baby so I don’t cry.
But it isn’t my home,
now slowly melting down
to sweeten the sea.


 

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