'It's dry as far as you can see': downtown Houston shows signs of recovery
The catastrophe isn’t over, but as the city’s downtown starts to dry residents are cautiously optimistic: ‘This feels like the start of getting back to normal’
A four-year-old boy picks out a toy from a donations table at the convention in downtown Houston, which has sheltered about a third of the city’s displaced people. Photograph: Michael Ciaglo/AP
The catastrophe had yet to be tabulated and elsewhere tropical storm Harvey still raged, but downtown Houston on Wednesday appeared to have made a great escape.
Driving in on the I-45, now clear of floodwater, the skyline glinted in bright, balmy sunshine. The Eastex freeway had remarkably little debris. Avenida de las Americas was dry, even warm, to the touch. People walked their dogs.
“After days cooped up you get cabin fever, you need to get out,” said Gerardine McKeon, her dog, Ty, straining at the leash on the corner of Lamar and Austin.
Days earlier, waist-high torrents had flowed down nearby streets, felling trees, sweeping away cars. But the water had gone, restoring a semblance of familiarity to downtown.
“It’s dry as far as you can see,” said Liz Spencer, 64, an artist, who viewed a panorama from a skyscraper’s 45th floor. She was now out walking with her nine-year-old granddaughter Ivy and had just scooped up some litter. “This feels like the start of getting back to a normal state of affairs.”
The mayor, Sylvester Turner, struck a similar tone at a news conference, calling for the city to return to routine as swiftly as possible. Airports were due to reopen with limited service later on Wednesday and schools will reopen on 5 September, he said. “Let’s play ball, let’s keep moving.”
It was a marked contrast to the mayhem Harvey’s second landfall was unleashing on Port Arthur a hundred miles east and to the widespread devastation in outlying areas of Houston, where aerial footage showed entire communities still submerged.
Grim news will continue to unfold as waters recede, revealing more bodies – the official death toll stood at 23 – and the scale of damage. Some analysts estimate it will exceed $100bn.
Yet downtown Houston, which this week celebrates its 181st birthday, was already showing the first, halting steps towards recovery, or at least normality.
Local radio flipped from reports about rescue efforts to tips on filing insurance claims to celebrity trivia: internet trolls were roasting Ruby Rose, a star of Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, for her pledge to donate $10,000 to LGBTQ flood victims.
When you approached the George R Brown convention centre, which since Sunday has sheltered about a third of the city’s 30,000 displaced people, the first impression was of disarray.
Hundreds of people milled outside, some with bulging sacks. But they were not, it turned out, waiting to get in. They were waiting to go home, or to the homes of relatives.
“We’re leaving today for my uncle’s house,” said Enrique Martinez, 29, an office administrator. After a chaotic first night on Sunday conditions in the Red Cross-run centre had improved but the family would feel more comfortable with relatives, said Martinez.
Aaron Reynolds, 30, emerged from the building whooping, like a freed man. “It’s like prison. I’m moving to a hotel today.”
A couple sleeps on cots at the George R Brown Convention Center, where nearly 10,000 people are taking shelter. Photograph: Michael Ciaglo/AP
Inside the cavernous centre, which had been scheduled to host a gun show until the hurricane hit, Jose Irvinaldama, 23, a trainee pastry chef, was charging his phone and waiting for what he hoped would be good news from his mother who was inspecting the family home. “My uncle says the water is lower so we may go home today or tomorrow.” He said he knew some undocumented Latinos who had shunned the shelter for fear of being asked for papers.
Some evacuees were bullish about the future despite ruined homes and no flood insurance.
“This is the United States of America, the greatest country in the world,” said Turk Sullivan, 70, a retired pipeline welder. “If we can’t fix it, no one can, and we will fix it. In six months half the problems will be gone and six months after that the other half.”
His buddy, Dennis Sliva, 53, lunching on lasagne and a cookie, predicted Houston would bounce back faster that New Orleans after Katrina. “I’m not worried about the future. I’m a carpenter. There’ll be a lot of work.”
Charlene Hamilton, 58, a retired nurse in a wheelchair, also looked on the bright side, trusting more in God than the economy. “When I woke on Sunday the water was up to my chest. I’ve got arthritis but I was able to get out the living room window with some help. I’ve no flood insurance but as long as I keep focusing on the Lord I know I can make it through this. I lost stuff but stuff can be replaced. I still have my life.”
Eloy Martinez, 57, a plumber who uses a cane, was more downbeat. “It’s going to be real difficult to get established once again. It’s going to be a mess, that’s all I know.”
Some evacuees said they were too disconsolate to talk. An elderly Latino man at a desk for information about missing people gazed ahead, apparently not hearing questions, his eyes vacant.
Outside the convention centre a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses offered passers-by a booklet titled “Does God really care about us?”
A shirtless Bob Marley fan answered the question, in a way, by striding up and down the sidewalk, shouting a mantra: “The rasta say everything’s gonna be all right.”