It was a Facebook message from a stranger that finally made me break down completely.
When I look back on our Harvey experience, what I remember most is the constant anxiety – watching the water rise in our neighbourhood, getting closer and closer to our front door; the almost constant tornado alerts; the panicked messages at 6am one morning as we tried to work out if the evacuation notice for our area was mandatory or voluntary.
Even now, a month later, it is hard to put the events of that week into any kind of chronological order or to give the experience a neat narrative storyline. Key moments stand out – waiting for evacuated friends to arrive while watching the water getting higher and higher, only to get a phone call to say that they’d spent more than an hour trying to find a passable route to our home, and with that the realization dawning that we were marooned. The text message from a colleague showed a photo of the view from his rescue boat. The stories of colleagues and families sleeping in offices or strangers’ homes, the last-minute escapes – friends leaving homes, not knowing when they would get back or what they would find when they did.
On the morning that we discovered the voluntary evacuation order for our area, we packed an emergency ‘to go’ bag – basic clothing, the critical personal documents, dog food. I remember thinking that as expats, we should be better able to cope with this. We arrived in Texas with a tiny container, not much more than a few suitcases and a few boxes worth of household goods. I remember telling myself that if we had to start over with a bit less, we would be OK.
We had days stuck in the house – marooned on a suburban island in our usually leafy quiet cul-de-sac, trying to carry on as normal but unable to tear our eyes away from the dystopian scenes on our TV screens, watching familiar highways become rivers, subdivisions become lakes.
There were flurries of worried text messages, emails and phone calls as contacts from around the world and across our flooded region checked in, peppering us with questions to which we barely knew the answers.
When the water started to recede, the anxiety gave way to a restless need to ‘do’ something, almost anything and at the same time, feeling totally overwhelmed by the scale of the need. I remember feeling so confused – how far out of my neighbourhood could I get? I wanted so badly to be part of the solution but I was also terrified of the risks of heading out of my comfort zone.
And then there was the guilt. We were fine, our home was fine, our dogs were fine, but we were still anxious, exhausted and overwhelmed. Somewhere in the confusion, I remember reading that suffering is not a zero-sum game – just because you haven’t lost everything doesn’t mean that you should be OK. Knowing that you are one of the lucky ones doesn’t mean that you should be unaffected. Watching other people struggle can bring even the most upbeat person to their knees.
Just as my anxiety was being to fade, that’s what happened to me. It was a brief exchange on social media with a total stranger. Like so many other families, they had become separated from their beloved dog in the chaos and confusion of an emergency evacuation. Did the animal shelter where I volunteer have this dog?
They were so hopeful. I had to tell them that it wasn’t their dog.
A few days later, we reconnected. Their story had the unhappiest of endings. As their story unfolded, the grief, fear, confusion and panic that they had experienced was palpable. And then they thanked me for being kind to them.
I sat at my keyboard, one of my own dog’s resting her head in my lap and sobbed.
After Harvey, there was so much need and so much to be done, that it was easy to feel impotent, that my small acts of service were less than the metaphorical drop in the bucket. When Irma and Maria followed Harvey, the scale of devastation from Texas to the Caribbean threatened to overwhelm me again. And when we are overwhelmed, it can be easy to shut it out, to do nothing because you think you can’t make a difference.
When I start to feel like that, I go back to that afternoon, messaging with a stranger and without realizing, offering them some small support just by acknowledging them. I remind myself that listening and responding with kindness to another person’s pain is important, that small personal connections are sometimes the most powerful way to understand a disaster of this scale, and that these intimate moments may have ripples that I will never understand.
So, as we try to move forward, after the storms, I am reminding myself that as just one person I cannot make a perceptible impact on the suffering that Harvey, Irma and Maria have brought to millions of people. But I can give what I can, when I can and how I can and that this is enough. Even this, makes a difference.