Keliy Anderson-Staley is an artist whose photographic works have been exhibited at a number of major museums including the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian and collected by the Library of Congress and Museum of Fine Arts-Houston. She is an assistant professor of photography and digital media at the University of Houston.
Saturday, August 26, 2017, we woke up to a power outage and some minor wind damage around the yard, but the rain had stopped, and for most of the day, despite the gray clouds, things were calm and quiet. Many people in Houston began to believe we had avoided the worst. But that evening it rained again, and then rained harder, with inches falling per hour. Our phones blared out alerts all night as wave after wave of torrential downpours came through. We had seen our nearby bayou full a few times before, but had never seen it flood, even in the infamous mega rain event of the previous year. But after multiple flash flood warnings we knew it would eventually have to come over its banks. We slept only a couple hours, and looking out at 4 in the morning, saw the bayou at the top of its banks. We began to frantically lift belongings to countertops and tables. I am a photographer, and I have a studio and darkroom in the garage, and I knew that would be the place to flood first. My archive of work was mostly upstairs in a small apartment above the garage, but there would be no time or space to bring my equipment up, too.
Soon we saw water in the garage. And then it surrounded our entire slab foundation. And then it started to seep in under walls and doors. There was an ominous gurgling and then sloshing under the floorboards. It sounded suddenly like being in a boat. Within minutes there was an inch of water across the floor and bubbles were coming up through the tile grout. Brown water came up out of the bathtub drain and a sewer smell immediately began to fill the house. We stuffed as many clothes and prescriptions and electronics as we could into a suitcase, woke the kids up (since they were asleep, and the sun wasn’t yet up, we had wanted them to get as much sleep as they could) and carried them upstairs to the small apartment above our garage. We’ve never felt so grateful for that space. When the sun rose an hour later, we could see the extent of the flooding. The bayou filled the streets in both directions. It was carrying large branches, plastic barrels and floating rafts of debris across our front yard.
We live right on a bayou, as many people in the city do. In Houston a bayou is often a concrete-lined ditch, and they crisscross every neighborhood, joining the larger Brays, Sims and Buffalo Bayous, flowing into the Gulf. We have learned to live with them, as they usually protect us, carrying away flood water. They also sometimes offer something close to a natural view, as they can be lined with wildflowers and are home to frogs, fish, turtles, egrets and herons. On Sunday, our bayou became terrifying as more and more water backed into the house. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, the rain briefly stopped. We were between rain bands, and more was predicted, but the sun even appeared for a moment. We decided that if we were going to leave, now was the time. We had friends several blocks away, whose house had escaped flooding, but getting there would mean wading through water. We would have to decide what few belongings to bring (wallets, a little bit of food, change of clothes, diapers and our phones and chargers), and we would have to carry the kids, aged 4 and 2.
When we got outside, a number of neighbors were out to help each other. Several came up offering assistance. One loaded our kids into a little raft to bring them up the street. Everyone seemed stunned, overwhelmed, already fatigued but resigned to days more of rain. We crossed paths with a man who was walking (wading) from the Medical Center (a long distance away on foot) and who wanted to get to the freeway to walk to his wife in Pearland (an impossible distance from Southwest Houston). We told him he was going the wrong way and that the freeways were likely closed, but he continued on, determined. I immediately thought of all the other people across the city who must be in similar circumstances to ours, friends and colleagues who were certain to have met fates similar to ours, and then all those in other parts of the city whose poverty already put them at risk, the thousands of homeless in Houston who make their homes under overpasses and along the bayous, the people without any support system. This was a storm that had devastated every corner of this city.
When we finally arrived at my friend’s house and were embraced by their warm home and a warm meal, it was nice to breathe a sigh of relief, even as the torrential rains returned, and we knew that more water was surely filling our house. That night, after we put the kids to sleep, I was finally able to cry.
Once the water recedes from a flood, it’s amazing how much your house still looks like your home, except everything is wet and swollen and very rapidly molding. There is a race against decay and black mold, and everything needs to get out as quickly as possible. Within just a few days the streets of the neighborhood were lined with mountains of debris. The piles were around for weeks and steadily growing until the city was finally able to catch up with removal.
We spend countless hours at the house, trying to salvage what we could and trying to avoid feeling sentimental as we brought books and artwork and toys to the curb. Soon very few of the things that had made it home were left.
It took a while to fully realize that we weren’t going back to the house to live anytime soon. We all knew (our friends included) when we showed up on our friends’ doorstep that it would be weeks before we would leave again. Fortunately, they were incredibly generous, gave us and our children their bedroom, found clothes for us to borrow, and allowed us to make ourselves at home. Their young daughter and our young children all became very close, like siblings.
The first month was the most difficult logistically. Both our cars had been destroyed by the flood, our son was starting school for the first time, I needed to get back to work at the University of Houston, and I had a number of art exhibitions coming up that I had to make work for, despite having lost my studio. My husband and I both agreed that we needed to keep life as normal as possible for the children, and that because I would be going up for tenure at the end of the academic year, we could not let the storm derail my career.
After a month at the friends’ house, we were able to move temporarily into the house of a colleague on sabbatical and I was very fortunate to find space at the university to work on my projects. My ability to make work has suffered, but the work I have been producing has been deeply influenced by the storm and its aftermath. The storm moved my work in a new direction, one which I am excited to be pursuing. A great irony of hardship is that it can foster productive creative energy.
Nothing could have prepared us for how long the process of recovery is. Nearly a year later, we are still repairing the house, our contractor overextended and labor in short supply. We are incredibly lucky to have had flood insurance to cover the costs of rebuilding, but much of my equipment, and some of my art was permanently damaged or destroyed. There was not enough money to elevate the house which is incredibly expensive, and our mortgage is too new for us to do anything other than repair the house back to its original state. Still owning the house in the context of global warming and increasing flood threats, we are apprehensive about what the future may bring.
All four of us are living in my art studio, sharing a single bedroom, a mattress and a fold-out futon. As the situation has gone from feeling temporary to semi-permanent our relationships have all suffered a bit in the tight quarters. The kids talk about the storm often. Every time it rains our son asks if it’s going to flood.
Of course, we feel tremendously grateful for all we have and all we have been given, and we have just been amazed by the generosity of our friends. We know we are among the lucky ones, and even as the anniversary approaches and we haven’t yet moved back into the house, we know that eventually we will, that our family is still healthy and fully intact and that our children have a bright future.