That's me, a week ago today, starting a new chapter of my life, a new job, in a new town. But so much has changed since I snapped that impromptu selfie after Lamar University's fall convocation.
When I took that picture, Hurricane Harvey was a mere remnant low churning away in the Bay of Campeche. I love tracking hurricanes; it's somewhat of a seasonal obsession. I get a bit of a thrill from it because, living in the Rio Grande Valley, if we did get a storm, it was usually just a tropical storm or low grade hurricane. My most significant hurricane story is Dolly, a Cat 1 that hit the day after I signed the mortgage for my first house. The worst that happened was we lost power for maybe 3 days. But as probably everyone knows by now, Harvey is/was a very different storm.
On Wednesday, it looked as though Harvey was aiming for my beloved valley. It looked like it was going to be a puny tropical storm that dumped some much needed rain on a dry and sun-scorched landscape. It was going to be a blessing. My mind was awash in new faculty orientation, in learning new names, in meeting new friends. I checked the tropical updates maybe every hour or so on my cell phone just to keep an eye on things.
By Thursday afternoon, I was on my way to a training and sharing an elevator with my new boss. "You're not thinking to go to the valley this weekend, are you?" he asks. I shake my head.
"Nope. I'm heading to Houston this weekend for a poetry reading."
"Good, because the weather's looking real bad down south. The roads won't be safe!"
"It's just a little tropical storm," I said with a scoff. "No biggie."
"You better check the news. Last I heard they're expecting a Cat 3."
My heart sank.
And of course, he was right. A massive category three hurricane set its sights on Corpus Christi, which is about 2 hours north of the valley, about 4 hours south of Beaumont.
Come Friday, the entire university campus felt somber. A thick blanket of clouds hung overhead, and already, rain fell nonstop. I sloshed through puddles to get to meetings. A huddled under umbrellas with my newfound friends and colleagues. In the campus hallways, seasoned colleagues shared storm stories with us newbies, offering words of warning, caution, and advice. Things were getting a little serious. Later that morning, we got word that the start of the semester would be postponed thanks to Hurricane Harvey. But it's not even coming here, I thought to myself. My colleagues knew better. "Beaumont floods," one told me. "You better be careful on the roads."
That evening, I also got an email that my poetry reading in Houston, scheduled for Saturday, would also be canceled. I turned to B. "What's going on?" I asked. We turned on the news. Harvey had exploded in size and strength. He was a Cat 4. He would be hitting the entire Texas gulf coast. He would linger for days.
"We got to get out of here," B says, shaking his head.
"Evacuate? That's ridiculous. It's not even coming here."
"Well, what if the roads flood? What if we're stuck?"
So we gathered up our cats and piled into our little sedan for the long trek home. Our usual path would take us right through the brunt of the storm, so we decided, instead, to go around it. All night, we drove from Beaumont to Houston to San Antonio to Laredo and then, finally, to the Rio Grande Valley. We hit some rainy conditions between San Antonio in Houston, but otherwise, we missed most of the storm. And while B drove, I kept my eyes glued to social media. I have friends and loved ones all up and down the coast. This monster hit close to home. It hit close to the heart.
Our trip took us nearly twelve hours, but we made it, safe and dry, to the Rio Grande Valley. Because it was on the southwest end of the storm, which in this case was the weakest end, the valley was entirely spared from its effects, save for a bit of cool gulf wind. I felt a tinge of guilt for leaving, for bailing on my new hometown. And I still feel that way.
For the next few days, B and I kept an eye on the road conditions. When can we go back? I wondered. Harvey slowly churned up the gulf coast. After decimating Corpus Christi, it lurched towards Victoria, soaked San Antonio, and then finally made its way east towards Houston where it sits, drowning the beautiful city in its floodwater. People called me, texted me, sent emails. Are you ok??? Thankfully, yes, I was.
Up until yesterday, there wasn't much fuss from Beaumont. But now, it looks like Beaumont, too, is getting its share of the soaking. Classes at Lamar are canceled through Labor Day. I watch on social media as my new friends post pictures of streets that look like rivers. I listen as the vaguely familiar landmarks, roads, and neighborhoods are declared flooded, marked for evacuation, or claimed to be safe. I've checked in with my southeast Texas friends, and so far, everyone is safe, though a little soggy and storm-worn.
I'm praying for my new hometown. I'm thinking of my new friends, my new students, my new colleagues. I'm dry but I'm soaking in guilt for not being there to weather the storm, too, to become a true Beaumonter complete with a hurricane story for the ages. I'm thinking of Houston. I'm thinking of Corpus Christi. I'm thinking of Beaumont. I'm thinking this will change the landscape and our lives for years to come.
Come Monday, I hope to return. I'm afraid of the drive, of the seeing the wreckage along the roadside, of witnessing the devastation this thousand year storm leaves in its wake. I'm hopeful, though, that new beginnings will come of this. That people will come together, shelter one another, rebuild, and heal. I'm hoping to be a part of that, too, in my own small way.
We've got one heck of a journey ahead. I'll bring an umbrella. I'll bring my poetry books. And most of all, I'll bring my open heart.