September 14, 2017 | Feature
Give us this day our daily bread
I find out about Hurricane Harvey in the middle of a non-stop flight to Houston, too focused on finding coffee before takeoff to check The Atlantic Daily at the airport. Reading about the worst hurricane to hit the United States in 12 years didn’t have immediate impact—from above, everything is soft, tea-logged Biscoffs and cotton tufts of clouds, no sign of rain.
My sister and I came to visit my dad, and all he could talk about on the drive to his house is the storm. I learn that Henry the accountant has lived here for 30 years and isn’t worried, and neither is the pilot next door, that we have batteries and movies queued on the DVR. I’m urged to check his weather app, which lets you scroll through the next 24 hours and track the storm’s trajectory. Houston is lit up in red, but the implications of this are scoffed at.
We pull into the garage at his house in Kingwood, a northern suburb of the city, and find my stepmother fretting as her three-year-old daughter fills cup after cup with water for a tea party with her younger sister—the grocery stores ran out of water yesterday. She wanted to make meatballs for dinner, but the organic ground beef was sold out too.
My dad starts railing about “these people,” who cleaned the store out of water and batteries and bread. He’s willing to bet they’re the same ones who bought every last model of the generator he was eyeing, to keep their fridges cool. To outsmart them, we’ll go to the store early the next morning after breakfast at Cracker Barrel.
My mother is Chinese and taught us to be frugal. When we first moved to the states and shopped, the sight of Americans pushing carts overflowing with packaged foods would compel her to lecture us about that time she cleaned out my paternal grandmother’s fridge, finding bread and cheese flowering with mold, a spice that had expired in 1983. My father has inherited these habits—whenever a trip to the grocery store is announced, we clean out the fridge, mentally noting that there are already cartons of eggs and gallons of milk, a fruit drawer jammed with bananas and strawberries and mangoes. The list of things they are almost out of or actually need take up two lines on my notes app. Regardless, we are going to the store, because we will not be outsmarted by “these people” and be the ones to go without.
When I wake up, the rain is coming down with force, but we strap in the babies and set off for a breakfast at Cracker Barrel anyway. The windshield wipers can hardly clear the rain fast enough to reveal the road ahead, but the waves of water churned up by our wheels can be seen from the side windows. I have a feeling that is not quite fear, but an apprehension that something will happen soon, a sick anticipation. A car drives by in the next lane, drenching the right side of the car, water whooshing over the roof and trickling down the left. We swerve a little, but it’s unclear if the wheels or my stepmother’s shaking hands caused it. She seems suddenly aware that we are risking our lives for blueberry pancakes.
She talks about turning back, but my dad agrees with enough all rights and if you wants to make his disagreement clear, so we continue. I have always marveled at how Texans will drive from their houses to a restaurant five minutes away and move their cars when going between strip malls with adjacent parking lots. Today, however, that is not enough—we park right against the wall of the Cracker Barrel, where there is no marked spot at all. We eat our staggeringly large breakfasts, heavy with grease and syrup, alongside just one other table of customers.
My stepmother takes her daughters home after breakfast, worrying more about the roads getting sealed off than the possibility of having only canned tuna over rice for dinner three days from now. There aren’t many people at the store. We buy another carton of milk, just-in-case bananas, more dairy and fruit and meat. My dad throws in a cooler—we have one, but it won’t hold everything in the fridge. At checkout, the cashier tells us to be safe; it seems likely that he, at least, wonders what we’re doing.
We take the back roads on higher ground home, but the water still makes its presence known in shoulder-height waves outside the window. Dread and misgiving linger even after we arrive safely and start to rearrange the fridge to fit the groceries in. Our preparations did not happen in vain, as the power goes out soon after, and we remove meat from the freezer to line the coolers, pack them with the new and old eggs, the butter and cream and milk until they are full. Two coolers were not enough. My dad’s cavalier attitude is wilting faster than the newly-purchased arugula, left behind in the defunct fridge. We’ll have to eat the fruit like crazy, he says. We can have steak and salmon for dinner. The small injustices pile up—the Nespresso machine will not work without power, and the Starbucks drive-through was closed this morning, so my dad doesn’t even have his quad grande latte macchiato to fall back on. There is no wifi, and the LTE flickers. My dad can’t track the storm on his app, so he looks out the window at the pool, at the water running over the sides into the garage and down the driveway. He says even Henry must be worried now—the pilot too, now that his TV’s off.
The power comes back before we start cooking, but the memory of not having it means we make both the steak and the salmon anyway. We only check the news after we eat, and it is then that we see videos of the flooding downtown, the rescue operations. Friends who knew where I was had left messages asking if we were doing all right.
For four hours, we had known less about what was happening 20 miles away than those back in Boston. I am not an eyewitness to Hurricane Harvey, because I did not leave the house while it was happening, except to buy food we did not need in a neighborhood that was not devastated. I can only tell you what I told those friends, about the useless coffee maker and how almost-scary it was to go to the grocery store. I did it to stress how comparatively safe I was, but also, to my shame, to show that we had been through something.
The power goes out twice more in two days, for half an hour each time. My dad goes for a drive around the neighborhood and tells us the house on the golf course they had considered buying is completely waterlogged, but it turns out Chrissy, the neighbor with the pilot husband, had had power all along. How that could be escapes my dad—there must be a better power company he should be with.
The grocery store parking lot is under a foot of water, but only a foot. We should go there as early as possible because the shelves of the fridge are getting a bit bare.
My stepmother objects—her friend Chrissy has come over, the kids are playing, we have food for lunch, the kids need their naps. “I don’t think there’s going to be lines,” she scoffs.
“People are freaking out,” Chrissy offers, with her years of Texan experience.
“I wouldn’t be surprised by anything these people do,” my dad warns.
“These people,” of course, are other people.