Long after storm gone, a rainbow will shine

By J.R. Ortega - Staff Column
Sept. 7, 2017 at 4:45 p.m.
Updated Sept. 8, 2017 at 8:32 a.m.

J.R. Ortega

J.R. Ortega   Contributed Photo for The Victoria Advocate

We have changed - not by choice, but out of necessity.

Two weeks ago, we all had the same rough night of sleep, if you slept that is.

We stayed awake in our beds, in our closets and in our bathtubs, listening to our homes rumble to life like some sort of miscreation out of a horror novel.

As the night wore on, the sounds of Hurricane Harvey knocking on our doors, walls and city became more guttural.

The sound of creaking windows and wind whistling through the crevices of your vulnerable homes are unforgettable.

And then there was the aftermath; the lack of electricity, water, food and shelter suddenly became our new nemeses.

Now we're here, in a city we'd like to think is going back to normal, though nothing feels truly right just yet.

Normal will take time.

Again, we are the ones who have changed - not by choice, but out of necessity.

We suddenly see our small piece of world in a whole new light.

But now that the storm has passed, in its wake is an all new monster. A monster that has left behind destruction, questions of what now and a forever-changed us.

This isn't my first hurricane, and given that I plan to spend the rest of my life in this area, this won't be my last.

Without a doubt, this has been the worst in my lifetime.

The best way I could deal with it was by keeping myself busy along with our other dedicated Advocate staff.

We would deliver the news to you, come hell or high water.

To be completely honest, it wasn't until two days after Hurricane Harvey had somewhat dissipated in our area that reality sunk in. Suddenly, our employees couldn't just throw themselves into work for 18 hours. We had to face the reality that our homes were out there, too.

After documenting the horrific tales of our community for two days, we suddenly found ourselves on the other side.

We took an hour break, and a group of us went out into the aftermath in one SUV. Each stop we made brought relief for some but confusion and a reality-disconnect for others.

We are thankful that a majority of our homes only sustained minor damage; albeit there were a lot of close calls. One staffer's apartment complex had at least two carports collapse onto vehicles. Some of the roofing at the complex was also torn apart.

My partner's and my apartment felt the wrath of Hurricane Harvey.

We had about a half-inch to 1 inch of water go through the majority of our apartment. After the stories we had been hearing, it was a relief to know we only had minor flooding in our home.

Like the water left behind by Hurricane Harvey, that feeling of relief soon receded.

An inspection by our apartment management team Tuesday delivered grim news - our apartment unit was no longer livable.

We have been reporting on stories of the displaced in our communities, and even though reading and editing those stories made me feel deep sorrow for those affected, it didn't feel real enough. Sadly, it never does until you experience it yourself, no matter how much empathy you have.

Just like that, my partner and I became part of the narrative.

If there is anything I'm great at, it's remaining optimistic. Tuesday, that quality was put to the test.

As soon as the disaster company came into our apartment, there was an audible 'oh s - -' moment. Excuse the expletive, but lessening that sentiment would be a lie to the situation.

There is water damage throughout our apartment.

Our desk is coming apart, and it's only a matter of time until the cabinetry begins to pull away from the sheetrock because of the water seeping up the walls.

The team continued to walk around the apartment, and that audible moment continued. Rotting baseboards, soggy walls and the smell of water damage couldn't be masked no matter how hard we tried. We filled up our Scentsy warmers and bought odor-eating deodorizer cones but to little avail.

They said to give them an hour to have lunch and discuss the plan.

Up until that moment, we honestly felt it would all be OK.

Then they came back.

We'd have to move out. "The apartment" would need to be gutted. The entrance, the kitchen, the bathroom and most of the walls throughout "the apartment" would have to be torn apart and rebuilt.

"The apartment," I thought in my mind. "You mean our home?"

"Do you have friends you can move in with?" the disaster inspector asked.

"Yes, we do," I rambled. I'm not quite sure what else I said.

She said the management would talk to us about options, if any. She was a sweet woman who offered some solace.

Then she left to continue her job throughout the rest of the complex.

We sat there at our kitchen table not quite sure what to feel.

I kept thinking in my mind about how the storm was over. I mean, it was, right?

I thought about how this could happen even though life in our home felt somewhat normal. We had working cable and internet. I mean, we just finished watching a Netflix series Monday night.

That's when I realized the storm really wasn't over.

It's interesting the things we do to make ourselves feel a sense of normalcy. We try to go back to our old routine, but it still never feels quite right.

Deep down I knew the storm was still here, and now we were in the thick of it.

For a little more than an hour we waited. I thought optimistically, even though deep inside I didn't know what to do if we didn't have a unit we could move to.

It's unlike anything I've ever felt in my life. The threat of feeling displaced leaves a huge sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.

"Where would our stuff go?" "Can we afford to move somewhere else?" "Could our friends realistically house us until we got back up on our feet?"

Luckily for us, that horrible feeling didn't last long. Our wonderful management team has a unit available for us on the third floor.

It's a smaller unit, and they've said as soon as a unit like ours becomes available, we are welcome to transfer again.

I teared up a little bit when they told us the news, not because of our luck but because we are receiving a happier ending than thousands across this area of Texas.

"What about them?"

This is something I keep thinking about as we finish packing our belongings this Wednesday morning. We must not forget that there is a sense of guilt for those who may have not been as deeply affected. You feel bad for being OK in this catastrophic situation. At the same time, you feel relief. My partner and I are walking that fine line now.

We experienced this feeling of displacement for an hour, and it was truly terrifying. It breaks my heart knowing many others haven't been as fortunate to find a place like us.

And as pitiful as it may sound, we are sad to be losing our apartment home.

We'll now live in a smaller unit, although all our stuff will fit fine.

Whether we like it or not, it will be our new home for a while, and that's much more than a lot of other people can say right now.

I'm realizing that Victoria, the Crossroads and the entire area affected by Hurricane Harvey will survive. It doesn't have a choice. Our cities' landscapes may have changed a little, but they're still the same cities with the same charm.

We need to begin to understand that we're the ones who have changed. We will have to establish our new normal, whether we like it or not.

We've just survived the worst disaster since Hurricane Carla in 1961. It may sound odd, but we should be thankful for making it this far.

Some may not think it now, but we'll each see a rainbow once we feel like our lives are back in order.

For me, I'll make home wherever my partner is.

For me, I'll keep helping deliver the news.

J.R. Ortega is a award-winning former reporter turned copy desk chief at the Victoria Advocate. He has been with the newspaper for almost a decade.


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