Aug 28, 2018
See You Again in a Thousand Years
Texas State Highway 3 runs for thirty-some-odd miles, from the southeastern edge of Houston down to Galveston, covering a flat stretch of coastal plain now blanketed over in suburban sprawl: master-planned communities, Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base, off-white office complexes, Johnson Space Center, strip malls. Around its midway point, Highway 3 crosses over Dickinson Bayou in a long, low-arching bridge, a spot where the locals like to put in fishing boats and kayaks, and where I park the ambulance and set up a helicopter landing zone, on the afternoon after the arrival of Hurricane Harvey.
My crew is in the back of the ambulance with a critical patient, and I’ve got us stopped in the center of the bridge with the emergency lights flashing, our front bumper facing south, facing water where there should be highway. On one of my normal shifts working Fire/EMS services here, it’d be a straight shot down Highway 3 to a local hospital, about five miles; or, I could choose to turn us around, and head north, where I’d find three other hospitals just as close. I’d have our patient inside an emergency room in minutes.
But Harvey came in off the Gulf last night, around midnight, and now the roads are no longer good for getting places, not to the astronauts’ training grounds, not out of this widespread flooding, certainly not to a hospital.
I remember thinking, as the real brunt of the storm arrived, as the intensity of the rain became absurd and the wind throttled the fire station windows like an intruder high on bath salts, that this was not sustainable. It could not last; yet it did. In no time, the rain supercharged the bayous and inundated the roads, poured water down neighborhood streets and into homes by the foot, forcing folks to escape into our rescue boats, fire engines, ambulances, dump trucks.
And because the flooding came up so fast and in every direction, we moved the evacuees into Dickinson City Hall, an impromptu hurricane shelter, the only large dry building we could access. As we ushered people through the front doors, we could make out the roofs of overcome trucks, out in the flooded intersection of Highway 3 and Main, but we piled the evacuees inside, instructing them to just hang on, to be patient, though they were wet and shaken, many of them suddenly separated from their at-home oxygen, past due for dialysis treatment, without prescription medications.
It all went pretty well, until it didn’t.
On the bridge, I step out of the cab into the rain, walk around the ambulance, and hop into the patient compartment. Inside, my partners are seated against opposing walls. Steve is facing me, in the CPR seat. He was already a veteran firefighter/paramedic when I started this job years ago, and while none of us has been here before, I trust Steve, I’ve seen him Adapt and Overcome. James is to my left, on the bench seat. He’s a veteran, multiple deployments, new to our department but not new to stressful situations.
Between them on the stretcher sits our patient. Federal Privacy Laws prevent me from giving out specific or unique information, so let’s say her name is your mom’s name. She’s your mom’s age and when she told us about her chest pain, that the pain radiates into her jaw and right arm, and that this feels like her three previous heart attacks, it was with your mom’s voice. She’s your mom now.
“How we doing?” I ask.
“Fine.” Steve detaches a syringe from your mom’s IV and stuffs it in the red medical waste container. “How much longer?”
“Coast Guard helicopter should be here soon,” I say.
We have been on the clock twenty minutes now, waiting on an air evacuation since we ran an EKG on your mom, since we requested a helicopter with the Emergency Operations Center because our radios don’t connect with the Coast Guard, since we were instructed to wait on the bridge for their arrival.
“Let’s ask for an ETA,” Steve and James and I agree, as a crew.
I get back on the radio with EOC and ask for an update on the helicopter’s location, when we can expect to see them. They tell me what we’ve been telling the evacuees: Just hold on, we don’t know right now, we’re trying.
I step back out onto the highway, hoping to spot an orange and white metal savior descending through the clouds. Instead I’m met with the same heavy sky, low ceilinged and black and grey, throwing down more rain. Below me, the normally calm bayou is fast moving and choppy, swollen well out of it banks, high enough to cover the highway at both ends of this bridge.
I watch the clouds for a moment, and I realize I don’t know in which direction I should be looking. Normally, we use Lifeflight—their helicopters are stationed to our north and they provide a precise GPS-estimated ETA and we can communicate by radio. However, Lifeflight doesn’t fly during inclement weather, or whatever you call a hurricane that decides to post up in your city. Fortunately, we’ve been told the Coast Guard does fly in this stuff, although they could approach from any direction, anytime.
As I wait, I reach under my raincoat and dig my phone out from my uniform pants. The screen is foggy and water-spotted, and I can’t get it to respond to my touch. I move to wipe it against a dry surface, my t-shirt maybe, but feeling at my uniform, I realize I’m soaked through, that every person I have seen today has been soaked through. So I drag one thumb across the screen like a windshield wiper and jab at it with the other thumb.
I manage to send a short text (hey how’s it?) to my wife, Lauren, who is on duty at her hospital, nursing newborns and their mothers through the storm. She replies immediately, sends me a pic of an empty patient bed, the one she slept in last night, after working the day shift, the bed she will continue sleeping in until Harvey has passed and the roads are clear again. U jealous of my setup? she texts. I send back a selfie I took earlier, on a water rescue call, a shot of my boots and uniform pants under the water line. I ask if she has time to wash some laundry for me. Lauren responds in emoji: angry face, gun.
I don’t tell her about midnight trips in the rescue boat and mounting apartment staircases at the second story, about driving counterflow on the interstate for miles because the underpasses are underwater, about the strength of the floodwater’s current. And I know she’s not telling me everything. That for now, we will hold onto these stories. That after Harvey passes, and the roads are good again, we will return home and shape our stories together, place them in each other’s hands.
Twenty minutes pass. I wait in the rain and wind, watching the bayou rushing over the highway, watching the clouds fail to produce a helicopter.
I climb back inside the patient compartment, and check on the patient’s status. Steve says he has maxed out the chest pain protocol—given all the meds we can—but your mom has reported no relief from her pain. She is sitting upright on the stretcher, hunched over, guarding the center of her body, the source of her pain.
“I don’t want to be here,” she says. “I’m sorry I made you guys be here.”
I am familiar with these statements, with the kind of patient who makes them. I hear them as critical warning signs, similar to a patient reporting the dreaded Sense of Impending Doom. These are bargaining statements, aimed at God or Fate, a plea for help or escape from a swiftly deteriorating condition. I can see the same recognition on the faces of Steve and James. As a crew, we tell our patient, your mom, that we are all here together, and that together we will get her to the treatment she needs.
Afterwards, Steve and I step outside. We call the EOC on the phone directly and demand an ETA. We’ve been avoiding this as they’re swamped with calls from the public, reports of people trapped and needing rescue, but our situation now feels like a priority. After a short delay, EOC responds: “The Coast Guard did launch a helicopter, but they’ve lost it. They have no radio contact, no idea of status or current location.”
This is impossible, Steve and I agree. They don’t lose those helicopters, we agree. There never was a helicopter, someone has dropped the ball, we’re been fed a fucking line. We agree: none of this, the flooding and the isolation and the people trapped in homes, needed to be as dire as it has become.
Steve and I talk options for our patient. We could put her back in the shelter with a black toe tag, one of us says. We could, we have them, the black triage tags, to mark deceased bodies so nobody wastes time reassessing them in the future. But the tags are for Mass Casualty Incidents, and Steve and I know, without discussion, that this hurricane is something different and your mom is not beyond our help.
Next, we decide the boats are not an option for hospital transport. They are busy making other calls, carrying people from their flooded homes, and they could not make it to a hospital anyway. The floodwaters are not continuous, they rise and fall along the roadways, meaning we would have to locate an available rescue boat between each section of flooding and set up an impossible relay.
So then, Steve and I agree, we have to drive south on Highway 3. We drive into the flooding and see how close to the hospital we can get. We have been doing basically this, exploring the flooding, for the past twenty-four hours, and we’ve already made the decision to stop driving, several times, to abandon our trucks and walk into the floodwaters, to gauge the depth with our bodies. To see how far we can go.
As I put the ambulance into the floodwaters, the deepest I have known today, I realize that I can see through the water, down to the yellow lines dividing the lanes of Highway 3. The sight shocks me, this clearness. All our waters here are deeply brown, whether in a bayou, the Port, the Gulf, or a ditch. The yellow lines are encouraging, as they provide me both directional orientation and assurance, because they are visual evidence of a viable route to the hospital.
They are visible for all of a hundred feet. At which point, the water deepens, suddenly. In response, I slow the truck to a speed I think is smart and cautious, a thought that is immediately proven wrong. A blinding curtain of water splashes up over the hood and against both side windows and the truck pulls hard to the right, pulls against my efforts to control the steering wheel and our direction.
If you find yourself driving through floodwaters, here’s a thing to know: It is nothing more than the other emergencies you have faced. It’s the crunch of finding the infant not breathing or the family still inside the house on fire. It is this hyperawareness of my surroundings—the rain banging on the windshield and the concrete median in the road disappearing under the rising waterline and each fraction of time passing and how little road I’m putting behind us. I keep my hands tight on the wheel, and soon the water recedes and I am again driving on damn near dry pavement.
For a moment, for a few hundred feet. Then I hit another body of water, and again it leaps up against the windows. I keep the speed up this time and eventually the splashing stops, but the water rises up the sides of the truck, deeper than before, obscuring any sign of the road, deep enough to see the current moving.
Soon the truck begins to drift, in small increments at first, in both directions. I make small steering corrections, thinking I can control this, until the wheel becomes less responsive. Then the truck is drifting left, outside of my control, no question. We drift until the truck crashes up against the median wall dividing the highway. The steering wheel vibrates in my hands and the truck shakes violently, and I clutch the wheel until I feel control return and I pull us off the wall.
“What’s up,” Steve asks. His head is behind my right shoulder, sticking through the little window that separates the patient compartment and the truck cab.
“I don’t know, man,” I say. “I can’t see the end of this water.”
“Don’t slow down,” Steve says. “Don’t slow down and we’ll make it.”
His head goes back through the divide and the truck keeps moving forward. Soon, I stop feeling the truck drift, and instead, I feel the wheels of our five-ton vehicle gripping the roadway. As we near our destination, I run through a red light at a flooded intersection and the upper floors of the hospital come into view. I ease us out of the floodwater and up the hospital entrance ramp, shut off the flashing emergency lights, and park under the awning outside the ER.
I walk around the back of the truck and unload the stretcher, our patient, who is your mom, but could be anyone. Steve and James roll her inside the emergency room, and I wait outside, aware that I’ll never see her again, that, as first responders, we rarely know what becomes of the people we encounter. This is most true of the people we serve during those rare and sudden emergencies that catch everyone off guard, including us.
We will not know what becomes of your mom. That is unless we see her months later, at the grocery store, where she will walk on the bare concrete floors, because the store ripped up the tile and threw out the spoiled meats and reopen for business, as is. Your mom will recognize Steve and James and I, our uniforms, and she will tell us she’s living in an RV trailer in her front yard, and that she hopes to rebuild her home eventually. And she will thank us. We will nod, and say no problem and good luck. Then we will go back to the station and make chicken for dinner.