I was fortunate to have survived much of Harvey’s rage. But an attorney colleague of mine was not so lucky. Listening to her story, I was struck not only by the terror of nature’s fury, but by her steely coolness under pressure – in the midst of a crisis beyond her control. This is how she stared down the wrath of Hurricane Harvey.
Ruth lived alone in the country on 5 acres of beautifully wooded land. It was also the simple rural home you might have expected. One story, white brick, three bedrooms. A screened-in front porch allowed her to enjoy mild summer evenings. A wooden deck out back was great for entertaining a friend or neighbor. The small barn on the property quartered supplies needed to manage her livestock. Ruth enjoyed living the country life. It reminded her of a childhood lived on the edge of nowhere. Her family, 5 children, were mostly grown now. And when not practicing law, her time was devoted to loving a 125 lb. Great Pyrenees named Ranger, and two house cats – Ash and Benjamin.
The rain started in earnest on Saturday morning. It rained all day and all night and again into Sunday. Remarkably, well into Sunday evening she had no flooding problems at all. Even though the house rested in the local flood plain, a nearby reservoir seemed capable of absorbing the continuous downpour. Around 5 pm, though, the power went out. Her telephone service was affected and, consequently, her ability to communicate with others was now limited. But still, no flooding.
The water began its invasion just after dark. First, it was only a couple inches deep in the living room. Using a flashlight to see, Ruth began to stack furniture and other belongings off the floor to protect them from damage. What else could she do? As hours passed the water continued to rise. Eventually, her furniture began to float. Around 11:00 pm she was startled by the crashing sounds of pots and pans in the kitchen. The deepening water had lifted them from the shelves and they battered against one another in the darkness. Ash and Benjamin wanted nothing to do with the confusion. After midnight the water was mid-calf and Ranger was getting increasingly upset. But now, out of the darkness, came the alarming sound of rushing water. The front door had been forced ajar from the surge outside. A torrent now poured in over the threshold. Thankfully, Ruth was able to get the front door shut – but the water kept coming, relentlessly.
It was still dark, with no power, and no phone. Now she began to think of an escape plan. What would she do if the water got too deep? How would she get herself and her animals to safety? Ruth decided she’d opened a window, kick out the screen, and survey the outside with her flashlight to consider her escape. But what she saw was dreadful. The narrow beam illuminated a violent, deep, and powerful rush of whitewater. Then, unexpectedly and with no warning, Ranger leaped through the window opening and out into the deluge. He was young and he was strong . . . but not that strong. Ruth watched helplessly as Ranger struggled to swim back to her through the torrent, but the power of the water was too much. He was swept away into the blackness. Now, there was nothing she could do except pray for the dawn and the light.
By the time the sun came up on Monday morning, more than 20 inches had fallen. The water in her home was now over her knees. Ranger was gone – it was time to leave. Opening the window again, Ash jumped out first without any encouragement. Somehow he made it to the back deck railing where he found refuge from the current. Ruth threw Benjamin outside and she followed close behind. Now in chest-deep water, she struggled toward higher ground on the property where her truck was parked and sheltered from the flooding. Animals from neighboring property also found sanctuary there. Ruth gathered the cats into the truck and was able to drive to the neighbor’s house for help and comfort. Since 5:00 pm the previous day she had been alone and without power. At the neighbor’s house she was able call and let her family know she was safe.
Remarkably, Ruth had not experienced fear during her ordeal, but rather determination. The determination to survive. Now, with her house and belongings in ruin, it took only a short while before the blessing of that Monday morning finally revealed itself. Sitting in the kitchen with her neighbor, far out in the distance, something familiar was moving about. Both women ran outside and called to him. It was Ranger . . . safe and sound and none the worse for wear. I was never so happy to see him, Ruth told me. You can lose your house, she remarked, but you just can’t lose your dog!
Like so many victims of the Hurricane Harvey flood, Ruth will slowly rebuild. I thank her for giving me permission to tell her story, a story of loss and determination, but ultimately of blessing. We all pray the victims of the flood will experience their own blessings somewhere along their road to recovery.
(“Off the Back” featured in the “Voice For The Defense” October 2017)
Stephen Gustitis is a criminal defense lawyer in Bryan-College Station. He is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is also a husband, father, and retired amateur bicycle racer.
“Off the Back” is an expression in competitive road cycling describing a rider dropped by the lead group who has lost the energy saving benefit of riding in the group’s slipstream. Once off the back the rider struggles alone in the wind to catch up. The life of a criminal defense lawyer shares many of the characteristics of a bicycle rider struggling alone, in the wind, and “Off the Back.” This column is for them.