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A Snapshot of the Great Houston Flood of 2001

Member of the Houston Symphony

and AFM Locals 6 and 65-699

My adventure began on Friday, June 8, as I returned to my home in Houston late in the evening after visiting a friend and colleague on the faculty of the Round Top Music Festival, about 90 miles to the west-northwest. The remnants of Tropical Storm Allison, which had moved ashore near Houston earlier in the week, were in the process of migrating back towards Houston and, during my time spent on the festival grounds, Mother Nature had been busy brewing up a biggie of monstrous proportions.

As I drove, the rain, which had been light and sporadic earlier in the day, started to fall more heavily and seemed to pick up in intensity with each passing mile. I tuned to Houston’s all-news radio, and the reports sounded serious. Even accounting for media frenzy, it was clear that a major storm was in progress. As I approached the outskirts of town, I began feeling as if I were driving through a paved aquarium. By now, lightning, thunder and wind were added to the mix just for good measure! What may have seemed like an adventure at first was now taking on a more menacing tone.

It took well over an hour to cover the distance to the 610 North Loop en route to my home in the Heights section of Houston. As I got closer, I could see that attempting to continue would be ill-advised unless I wished to consign my trusty auto to the growing flood fodder partially visible in the rising waters. Finally, I developed a plan to circle downtown, making use of the mostly-elevated freeway system, and to try making an approach from the south side of my neighborhood (I was now to the north).

Along the way, I encountered numerous obstacles, sometimes requiring that I undertake rather creative maneuvers to circumvent them. (Some of these would be considered illegal, and even foolhardy, under normal circumstances!) Finally, in desperation, I turned around and exited the wrong way on an onramp, joining dozens of refugee autos on a bridge over I-45 to escape the rising bayou waters and wait out the storm. The rain set a new pitch of intensity as the storm raged on. (I estimated rain falling at the rate of one inch each ten to fifteen minutes!)

Radio announcers updated the unfolding disaster as I made a mental assessment of prospects. Inside the car I would be dry and safe, but I had no food or water and, obviously, no “facilities”. I listened to the radio throughout the night, my lifeline to the world. There were more reports of rising waters and the resulting damage as the rain, lightening and thunder went on hour after hour. As dawn broke, finally an encouraging word from the radio weathercaster: Radar showed the system pulling a little toward the east — rain could begin letting up during the morning. Exhaustion had set in by now; it was easy to nod off even though at the same time I was getting stir crazy from being cooped up all night.

Restlessness drove me to leave the safe haven of the bridge and venture into the neighborhood opposite the Heights in search of an escape route back to the house. After several disappointments, eventually I discovered the only way out of the area — a road and bridgeway I’d never crossed in all my years in Houston. This magically afforded a route to the fashionable River Oaks area and a nearby shopping district with a couple of features sorely lacking during my bridge “imprisonment”: a Starbucks coffee shop and a restroom! Two employees had managed to make it into work. Provisions were meager (no resupply), but a piece of bourbon pecan pie with a triple latte never tasted so good!

At midmorning a sense of urgency set in, and I decided to try one more time to get home. By piecing together the on-air accounts, it appeared that the Heights was a virtual island — seemingly surrounded by impassable freeway feeder roads on three sides with bayou waters raging over all bridges on the south side. But finally I succeeded in finding a crossing and arrived home at eleven a.m. A drive that normally takes an hour and half took 12 hours! But though there was evidence that my street had filled curb-to-curb with water, amazingly the water had not encroached into the house or the garage. What a relief!

I was much luckier than many, some of whom are still dispossessed of their homes. Among Houston businesses and arts organizations suffering damage, the Houston Symphony is hard hit. Jones Hall was severely damaged when waters smashed through the entire adjacent underground garage and connecting tunnel system, pulverizing the Symphony offices, damaging much of the music library, and completely engulfing the lower rehearsal space, contrabass lockers and musician locker rooms. David Malone’s gorgeous Testore bass is in pieces, having festered in the rank floodwater for several days before he managed to recover it. (Robertson in Albuquerque is taking on a valiant restoration project!) Another bass was also lost — three concert grand pianos and Larry Thompson’s English horn as well. All things considered, the loss of instruments could have been much worse had the flood occurred just a few weeks earlier before the end of the classical subscription season.

In a fortuitous turn of events, Dame Edna played to a full house and had let out just three hours before the retaining wall burst, unleashing the floodwaters of Buffalo Bayou into the underground garage. Had the wall’s failure coincided with the exodus from Jones Hall there would have been many lives lost.

The hall is now ringed with various equipment and extensive signs of activity, including huge generators that are powering temporary air conditioning necessary to keep mold from taking over the building’s interior. (The air conditioning system was, alas, located in the basement.) It’s anybody’s guess how long it will take to completely remove the damaged equipment and rebuild a new system from scratch. One added wrinkle is that asbestos was constructed into the ruined apparatus, making the disassembly process fall under strict OSHA guidelines.

The needed repairs at Jones Hall are but a flyspeck in the whole scheme of flood damage in Houston and Harris County. The Texas Medical Center (the largest such assemblage of hospital facilities in the nation) endured severe water-related destruction, forcing closure of two entire institutions and serious curtailment for several days at the rest. Latest published figures place an amount of $2 billion in devastation in the Medical Center alone, with the total for Harris County expected to exceed $5 billion by the final tally. This would place Allison, which had barely achieved tropical storm status, nearly on a par with Hurricane Alicia, a full-fledged category 3 storm when it struck Houston in 1983.

It will doubtless take months of concerted reconstruction to repair the effects of the Flood of 2001. Houston values the Arts. In response to requests from Houston Symphony executive director Ann Kennedy, our City Council has pledged $8 million to secure necessary repairs to Jones Hall. Ms. Kennedy’s goal of having Jones Hall readied for the resumption of the classical season on or about September 1st is an ambitious and worthy one. Attaining it would be genuine proof of her grit and ability!

Natural disasters invariably upset the illusion of what we think of as normal. To put it starkly, twenty-two lives were lost in this flood, several of the fatalities occurring in the vicinity of my bridge detention. I have certainly reevaluated my life’s blessings and recognize that, however inconvenient, Fate dealt me a benign hand that momentous night.