Southeast Texas will continue to feel the effects of Hurricane Ike for a long time. And even though the rest of the country may have forgotten about it, families and communities in Houston and the Gulf Coast will remember this experience forever.
Read Parts I and II of the story.
By day three of our forced vacation, my husband was itching to get back to work. Our children were showing the effects of no routine, and we still had no idea when we'd be able to go home.
We called our insurance company to try to find out what would be covered, but they told us that not having electricity didn't make a house unlivable. We found a semi-affordable hotel, bought groceries, and insisted that our daughters start journaling our activities.
We were on our cell phones constantly, burning through minutes and text messages like there was no tomorrow. We checked Web sites for updates on our electricity, the kids' schools, the library -- everything was closed.
Our friends told us that the grocery stores back home were running on generators, the shelves bare, and shoppers were restricted to two bags at a time.
One week later
A week after the hurricane hit, power was restored to most of the homes in our neighborhood. The lights came on late Friday afternoon; we spent Shabbat at a beautiful camp about three hours away and returned home Sunday morning.
The closer we got to Houston, the more surreal the world became. Downed traffic lights still littered the sides of the road. The debris had been pushed aside, but it was still a tangible reminder of the new normal we faced. Every intersection had become a four-way stop, some with left-turn lanes in all directions. Traffic was snarled all over the city.
Back at home, we had to clean out our two refrigerators. I wept as I threw away everything my mother-in-law had cooked and frozen for us while she visited from Israel. Easily $500 worth of meat went to the trash, but the smell lingered in the house for several days.
I went to the grocery store to restock the fridges. Most stores were still on generators, and no one was fully stocked.
Our neighborhood was one of the lucky ones -- many of our nearby friends still didn't have power, and my children's schools still didn't, either. Three of my children were able to return to a reduced school day on different campuses the following week, but the public school program my special needs son attends was closed, the campus shuttered.
For a week, my son and I sought ways to keep him entertained while his school was closed. Although our electricity was on, our phone and Internet wasn't, so I couldn't just look up fun things to do online. And with each day that passed, I feared he would begin to lose skills, that we would have to work twice as hard just to get back to where we were.
The library nearest our house, my escape route, remained closed, and with so many traffic lights out, I preferred to stay close to home. We watched the power trucks go by and marveled at the tree-trimmers who came to start the arduous task of removing debris.
The new normal
We're two and a half weeks after the hurricane now, and my quiet cul-de-sac is still filled with piles of what used to be trees and wooden fences. The phone and Internet are working, and my son's school opened today for the first time since the day before the hurricane.
Traffic is still a mess thanks to so many downed lights, but the police are starting to show up to some of the worst intersections. At least one grocery store I frequent is still running on generator power, and its freezers are still empty.
If I didn't live here, I wouldn't believe everything I heard about Houston after the hurricane. But because I am here, because I see it, I can only imagine how much worse it must be in other places, in less affluent countries, when disaster strikes.
This is my new normal.