As a missionary kid growing up in Guatemala, I survived the destructive effects of a massive earthquake and a major military coup. As an adult now living in Houston, I have survived the destructive effects of a hurricane. But I don’t think I’ve coped with it very well.
Hurricane Harvey had already been at work for three noahic days when my wife, Phaedra, asked me to check on the condition of the streets so that we could make an informed decision: pack our bags or hunker down. We have a five-year-old daughter and a four-month-old son; we couldn’t afford to make a poor decision.
I raced down my street on a mountain bike in the town of Pecan Grove, just southwest of Houston, as sheets of rain lashed at my marine-blue jacket. At times, the water rose to my knees and soaked my shorts. My back brake pad suddenly fell off, leaving me with only my front brake to navigate the sloshing waters.
As I turned the corner onto Plantation Drive—the street that would usually take us out of the neighborhood—what I saw startled me: a small black sedan, like a child’s toy in the bathtub, bobbing up and down on the swollen waters that blocked our way out to safety. Approaching me were three men pulling at a canoe with ropes. In it sat two women, one of them holding a dog cage, gaping at the muddy brown waters that steadily rose around them.
By that time, nearly a trillion gallons of water had fallen over Houston and more were coming.
After staring at the canoe, I turned my bike around and bolted for home. I am 45, but I felt like 17—shot through with adrenaline. I knew there was one exit on the opposite side of our neighborhood that remained untouched by the floods, and I was determined to make it through with my wife and kids.
Earlier that morning, Phaedra and I had been fighting, both of us feeling the pressure of the moment. We clashed, however, in how to process the stress. After growing up in Guatemala and facing multiple disasters, I tend to feel less fear and more cold sobriety. I become intensely focused. She, however, expresses things openly. In fighting with her about whether to stay or go, I felt helpless in the face of her panic attack and angry tears, but my lack of visible empathy only made our conflict worse. I felt anger rising inside of me.
I also felt angry about the suffering in our city. What about the others who would be left behind without a means of escape? I thought. How could we make sense of their circumstances—and our inability to help them?
In my theology class at Fuller Theological Seminary, I teach my students about the doctrine of Providence. It describes God’s work of preservation, conservation, and perfection of the world that he so loves. The Father, in the Son, by the Spirit protects creation against a reversion to the chaos of Genesis 1:1, enables creation to flourish, and ensures creation’s good, pleasing, and perfect purpose.
It’s easy for me to say this in class while standing at the lectern with a coffee in hand, while the air conditioning keeps the room at an even temperature. It’s another for me to believe it while arguing with my wife, Phaedra—with the wind rattling our windows and the waters covering over our backyard—or while reading the news online.
A 34-year Houston police officer drowned in his patrol car. A beloved coach at a high school in southeast Houston was taken by the floodwaters. A three-year-old girl was found clinging to the lifeless body of her mother. Four children and their great-grandparents were swept away into the Greens Bayou. Their bodies are as-yet unrecovered.