Susan Magee gazed out of a second-story window, surveying the Houston cul-de-sac neighbourhood she called home. Panic rose in her chest. Surging waters from the nearby Buffalo Bayou washed over the ground. They were surrounded. She turned to her husband: "I don’t want to die here."
Hours before, around 3 a.m. on Sunday, Susan woke up her husband Phil so they could prepare for the onset of Hurricane Harvey. They figured the torrential rains would bring maybe a few inches of water into their home. They put their furniture on small bricks to prevent water damage. After that was done, she roused her two daughters — Grace Anne, 12, and Emma Rae, 9 — and told them each to throw three outfits into a plastic garbage bag: The whole family was going to the neighbour's house to wait out the storm on slightly higher ground.
It was still dark when they left and the water was already up to the girls' waists. A giant playset, swept away from someone's backyard, floated down the street. "It just kept moving, like a ship," Susan, 44, recalled.
When the sun rose, the couple went back to check on their home. By then, the water inside was already up to their knees — far more than they anticipated — and the rain was still pounding down. "It happened very fast," Susan said. "It was devastating."
Compounding the shock and pain of the damage was the fact that this home was the only one her girls had ever known. Susan and her husband closed on the house in July 2002, a year into their marriage. The property, surrounded by trees and situated on the north end of the neighbourhood, had multi-coloured brick, a dark brown roof, dark shutters, and a spacious front yard. Sure, it needed some work, but they didn't mind spending their savings on the down payment. "I loved the style of it; it has really good bones," Susan said. "And I loved the location. I loved it because it backed up to the bayou, [which] took it away." They were told by their first insurance agent that flood coverage probably wasn't necessary because the house had never flooded. They decided not to buy it.
The surging water from the bayou that flooded Susan's house was just a fraction of the 9 trillion gallons of rain that fell on Houston and Southeast Texas, according to The Washington Post. As the water on their block continued to rise, Susan used a canoe to ferry hurricane supplies from her home to the neighbour's. That house sits on a small incline and, unlike theirs, has a second story. She figured they would be safe there. But by noon, the bayou's raging waters still rising, she started to worry that they would get trapped there.
Not long after, firemen dressed in waders knocked on the door, telling them they needed to evacuate. We will not come back. If you stay here, you’re staying at your own risk, they told her. Water could rise above the roof in the coming days, they warned. "I’ll never forget the eyes of the men who rescued us," Susan said. "I didn’t know them, [but] I will never forget them. The love they had in their eyes."
The family wasn't allowed to bring their pets because getting people out was the fire department's priority. So Susan, Grace Anne, and Emma Rae climbed into another canoe, and Phil stayed behind to look after the animals and help other families. "The most difficult thing was getting in the canoe and I had to leave my husband," Susan said. But she had faith that he would be strong enough to get through the water.
By now, the waters swelled to four or five feet deep in some places. She and her daughters were pulled by a rescue team two blocks to a checkpoint, where they had to switch canoes before continuing to a second checkpoint. Nine-year-old Emma Rae cried as they switched canoes, not wanting to get in the second boat. Her older sister stepped in for their mom: "You have to do this. We’re going to be safe," she said. They climbed in for their second short trip. "I just kept telling my girls, 'Jesus is with us, and he’s holding us, and you’re safe,'" Susan said.
Once they reached the second checkpoint, a friend picked them up in a suburban tall enough to drive a few blocks from the checkpoint, where the water was just below their knees. Susan left the girls with her friend to wade back through the flood waters for her husband, stomping through flowerbeds to stay on higher ground. This time, they wanted to bring their pets — two dogs, a cat, and her brothers' two dogs she was keeping while he was out of town — with them. Her Labs swam through the water while she held their leashes, as her husband carried her brothers' two Boxers.
After multiple trips back and forth with Phil, they drove across the nearby highway to her parents' house. People on the edge of that neighbourhood were being evacuated from rooftops; she didn't want to stay and risk being evacuated a second time. So they hit the road again. She piled her two kids, five animals, and a small box containing their birth certificates and social security cards into a car, and they went to seek shelter in a hotel that sits on a high street.
The few clothes she had with her were ruined wading through the flood. Making matters worse, one of the dogs chewed up her one pair of flip flops in the hotel. But she's grateful her family's safe."Everything that meant anything in our home is right here with me in the hotel," Susan said. "I’ve got my two daughters, my husband, my dogs, and my cat, and that’s all I need."
For now, Susan and her family plan to stay in their two seventh-floor hotel rooms until the storm blows over. Friends have brought her clothes, dog food, and snacks, and she's been encouraged by the amount of support she's received already, including the donations pouring in on the GoFundMe page a friend started for the family.
"We will not be able to rebuild our lives without the help of other people, which is a very conflicting feeling," she said. "On the one hand, you’re so grateful that there are fantastic people in this world who want to help, but on the other hand, your pride makes you want to be able to do everything on your own."
"But I can’t. We can’t do everything on our own."