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November 20, 2017

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1 family has survived 5 generations of Houston storms: Mine

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Melissa Mahan / Houston Chronicle via Associated Press

In this Friday, Sept. 11, 1998 file photo, Buffalo Bayou runs over of its banks in Houston after Tropical Storm Frances swept the Texas Gulf Coast and zeroed in on the nation’s fourth-largest city, closing schools, stranding rush-hour motorists and turning downtown into an island before slowly moving inland.

HOUSTON — I returned to the city of my birth a few weeks ago, to a place that had drowned after a monster storm brought more than a year's worth of rain and sent its bayous and reservoirs overflowing. Hurricane Harvey had long left Houston, but its legacy lived on — in the ashy floors of Aunt Christine's home and the mold of Cousin Esther's house and the buckets that still sat scattered across the living room at Mom and Dad's to catch leaks.

I drove through neighborhoods with mountains of wrecked furniture and ripped-out walls tossed on front lawns. Boxes brimmed with soiled books and soggy clothes, Christmas decorations gone to ruin and soused childhood Power Rangers toys.

For five generations, my family has survived the worst of Mother Nature in a city that's seen more than its share of bad storms. But when the waters recede, despite the devastation left behind, they've always picked up and found a way to start again — because this has been home for 100 years and no hurricane or flood will drive them out.

My mother, Amelia Contreras, is 64 now, but she still remembers what her aunt used to tell her about the many storms that have pounded Houston throughout history. They are God's way of saying, "People need to get together. They need to be loving to each other," and to remind us that, "In one minute He can take it all away."

Storms like Harvey brought us to Houston in the first place.

In 1900, a massive hurricane killed more than 6,000 people on nearby Galveston Island. Months later, my 16-year-old great-grandfather, Florencio Contreras, arrived from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, to Houston after planners concluded the city was a more viable deep-water port option. New jobs were plentiful, and so he settled here.

But Florencio could only live in black or Mexican immigrant neighborhoods close to Buffalo Bayou; the laws of segregation dictated it. On the banks of that swampy bayou sat his blacksmith shop where he made tools and horseshoes before treading home. The rains came often, and nearby streets flooded routinely, but Florencio knew he'd have to make peace with the storms if he wanted to stay and succeed.

He stayed even after Buffalo Bayou took one of his sons, Joe, who was just 13 when he jumped in after a storm, slammed his head on something and drowned. He stayed after the great flood of 1935, which annihilated many of the homes in the neighborhood but not his.

My late uncle Ernest Eguia, my grandmother's brother, remembered being trapped for days in the 1935 flood. "Furniture, clothes and items were fished out of the bayou by people," he'd later write in an 11-page memoir he gave me. Eguia wouldn't see such desperation until his World War II U.S. Army battalion liberated the Nordhausen Concentration Camp in Germany, he'd say.

As the family grew, we'd have no choice but to move into houses damaged by that flood. Roland Contreras, Florencio's grandson and my cousin, remembers friends coming over and asking why his house leaned to one side. "It was real embarrassing."

Hurricane Carla struck in 1961, blowing out windows and turning over cars in family driveways. My mother and her family prepared by storing water in trash bags and cooking for 12. When the flood came, their home sat safely on stilts. Yet the waters held them hostage for days.

By the time I came into this world in 1974, Houston had grown into a major metropolitan city. Buffalo Bayou didn't hold the same wrath. We drove over the bayou on a bridge in the comfort of a Chevy Maverick. During thunderstorms, when the water from the bayou rose, my mom assured me we'd have time to run from it.

Our house in the suburbs stood next to another waterway: Greens Bayou. As the deadly Hurricane Alicia approached in 1983 when I was 9, we opted to hunker down in the home of my "Lita," my grandmother on Mom's side, in the house on stilts downtown. It had survived floods since 1935 and undoubtedly would keep us safe. The winds came as I was tucked into bed. I could hear tree branches lashing the roof and windows. Through the shades, I saw the sparks from electrical wires waving in the tempest as the lights went out.

When the winds stopped, we returned to our house, undamaged save for a fence in need of repair.

Years later, when I was a graduate creative writing student at Columbia University, my parents came to visit me in New York in the summer of 2001. During a nighttime stroll in Times Square, we looked up at the giant TV screen and were shocked to see a shot of my parents' neighborhood — under water thanks to Tropical Storm Allison. My mom remembers thinking, "We might not have a home when we get back," but as she so often does, she put her faith in God, told herself "there's a reason this is happening," and they returned to find their home had once again escaped damage.

This time, my relatives were not so lucky.

When Harvey came, my aunt, Christine Contreras Kahan, and my Uncle Andy watched the scenes of destruction from the safety of their west Houston home. Then they got word: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would release water from an overfilled reservoir and their home would be flooded out. Aunt Christine raced to save the family photos and important documents. Then she went to her porch, opened a bottle of wine and just waited. Uncle Andy cleaned their pool. "What else was I going to do?" he said.

They stayed until volunteers in boats escorted them to dry land.

My cousin, Esther Gonzales, a single mom, lives near that same reservoir with her 11-year-old son, Stephen. She woke to find 3 feet of water in her home. The pair and their dog, Da Vinci, walked three miles in the flood to safety.

Two months later, their houses still are undergoing repairs, like so many of the homes on the Gulf Coast of Texas. My parents' home across the street from my old high school suffered only minor damage, though neighbors still wait for available contractors to fix waterlogged walls.

Given all the storms in all these years, I had to ask my mom one simple question: Why? Why stay and endure more and keep rebuilding and starting anew?

Her answer was just as simple. "Houston is our home," she said. "You don't run every time there's a problem. We deal with it, and you keep going."