Aftermath– or, Plumbing

Helena Michie, CSWGS Director

This piece was first posted as part of a weekly blog entitled Homing: Living Through Two Disasters, where it was called “Plumbing/Repair.”

The winter storm is gone, the plumbers are here in their trucks each with a ladder on top. Some of the trucks are marked and some are not; some of these plumbers have licenses and some do not. We are warned by TV anchors to “do research” and make sure that the person who is standing in our flooded driveways saying he can fix our pipes is reputable. Such responsible behavior  is hard when the storm has interrupted your internet service, but, then again, many of us can’t access the tv warnings in the first place.

Neither the licensed not the unlicensed plumbers have parts.  Gone are their ¾ inch caps, their copper pipes, their PVC pipes, even and especially the pipes made of PEX that have just hit the market and expand when water freezes inside them. We know from TV, those of us with access to it, that expansion is (in this case) a good thing, but we still don’t really know what these pipes are made of. When my neighbors speak of PEX they do so in awed whispers, as if speaking of a rook’s egg or flue powder.  No one makes the obvious off-color jokes, even those who are quite lewd about the wrinkled garden hoses that inflate as you use them. Pipes, it seems, are nothing to joke about.  These are hard times following hard times wrapped, like pipes themselves, in another disaster.

When is a disaster over? How do we know? Three days after the storm that froze Texas, the skies are bright, the ground thawed, and the air has become that wonderful temperature-less temperature that usually belongs to other places—those you might choose to vacation in when all of this is over. Underground, the plants are going about their business, drinking water from the soil; some will die and some will begin to flush green. Yards are covered with sheets and tarps that Houstonians used to wrap around the “more tender” plants, tucking them in along, perhaps, with a with string of Christmas lights as the temperature plummeted.  In our own case, we need not have bothered: the tarps did nothing at all. The only plants that thrived were the tenderest of them all, the ones we took into the house, which became a blooming forest and then an obstacle course of buckets filled with water. Some of the plants seemed to like the indoors best; the hibiscus budded orange with a slightly hysterical beauty. I do not talk to plants, or even listen to them–perhaps because I have so little time to spare in between conversations with our dogs—but I could almost hear the curry plant murmuring in protest as I took it outside and watered it thoroughly,–something I was able to do only because my husband had found a way to mend a broken pipe in the middle of the freeze.

A pipe, wrapped in black insulation and white duct tape, appears broken off from the spigot it was connected to.

Over time, water will be put back into its proper—that is to say civilized—place. Bayou, reservoir, rain, ice, slush will find their way back into human-made channels, awaiting the turn of a hand, the jiggle that opens a valve. Water will not collect under houses, smelling like fish; people will empty their bathtubs that serve as their personal reservoirs; bayous will recede into their concrete runnels; some taps will be hot and some cold, according to their kind and the manner of their labeling. Hoses will swell and pass on their life to plants. My neighbors will be able to choose the degree and angle of flow, as they turn the dial from shower to center to flat, calibrating the need of each flower, fruit, or woody stem.

There will also be light. Lamps will turn on at the flick of a wrist, and ovens will yawn as they change the raw to the cooked. Thermostats will come on again torecord or even to regulate the inside temeprature; heavy quilts will be folded and put high on shelves for next time. Homeless men and women will recede into the background of urban life. The homed and the homeless will once again be as separate species. There will be nothing on the local news about people sleeping under bridges or in tent communities unless someone in that community is suspected of committing a crime. Indoors and outdoors will be as different as night and day, wet and dry.

If experience tells us anything it is that this disaster will not really end. It takes only one journey East along I-10 from Houston or along the Louisiana and Alabama coasts to see the layered signs of past disasters: a tarp from Rita or from Laura; a roof unrepaired since Harvey; a house that someone has given up on, frozen in time and in one calamity or another. Yes, there is FEMA, and there are also “rainy day” funds which are never spent, and there are gifts from friends and relatives who might also lend you duct tape or a piece of pipe they had hanging around. Yes, there are things you can apply for, beg for, use your influence and privilege to get. Once you get your power back you can fill out forms all of which require accounts and passwords—think “thissucks2021, “or “Abbotthell.” You will not remember your passwords, but you will remember how you felt when creating them. None of these things will undo what cannot be undone.

Accounts of the storm are now in the past tense: I see everywhere versions of this sentence: “Texas was hit last week by a devastating Winter Storm.”  Almost all the words in that sentence fill me with rage. “Texas,” a word and place of which I had become over 30 years unexpectedly, inordinately, evangelically fond means nothing to me right now but the failure of a government to provide for its people.

The second term in this sentence, “Last week” also chafes, and not only because people are still experiencing outages, struggling with thousand-dollar electric bills, hunting for plumbers. Time itself has done something complicated, something twisted. My students and I for example, are living the double life of disaster time. Students are overwhelmed, so faculty extend deadlines, doing what they can to ease burdens. Those new deadlines meet deadlines already in place; time contracts and labor is compounded. I revise my syllabus, joking that I am “killing” Lady Audley, heroine of the novel we were supposed to read two weeks from now. In my imagination, I am drowning her. What is a syllabus in the aftermath? What is a timeline?

This takes me to the third part of the sentence, the word “winter storm.” Yes, it froze in Texas, yes in some immediate way we could talk of a natural disaster. But neither the freezing temperature nor the freezing houses of which Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi complained and from which she and her family escaped are natural. It is climate change that caused the polar dip that caused the storm. It is the policies of the state of Texas—their refusal to join a national grid in the name of freedom, the deregulation of power and power companies—that caused power to fail. This is why in the many emails I write students, friends and colleagues, asking them how they are or answering their concerns about me, I use the word “outages” and not “storm” or “winter storm” or even “freeze.”

Right now, two weeks after the outages, I despair the “strange times” to which we all refer will never be over. My neighbors’ pipes have all been repaired, the trucks gone from our street. Vaccine distributions are increasing. Capitol insurrectionists are—it seems—being prosecuted. Perhaps we are in the aftermath. My grapefruit tree, or rather the grapefruit tree planted by the grandmother of my current neighbor, who used to live on our property, has, however, turned brown. Three weeks ago, before the latest bad thing, we harvested 375 pounds of fruit; now its leaves rustle like paper but refuse to drop. Maybe, just maybe, if the leaves fall and are replaced by green buds it will be a sign that it is all over and next year there will be grapefruits flushing pink and red, sweet and sour, almost 400 pounds of them that will be harvested and sent to food banks, paired with avocados in salads, passed on to those friends who can eat them.