The very definition of “heart-tugging” is a toddler or young child standing in front of an adult, arms outstretched, begging to be picked up. Confused, frightened or hungry for attention, they’ve already learned a key to unlocking the resistant adult heart: the single word, “Up!?” Spoken with authority or pathos, it’s a word that brings big, strong arms down to a child’s level, enfolding the needy little bundle of humanity into a blanket of security, raising it in a flash and ensuring its safety “up there”.
The urge to flee upward seems as instinctive as our impulse to run from danger. On my third birthday, our neighbors decided I should have a pet. Invited to share cake and ice cream, they appeared at the back door with a tiny black puppy in a box. It may have been a cocker spaniel ~ I remember black, glistening curls of fur and long, floppy ears. The pup wriggled in paroxysms of pleasure as Mr. Ramey rubbed its belly and scratched its ears. I was entranced, until they put the puppy on the floor. Turning a few quick circles, the creature produced a cascade of wild yips and headed straight for me.
I don’t know what I was thinking, but what I did became the stuff of family legend. In two bounds I was onto a dining room chair and up on top of my mother’s prized mahogany dining table, shoes and all. Down below, the puppy tumbled and jumped, trying to follow. I screamed in terror, refusing a chorus of entreaties to “be quiet”, “come down” or “pat the nice puppy”. Eventually, the well-meaning neighbors collected the pup and made their way home. I came down from the tabletop after being promised more ice cream, and eventually received a turtle for my birthday.
Fifty years later, I met a fellow who’d had his own experience of “up”. French Charlie, as he was known, was born in Marseilles. As befitted his heritage, he was a sailor, given to crossing the Atlantic or Med at the first hint of boredom. He single-handed in cast-off, creaky old boats, and everyone agreed he had angels as crew. It was the only way to explain his survival.
Charlie liked to say he’d made five-and-a-half crossings of the Atlantic. That “half” always got someone’s attention, giving Charlie a chance to tell his story again: how he left Marseilles in his bathtub of a boat, how one failure led to another, how ankle-deep in Atlantic waters he called for help on his radio and finally clambered up to the deck to hang on to the mast and await his death.
As his boat sank slowly beneath him, his angels worked another miracle and brought a Danish freighter to his side. “What do you need?”, called the First Officer, leaning out over the railing in amazement. “Up!”, Charlie called back in the slightly wavering tones of a brave five-year-old. He was taken aboard and watched in comfort as his little boat sank beneath the waves. As he told the story, at that very moment he decided coastal cruising might be more to his taste, and resolved to leave the open ocean behind.
Again and again, the impulse toward “up” has saved lives. Wakened from sleep, a vacationer in Phuket misinterprets screams outside his window as the foolishness of children until he looks, sees the ocean scouring the streets and blindly runs up, up and up again until, tumbling from rooftop to balcony to yet higher roofs, he survives to witness the implacable rage of a tsunami.
Astonished by the sight of tropical storm Allison pouring into his home through still-closed windows and doors, a friend in Houston clambers with his children from tabletop to stepstool to attic, where he watches water fill his house to a depth of four feet and waits for the deluge to cease.
Terrified by Katrina’s second surge, thousands of people fled to their rooftops and blessed the Coast Guard, neighbors and perfect strangers who rescued them by water and air. During the passage of hurricane Ike, a couple who’d chosen to stay in their home climbed from their first floor to the second and then to the third until, as the hurricane’s eye passed overhead and the moon emerged from the clouds, they looked out to find themselves at sea. Bridges and roads, stop signs and street signs had utterly disappeared beneath the flooding tide. Only the circling currents and the wind-driven waves reflected the hazy moon.
Galveston’s 1900 Storm Memorial Confronts Hurricane Ike ~ Houston Chronicle
In the face of a storm, being able to head to higher ground is a very good thing. But while people move, structures don’t. In the face of significant storm surge, there’s very little defense for houses, churches, public buildings and schools. Galveston learned that painful lesson in the Storm of 1900. Not only their most vulnerable dwellings were destoyed. Substantial homes and public buildings also were ravaged, and after the storm the survivors had a decision to make. Would they run from the devastation, taking whatever possessions they could salvage in order to seek a new home on the mainland? Or would the city itself move away from the coast and attempt to re-establish itself as an inland center of commerce?
In fact, there was a third option, detailed by Cornelia Dean in her book Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches. Determined to stay on their island – and equally determined to avoid future devastation – the city’s leaders devised a plan. In Dean’s words,
Rather than retreating from the shifting sands to points higher elsewhere, the city instead decided to fence itself off from future disasters with a seawall. Everything inside – houses, churches, offices, trees, gardens – was raised by as much as 17 feet, and then flooded with silt. It was a plan that even in an era of engineering stood out for its size, cost and audacity…
The lifting operation was one of sheer brawn. Laborers ran beams under the buildings and mounted them on screwjacks that burly men turned by hand. In this way, 2,156 buildings were laboriously hoisted, a quarter of an inch at a turn, until they reached the requisite height and new foundations could be built beneath them. Meanwhile, children climbed rickety catwalks to reach their schools; housewives hung their laundry from lines strung fifteen feet above the ground.
Even substantial structures took to the air. At St. Patrick’s Church, a three-hundred ton brick structure, services continued as it rose to the grunts of laborers manning two hundred screwjacks beneath it.
Once the seawall had been built and the city raised to float above its island like a cloud, the process of grade-raising began. A canal was dredged through the city center, and fill obtained from Galveston Bay. Dredges moved continually between harbor and canal, spewing out a slurry of water and sand on both sides. It was a lengthy process, requiring years. People lived in their homes and attended worship in their “floating” buildings, making their way around town on boardwalks fastened to the top of fences. There were wonderful touches – the largest of four dredges was named “Leviathan”, gardeners grew oleanders in boxes on top of their roofs until the project was completed and topsoil could be brought from the mainland – but mostly there was hard, back-breaking work as an entire city literally raised itself out of despair.
After the 1900 Storm, residents of Galveston elevated their city and raised one another’s spirits with a vision of new life. Roughly a century later, as that same coastline faced a hurricane named Ike on September 13, 2008, their seawall held and their tradition of self-reliance held firm. Up and down Gulf beaches and bay shorelines, people encouraged and supported one another as they began reconstructing their lives. As in Galveston after 1900, an important element of that recovery has been the elevation of homes. In San Leon, Bacliff, Oak Island,Clear Lake Shores, Shoreacres, Seabrook, Kemah – in all of the towns and villages of Galveston Bay, the wisdom spray-painted onto a still-abandoned home is cherished: “Move Up ~ Don’t Give Up”.
Today, the elevation is happening differently – there are no dredges pumping slurry into neighborhoods – but the sense that higher is better has been written into hearts as well as building codes. Sometimes the progress is slow. More than a few FEMA trailers still sit next to concrete slabs and pilings and more than a few derelict homes await demolition or insurance settlements. But the work goes on, and every completed home lifts the heart a little higher.
Tiny bungalows and cottages rest on new pilings as lightly as a feather. Gardeners landscape around dead or dying trees, work the soil and hang petunias and bougainvillea for color. Grandparents incorporate bits and pieces of their history into new construction while newlyweds sit along the rubble-strewn path of their barely-begun journey and ponder questions washed up by the surge: How shall we shape our lives? shall we stay or shall we go? Are the answers offered by the past adequate for our day? Is there a way, finally, to rise above circumstance?
Even in a year unmarked by the anguish and devastation of a major hurricane, the lessons of the storm are worth remembering. Not every flood is due to the river’s rise or a hurricane’s surge. Not all the debris floating through our lives is so easily disposed of as plywood and plastic. Not all of the filth that clogs the mind and coats the spirit can be washed away like so much clinging mud.
There are devastations of the spirit, surges of pain, winds of conflict or change that shake our certainties and unnerve us as surely as the worst storms of the season. Remembering those who endured and prevailed over the worst of the natural world, we may find in them the inspiration to create some higher ground, to raise our sights, to shore up our foundations and re-build our ties to one another before another, unexpected storm seeks to sweep us all away.