One of the most reliable movie genres over the past four decades has been that of the disaster film. Whether it takes place on planes, boats, or airports or if the threats come from volcanos, earthquakes, meteors, or storms, we’ve seen all of it up on the silver screen. In these films, in the face of insurmountable odds, some hero either steps up to take a hit so that everyone else can live (like Bruce Willis does in Armageddon), or they are able to miraculously navigate every obstacle in their path and get to those in danger, rescuing them in just the nick of time (like The Rock in San Andreas). While these sorts of films can certainly capture the imagination with a scenario that is, in theory, relatable to all of us (storms, natural phenomenon, etc.), they do nothing to truly reflect what a real world disaster looks and feels like when you are actually in the middle of one.
These past five days I’ve been locked in my house in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, in an area called Katy, as Hurricane Harvey struck the coast of my state about 150 miles away. Being northeast of the center of the storm, we were located on what they call the “dirty side” of the storm. This meant constant rain bands were hitting us with tons of rain, and many tornadoes that came out of these bands. With Harvey being held in place by a strong front from the north, he was not able to drop his rain and wind, and then move north, dissipating as he travelled further away from us. Instead, he stayed in place, and so did the effects, and my hometown has endured its own disaster as a result. It’s is not a film, though the images of this real-life event have certainly been captured on film. It is an event that will forever change many millions of lives.
In many ways, it has all of the elements of those classic disaster film titles I mentioned. One example is a specific threat that is unique to a specific location. Just as earthquakes are common to California, or tornadoes to Oklahoma, Hurricanes are common to those on the Gulf coast.
The next commonality is the people in these locations. Each film seeks to create its own mini community, so that through a few characters, viewers adopt a sense of empathy, so that as the story unfolds, what these characters go through is all the more relatable.
Our community extends from Rockport, TX, near Corpus Christi, up to San Antonio and Austin, down to Houston, and over towards Louisiana, as well as several other places along the storm’s path. All of us have been affected by this storm, but I’ll focus on Houston, since I live here.
We were fortunate to have power for all but three hours of this weather event. This allowed us, like many of you who are reading this, to see these events on the news through the amazing examples of our community, and be inspired by these real-life heroes: There were the powerful pictures of the senior citizens in Dickinson sitting in wheelchairs, water halfway up their bodies, as they sat in their senior living facility awaiting rescue.
In this inspiring video, one man was asked what he was going to do with his boat. He simply replied, “I’m gonna go and save some lives”. This man is a hero.
One of the favorite examples is witness via the photo of the man who rode his jet ski inside the home of a grandmother, taken just before he drove her out of her water-damaged home.
Businesses, churches, and community centers opened up their doors as makeshift shelters. Katy ISD, where I live and teach, housed national guard troops in one high school, and turned two others into shelters for those whom were displaced. All of this boiled down to neighbors helping neighbors. It was all there for everyone to see.
As an even more localized look, my neighborhood ran its own Facebook page and Remind text list to keep everyone updated with realtime information. In the first two nights alone, over ninety-nine tornado warnings were issued across the metroplex. Our own three hour power loss was due to one of these tornadoes passing over our subdivision and striking a business a mile or so away. One neighbor with a degree in meteorology spent this entire time studying every map, chart, and data available to interpret which storm cells were threats to our neighborhood specifically. Not only was he more accurate than the National Weather Service, and local broadcast networks’ meteorologists, but he was faster at informing us when we needed to truly take shelter, as well as discerning which warnings issued to the whole county were not a threat to us directly.
We also utilized these tools in figuring ways to travel out of the neighborhood to help, whether via car or boat, and to know which routes were dangerous to try and navigate. This picture is of a boat rescue of a car that was swept up in the flooded feeder road along I-10 where I live, captured by the city traffic camera:
These little acts of heroism were immense help to those of us in our neighborhood in navigating the tornado warnings, deteriorating road conditions, and constant rainfall that, so far, has exceeded fifteen trillion gallons of water. Our neighborhood meteorologist would also do Facebook Live videos, giving us information on what to expect over the next several hours. Whether that information was good news or bad, we were prepared, and as a small neighborhood knowing what we were facing, we were better able to pull together to help those around us. It also helped to keep many calm where a lack of information would only have exacerbated the situation. There were many other examples as well.
Besides neighbors helping neighbors, there were our first responders (Police, Fire, EMTs, Coast Guard, Nurses, Doctors, etc.) who have been doing constant shifts since the storm began, unable to go home, working around the clock to care for those in need.
Through Facebook and social media, we saw the same thing that was taking place in our neighborhood and community happening all over the city, and the entire gulf coast. We were also connected to everyone else around the country, and the world, who witnessed this disaster and have been rallying to help save as many lives as they could. We read the tweets of support, watched the videos, and learned of the sacrifices people were already making to help us out.
The Cajun Navy brought their personal boats from Louisiana to join all those in the area doing the same thing. The federal and state governments have sent in resources, troops, and equipment. Reporters have done a great job giving us information and finding people who needed help and notifying the proper agencies. They have also put the camera squarely on the disaster in order to rally others to join us in getting through it all. Companies and charity groups have begun rolling in, and in addition to rescues, are helping people deal with the flooding in their homes, rescuing pets, and much more. These are the stories that truly inspire, and they are more gripping than anything we’ve seen in a disaster film.
There have also been several lives that have been lost, and many heartbreaking tales of what all people have lost in the wind, and the rain. Unlike the disaster movies, this doesn’t get all wrapped up in two hours. It will take years to fully recover, and in many ways, we won’t.
Being a city that welcomed in the refugees fleeing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, we saw the effect it had on those from our sister-city on the gulf. Having my wife’s family from that area, and teaching many of the students who were displaced from that disaster, I understood observationally the effect that such a disaster can have. Now that we are living through a storm on that magnitude, we must prepare for the long road to recovery, and I am seeing things much more experientially. Observation, like watching a film, or hearing someone’s story, is much different than experiencing it yourself.
Like many of these big disaster films, the intrepid nature of the human spirit comes shining through in the midst of tragedy. I’ve been proud to see Houston, my hometown, exhibit the grace and love that I get to see everyday, and have it be broadcast to the entire watching world. Houston is a city that has been reported to be more diverse in its ethnic makeup than New York City, and that boasts over 145 different languages spoken by its citizens. Politically, it is a blue city with a Democratic mayor, in a red state, with a Republican governor. We have a giant cross-section of religious beliefs, we are the state with the 2nd largest LGBT community, and probably have more guns than the rest of the country combined. But what people are seeing in our actions defies the imagination given the great diversity and make-up of our city and state. None of these “differences” matter to Houston. Helping each other through this disaster is the great uniter, in a world that seems to be divided over everything these days. None of us want to be going through this disaster, but since we must, we realize that it must be a unified effort. We are leading by example, and the country is also responding.
Disaster films usually inspire people leaving the theater to think about what they might do if everything was descending into chaos around them. But the same films also tend to pump audiences up with feelings of euphoria at the end, as a family is reunited, or as the heroes finally make it out alive, or sacrifice themselves for the greater good. But a film is a simple two-hour experience. What is happening with Hurricane Harvey is the real-life version, and it lasts much, much longer.
In contrast to the safe and passive filmgoing experience of such tragedy, the real-life heroism on display in Houston and the Gulf Coast of Texas invites you to not just watch the disastrous events, but to actively participate in the rescue and healing. Like the heroes we have watched on the screen, we are actually able, through a million tiny acts and with the means available to us, to play a part in alleviating the suffering of others. This is what community is all about: bearing each other’s burdens and lightening the load for others. We see this in the films we love, but now, in Houston, and in Texas, we are seeing that from the rest of the country, the world, and from each other.
I love that I get to write about cinema, and that ZekeFilm is committed to building community through cinema. But this week, I’ve seen the notion of community on a much bigger scale. The fact is, that despite our differences, we find community through our commonality. That can certainly be films, but when true disasters strike, our commonality becomes our humanity, and the idea that we are in this together. This is where community helps us rise above differences, and points us to the path forward. Hopefully you’ve seen that this week watching Houston and Texas in action. Rather than passively watch the events unfold as they do in disaster films, I invite you to join us and actively help us get through this tragedy, and to find healing.