We knew it was coming days before it hit.
“Be prepared to work long hours this weekend, guys. All hands on deck. We’ll provide food for all the crews out covering the storm. Get your rain gear ready.”
You think you’re prepared for what’s to come. Nearly ten years working in news and I’ve seen my fair share of weather events. Tornados, floods, massive fires and hurricanes are our “bread and butter.” The moments of disaster where our jobs matter most because people want to know what’s happening and what it looks like.
So, they send us right out into it and I. LOVE. IT.
Seriously though, the closer I can get to the action, the more alive I feel. Within reason, of course.
Standing in a flooded front yard near La Grange during a live shot.
This hat did not last long.
That’s what was running through my mind when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas on August 25th , 2017. The rain started, and it just never let up. I had never seen rain like that before in my life. It was nonstop, torrential, blinding rain and it just…kept coming.
On Saturday morning, I came into work ready to go out into the field. I normally anchor but we had the “A Team” in, as in the M-F nightside crew. Everyone else was sent out to cover different areas of Central Texas and I got assigned to drive about an hour and a half east of Austin to La Grange.
Because we knew we were going to be sending all our crews out ahead of time to cover the storm, our parent company sent us additional help. We got a few extra photographers flown in from bigger stations, and one of them was a photographer named Joseph Huerta from KING, our sister station in Seattle.
From the moment we met, we hit it off. It was like we had worked together a thousand times before. Lots of inappropriate jokes and shared friends in common (it’s a small business). Plus I knew from his reputation that THIS IS THE GUY. Like the guy that wins all the awards. The guy that makes you look better than you actually are at your job. (Joseph, if you’re reading this, you’re probably mortified. Deal with it. You know you ‘aight.)
But it turns out even award-winning photographers have technical difficulties, and sure enough his camera lens would NOT stop fogging up! We tried everything on that drive out to La Grange: a hair dryer, rolling the windows down, blasting the heat and then when that didn’t work, the A/C. Nothing worked, it was so frustrating for both of us!
Eventually we did figure out that if we kept the air off in the car and the windows rolled down, it wasn’t as bad. But guess what? IT’S POURING RAIN. A HURRICANE IS SITTING OVER CENTRAL AND SOUTH TEXAS. We could have drove that news unit into a lake and it still wouldn’t have been as soaked as we were by the end of the weekend. I can’t emphasize enough how much that rain Just. Kept. Coming. Down.
We learned later a few of the crews had to do the same problem because the rain and humidity made it tough to shoot with a clear lens. We were all drenched by the end of the weekend, rain gear be damned.
It didn’t matter, though. We were working frantically to find people to talk to as they were evacuating their homes. From the minute we got there Saturday afternoon the water levels were rising at an astonishing pace. We’d jump back into the car to send video back to the station or write up something quick for a live hit, and as soon as we got back out of the car it felt like the water had risen another few inches.
At some point during a live shot my hat flew off and I watched it float away in a river…in someone’s front yard. A full on, several-feet-deep river. It was insane. (RIP faithful hat, you served me well.)
There’s one moment I remember so clearly that weekend. We were chasing the action, and while driving down a main road we saw emergency crews go tearing by, turning off onto a small county road. I immediately turned the car around and followed them, thinking we’d find a boat rescue or something else we could report.
About two miles down that road, however, it was pretty clear it was too dangerous to continue. I could feel the water starting to pick up our SUV and as fast as that water was moving, I did not want to be a cautionary tale and get swept away. And in a moment of intense concentration trying to navigate the rushing flood water, Joseph turned to me and said “Kris, remember you have a daughter.”
I have a daughter.
The rush, the adrenaline of trying to get the best video, the best story, was all I could think. And, if I’m being honest, not getting in trouble for ruining our news unit. But suddenly, getting home safely to my 8-month-old daughter was the only real thing that mattered.
The feeling that washed over me while driving on that flooded road in a hurricane was a moment I’ll never forget. It was no longer all about me getting the story. It was about doing the job safely, and getting home to Joss.
At some point later that night we were doing a live shot in downtown La Grange and they started shutting down the roads around us. The water was rising from our ankles, our shins, our knees, all the way up to our waists in a matter of mere hours. It was time to turn around and get to higher ground.
I snapped this photo of Joseph as we were shooting the rising water. In a matter of hours, this water would be waist high.
We worked together through the weekend and I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to keep reporting on what was happening because I couldn’t believe the impact from the storm. Put simply, I was getting news FOMO on Monday when I was technically off for my “weekend” but still checking Twitter email every 5 seconds. I was sitting with my husband and daughter at Homeslice Pizza staring at my phone, telling him I couldn’t stand not being in Houston covering the storm when my boss called and told me to pack up, I was going with Joseph to Houston for the week.
I was SO EXCITED. I raced home, packed and went to kiss my husband and daughter goodbye when it hit me again: my daughter. I didn’t even think about what it would be like to leave her that long. She was only 8 months old, I had never spent the night away from her before. And to my poor husband’s credit, I didn’t really ask if he could watch her alone that week, I just assumed he would.
And you know what? He did. Without hesitation. Kissing me goodbye, he told me “be safe, we’ve got this. Go do your thing, we’ll be here when you get back.”
God bless that man of mine.
My niece sent me this photo while I was in Houston.
Dan is the only one brave enough to clip her tiny nails.
He's the best father I could ever imagine for my daughter.
The days in Houston after Harvey were long, long ones. We were in neighborhoods that were still being evacuated. We saw people’s streets turned into rivers. We saw highways turned into lakes. I had never seen anything like it before, and either had the millions of people affected. It was humbling and awe inspiring to see people coming together to help each other. You see it on the news, but when you see it in person there’s a whole new level of appreciation for good humans.
There are a lot of good humans in Houston.
One night in particular stands out to me. The first night we arrived, after navigating flooded highways on the way in, we checked in to our hotel downtown and decided to walk around the George R Brown Convention Center. The GRB was one of two massive emergency shelters for the tens of thousands of people evacuated from their homes.
We had our press badges, so we walked right in. Immediately you sensed the controlled chaos. There were long tables filled with volunteers helping people connect with FEMA. There were stacks of food, clothes and diapers probably 20 feet high for people to take. There were news crews from CNN, ABC, NBC and all the other major networks.
And then there were the evacuees. Many of them, people who escaped with just the clothes on their backs. No cameras were allowed in the main convention rooms because that’s where thousands of cots lined the walls and floor for people to sleep. It was late when I walked through those rooms alone. There was a quiet hum as people spoke quietly, while many others were trying to sleep in a room filled with strangers.
Cot after cot, I saw adults huddled under donated blankets. I saw children sleeping up against their parents or on the floor next to them in sleeping bags. I saw a little girl sleeping with her dog, because the convention center was thoughtful enough to let people brings their rescued pets along with them. When you lose everything, you have to hold on to anything you have left.
The image that struck me the hardest, however, was in the second massive room I walked through. It was a young mother, surrounded by thousands of strangers, sleeping with her newborn baby.
Her newborn baby.
Anyone who has had a baby knows what it’s like those first few months after giving birth. You have no idea what you’re doing, you’re sleep-deprived and trying to figure out how to live life with a human whose completely dependent on you for survival. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s a feat we survive on a hope and a prayer.
Yet here was this young mother, who had likely lost her home to the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey, trying to sleep with her newborn in a room that hummed with activity. Trying to give her the privacy she deserved, I walked on. But for a moment I stood and watched her and her baby and thought “this is what disaster is really like.”
It's not about getting the story or getting the kudos for a great live shot right in the middle of a massive storm. It’s not about who found the best interview with an evacuee or making headlines for your own rescue attempts.
It’s about the people who lost everything, and the people who help those survivors.
After a week of working 18 hour days, I dropped Joseph off at the airport to fly back to Seattle and drove the rest of the way home in silence. I wanted to imprint those memories of the people I had met during some of the worst days of their lives because I will tell you, they were some of the kindest, warm and welcoming people I had ever met. And boy, were they strong.
It was with their stories in my head that I ran inside the house to see my daughter again. I picked her up and held her, breathing in her perfect baby Dreft smell, thinking to myself “I’m so thankful I got home safe to you.” And one day, I’ll tell her about that time I left to cover a hurricane for a week while her daddy took care of her. I’ll tell her about the water that rose to unprecedented levels, leaving behind unprecedented damage. And I’ll tell her about the time I walked through a convention center filled with tens of thousands of evacuees, thanking God for saving that little baby on her mother’s cot.
She won’t remember I ever left, but I won’t ever forget how important it was to tell those people’s stories.