Normally, I spend my days at work sitting (or standing) at a desk in a windowless office in Washington, D.C., answering email, taking conference calls, and talking to experts about flood insurance and risk reduction. These are topics I am passionate about, but let’s be honest, most people don’t spend their days thinking about floods and risk. It’s a little different—a little out of the ordinary.
But flooding is important. And its consequences are devastating. When flood waters enter a home, they don’t flow like treated water from a swimming pool. Floodwaters arrive as a filthy layer that slaps up against walls and furniture without any attention to what belongings matter most to a family. When the water recedes, a layer of silt covers all the disheveled objects that lay in its path. Floods produce an odor that has no other comparison. That overriding smell has a character of its own that defies words.
The palpable reality of flooding strikes a disruptive chord that overwhelms everything that is normal.
The most important part of my job is when I visit areas impacted by major flooding after storms like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Last week, I went to Houston, and was once again reminded in a very personal way of how destructive a flood can be.
I wasn’t always a Washington bureaucrat. Twenty-five years ago, I made my living as a piano performer. Music was my life. I look back on that time as incredibly rewarding. The hours spent rehearsing and practicing were life-giving work. The music fed my soul. But last week, pieces of my different worlds collided.
I walked into a home in Houston and I saw a baby grand piano in the corner. I guess I could have imagined the effects of a flooded piano…but I had never done so.
This home had 28 inches of water that stood inside it for ten days. The water, since gone, but the unseen effects of standing water on hot, humid days took its toll. When I mentioned to the homeowner that I played the piano, she asked me to play it. She said they hadn’t opened it up to see what kind of damage the water had done.
When a piano stands in water that long, even if the water didn’t get up past the piano legs, it swells up the sound board, corrodes the hammers, and seizes up the action of the keys.
I pushed on the piano keys, but there was no movement and no sound. Nothing. The instrument offered nothing. That silence made me ache.
While this piano was the most visible object in the front room of the house, it was not the most valuable of the family’s belongings. The family wedding picture beneath the piano meant more. The emotional and psychological barriers to recovery after a flood stand as a stark and enduring reminder of the disruption floods leave in their wake.
Thankfully, this family had flood insurance. That’s why I was in that home, meeting with them, making sure the thousands of adjusters and insurance staff working for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in Texas are moving quickly and efficiently to help disaster survivors begin their recovery. NFIP will deliver for these policyholders; they will be on a road to recover more quickly and more fully.
Yet, even knowing that this family will reach their new normal that much faster, I left that home and that voiceless piano stayed with me. It became a tangible symbol of what I hope to accomplish as we help all of Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey, and those impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. What it means to build back higher, stronger, and to be more resilient.
I left that home and drove past countless piles of debris along the curbs, laser-focused on working with this community to stave off the effects of the next flood that is most certainly going to come.