Swamp Sunflowers

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Every October the meadow trail at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center blooms with swamp sunflowers. Last October, I visited the Arboretum for the first time, and coincidentally it was during the blooming period. This October I went purposely to get  photos of the meadow (and some photos of me!)

Swamp sunflowers are a variation of the sunflower, and they grow in all coastal, wet areas, from the gulf to the eastern coast. This makes sense, because this meadow is right next to a pond.

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Our Hurricane Harvey experience

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This is a long post, so readers you are warned!

Experience a hurricane – check. Okay, now that that’s done, I don’t ever want to experience one again!

The past few weeks have simultaneously felt like one long endless day, or 1,000 years. So much has happened since Friday before the hurricane hit, and I want to write everything down, all the little details, so I will not forget later.

On Thursday night, August 24, Harvey was still churning in the gulf, expecting to hit the Texas coast south of us. We knew to expect a lot of rain, but the forecast was still iffy at that point. The forecast went like this: Harvey, upon landfall, would be stuck in-between two pressure systems, and then stall for a few days, hence all the rain fall. The forecast was calling for about 10-15 inches of rain, which sounded bad. I had already asked my boss if I would be able to work from home, since I work on weekends, right when the worst would seem to happen. I was given instructions on how to connect to the work system. That lifted a load off my mind.

I suggested to Derek that we go to Target to get some non-perishable food, and fill up our tank of gas. I had gone grocery shopping on Tuesday, so we did have plenty of pantry food, but not quite a variety I’d like to have if the power went out. I have heard horror stories about the power being out for two weeks after Hurricane Ike. Thankfully, I get my meat separately, and due to the impending forecast, I had decided to hold off. So if we did lose power, we wouldn’t lose too much food.

Going to the Target was when things started feeling scary. On our way, we stopped at the Valero, the gas station we usually go to, and there were signs over all the pumps saying OUT OF GAS. Wow. Okay then. Then we stopped at a second gas station, and it was the same thing. Plastic bags covering all of the pumps. We sighed our first sigh of relief out of many for that week when there was gas at the third gas station.

Then it was on to the Target, where there was pandemonium. There was no water left, and most of the shelves were picked clean already, but we did manage to stock up on the usual stuff: chips, fruit cups, granola bars and beef jerky. I wanted pineapple cups, and there was one left, on the top shelf way in the back, too high for my small frame to reach. Derek was in another aisle, so I took matters into my hands and I climbed up the shelves.

After we got back home, we felt like we did everything we could do up until that moment, so we enjoyed the last night of what would be restful sleep for a while.

On Friday I went into work, and I asked my boss, “What happens if I lose power AND I am stranded? I can handle one or the other, but both? He calmed me down a bit, saying that there were emergency teams in place to make sure the Chronicle, a daily paper, got out every day. However, there were no measures in place for the weeklies, which I work for. He basically said that if we absolutely had to put the papers out a few days late, then so be it. He also told me that he saw no reason for me to come in on Saturday and Sunday and to work from home if the weather was bad. That put less pressure on me.

Throughout the day it was gloomy and it rained on and off all day. It didn’t seem like things were all that bad, but it was just a precursor of what was to come.

The highlight of the evening was when my birthday package from my parents came, and the labels were so water logged that you couldn’t read anything. The ink smeared right off! Luckily Derek had the tracking number.

Hurricane Harvey strengthened rapidly that evening. I had a pre-season football game on, and it was weird to have a second smaller screen on the TV showing the imminent land fall of Harvey. Harvey made landfall near Rockport, Texas, at 10 p.m.

We woke up on Saturday morning to – surprisingly – nothing. I still made the decision to stay home on Saturday, because I didn’t know how the day would unfold. Truth be told, I could have gone into work and been fine. There were even parts of the day where it didn’t rain for hours. We were starting to wonder if maybe the forecast was wrong.

Derek wanted to go out to take some photos for a school project, so I joined him. We went to Rice Village, which is a little area filed with shops. A few cafes were open, but most of the stores were closed. Some even had sand bags in front of the doors, and one boutique wrote GO AWAY HARVEY on their windows. I took photos of those stores and sent them to the Chronicle.

On Saturday night, I talked to my mom and dad who were eager for updates. I had found a website that was tracking rainfall totals in the city, and there was one rain gauge close to where we are. I told them, that up until that point, 3.52 inches of rain had fallen. My dad said, “That’s it?” And in some twisted way, I was disappointed. But I didn’t have to be disappointed for long.

Later that night, we got a thunderstorm that lasted over an hour, with heavy rain for longer than that. The lightning was endless. I was shocked we did not lose power then. Just like that, we went from 3.52 to 6.76 inches of rain. Woah. Now we’re talking. We put on our boots and walked around in the parking lot to check on our cars. The water was up over the toes of my boots!

Sleep that night was hard. We were woken up in the middle of the night more than once to flash flood alarms on our phones. The rain consistently pounded outside, all night long.

I woke up at 7:30 that morning, and looked outside the window. Whew, we weren’t under water. Then I turned on the news, and found out that just about the rest of Houston was under water. The first scene I saw on the TV was of Interstate 610, exit 4, which is about the half way point of my commute to work. That was under water. Well, I definitely was not going into work that day.

I checked the website for rainfall totals, and I couldn’t believe it. We had gotten 10 inches of rain overnight, and now the total for our area was 16.16 inches. It was already past the initial forecast, which I should mention that it had since been updated and was now calling for 30 inches.

I texted that number to mom and dad, who immediately called me. They had the news on as well. Together, we repeated the words, Oh my God, Oh my God, OH MY GOD with every broadcasted scene we saw.

This is when the days start to blur together. It was extremely hard to try to concentrate on work, when the news was a constant spew of disaster. Derek and I were constantly underfoot for each other, and tensions were running high. But that is a small price I had to pay. As I put it when I was talking to a friend, “We may have cabin fever, but at least we still have our “cabin.”

We ventured out a few times over the next two days out of curiosity, and a journalistic duty. It was eerie to walk out on an empty I-610, a six lane major highway that is normally filled with traffic. It was even scarier to see a constant stream of cars that were driving up the road, and then a few minutes later we would see them coming back with their flashers on, driving the wrong way. At least they were heeding the flashing sign, “Turn around, don’t drown.” There were cars abandoned up and down the whole street. Brays Bayou, which I normally pass over on my way to work, looked like a furious river, and it had already down quite a bit before we were able to get their safely. A few days later, we noticed that some streets, in particular the ones closest to the bayous, all looked like construction zones. Everyone’s possessions were all in giant piles on the curb.

Work was a flurry of activity. I was torn between being jealous and relieved that I was not at the flood zones to take pictures and report the news. I felt useless, and soon that turned into survivor’s guilt. I couldn’t comprehend that we were safe and dry, and houses just two miles down the road were underwater. One of my co-workers lost almost everything. Her and her husband had to evacuate from their roof into a boat. Derek also knows professors who have lost everything.

But through it all, I did manage to find my own ways to help out. I wrote a short article about a University of Houston Professor who was new to Houston, and his reaction to how UH and the city came together in times of need. I also put in a ton of over-time. I did two double shifts to help relieve people on the copy desk. I helped set out lunch one day for employees. I donated money to Mayor Turner’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, and shared the link for others to donate too.

Speaking about lunch, the generosity of other newspapers has been amazing. One day I had lunch courtesy of the Dallas Morning News; another day I had lunch courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle. My boss told me that he was fielding phone calls from all over the country who wanted to feed the reporters, most of whom had worked a week straight.

I was working an evening shift on Tuesday, when the storm finally decided it had enough of Houston and moved out. Five days later. I was walking past a window when I noticed the sky looked brighter than normal. The sun was out, and there was blue sky! We had not seen the sun in five days. At that point, our area had seen just over 32 inches of rain. There were other places that had seen up to 50, which broke a U.S. record.

A few weeks later, and we’re still seeing Harvey news non stop, but things are slowly returning back to normal, or at least as normal as things can get. This hurricane has changed everyone’s lives in Houston in someway. It is not something I will ever forget.

Hermann Park train

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One day last week Derek said to me, “I’m bored, let’s go somewhere for lunch.” I suggested the Pinewood Cafe in Hermann Park, right next to McGovern Lake. After a nice lunch, neither of us were ready to go home.

Derek started walking towards the train station/gift shop. At first I thought we were just going to browse inside the shop, but then he bought two tickets for the train ride.

The train ride is something I wanted to do since we first came to Hermann Park the first week we moved here. I am so glad that we did it. We were the only adults without kids on the train but that situation is nothing new for the two of us.

Tickets are $3.50 each for a 20ish minute ride. The ride is quite scenic, going through and around the whole park. It was nice to catch the breeze on a hot day. There is also running commentary for points of interest.

Now that I’ve been on it once, I’ll definitely go on it again. I know my parents will love it.

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Kemah Boardwalk

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Kemah Boardwalk is about 35 minutes away from us on the bay of Galveston. Kemah Boardwalk was something I knew I wanted to do over the summer. When The Bull country radio station announced a Wednesday night country concert series, I knew that would be the perfect time to go.

We arrived around dinner time and ate at Bubba Gump Shrimp, a place I have always wanted to go to. There are plenty of other restaurants there too.

In hindsight we probably should have done some of the rides or maybe gone to the onsite small aquarium attached to one of the restaurants. I am not a big ride person, but there were some small ones that would have been doable like the carousel or the train ride.  Once we ate and circled around the boardwalk twice, there wasn’t much for us to do. There were a few shops that we looked in that wasted a few minutes. It was nice to look out over the water though and see the boats coming in and out of the marina. We were lucky to see a double rainbow form after a small drizzle.

We would have left sooner if not for the concert being at a specific time. It did not help that the concert started a half hour late! The artist was Chris Lane. We were not familiar with him, but it was nice to stay and listen to a few songs before heading back home.

I think Kemah Boardwalk is a great place to go if you’re a family or if you really like rides. Most of them I wouldn’t have gone on, like the roller coasters and the rides that swing back and forth. No thank you! But it is also nice for a couple to go out to a nice dinner, walk around and get some fresh air. (Mind the mosquitoes since you’re near the water! We both got a few bites.)

Some photos:

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Sculptures and houses

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We went to Galveston for the day last week. In the morning we did a walking tour of tree sculptures in the East End Historic District

In 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall at Galveston, and caused a lot of damage. Many trees were uprooted due to the tidal surge, but may more died later on due to being in salty water.

Instead of removing these salt-damaged trees completely, three artists, Earl Jones, Dale Lewis and Jim Phillips turned many of these into sculptures. The carvings are in people’s front yards, but anyone is welcome to stop on by and have a look.

We used a map that was in a brochure for the sculptures. We both severely underestimated how hot it would be at 9 a.m., and how long the walk would take. It took about two and a half hours. I would recommend it to anyone, but perhaps do it in a car, a bike, or walk it during a cooler time. We did come across the Mosquito Cafe about halfway through our walk, which was a nice little break.

A bonus from the sculpture walking tour is that you pass many beautiful, historic homes.

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Day Trip to San Antonio

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Last week we went to San Antonio for the day. We met up with my friend from high school that lives in Austin, which was a nice bonus. I can honestly say we had the perfect day. We did everything we wanted to do, and some more. The weather was amazing too.

Even the drive out there was great. It took three hours and it was on a two lane highway at 75 mph. I haven’t seen a two lane highway since Pennsylvania! We passed fields and fields of wildflowers, farms, and even some patches of cactus! It was peaceful.

Our first stop was the Alamo. I wanted to get there right when it opened. I had heard  that supposedly a lot of people are disappointed when they see the Alamo because it is so small. So knowing this information, the Alamo seemed like the perfect size to us! You cannot take pictures inside the main church building, which I had already known about, but still disappointed me. The expansive courtyards, with the mini museums in the barracks and the living history set ups, more than made up for it though. We spent over an hour here taking everything in. I really consider it a privilege that there are places of history that are preserved and we are able to still see them today.

Our second stop was the River Walk. It really is a beautiful area of the city. We walked around the main loop of the River Walk, but it goes out a few miles in both directions. We had thought about taking a river cruise, but we didn’t, and it honestly wasn’t needed. We saw everything just fine by foot. We were slightly disappointed because we had expected shops along the River Walk, but it was only restaurants and hotels. If we had known that, I probably would have eaten lunch on the River Walk.

We ate lunch at Mi Terra in El Mercado, (The Market Square) which was a street lined with Mexican shops and restaurants. Mi Terra was highly recommended online in different discussion forums. After lunch we took some time to browse around the craft vendors. So much cool stuff!

After lunch we headed back to the Alamo a second time. This was actually a good call because it had been overrun with school kids earlier in the morning, so now it was more quiet.

The last two things we did, Mission Espada and Mission San Jose, wasn’t even a definite thing on our to do list. I figured if we had the time in the afternoon, we’d go, but no big deal if we didn’t. These two missions ended up being my favorite part of the day. The architecture was amazing!

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Bluebonnets

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The state flower of Texas is the bluebonnet, named so because the petals look like the shape of a women’s bonnet. Photographing bluebonnets was high on my Texas bucket list.

You can find bluebonnets just about anywhere in the state, but they are more prevalent the more west you go. I was figuring that I would have to take a road trip quite a distance out of Houston in order to find some. But then as bluebonnet season approached, I saw some pictures on Facebook of bluebonnets in Houston. Every time I came across a photo, I would comment, “Where was this picture taken?” But still being fairly new to the area, the vague answers I got did not help. I kept searching though. Eventually I found a picture of bluebonnets that said it was taken in Hermann Park. Ah hah! I know where Hermann Park was. That narrowed it down a bit. Then I saw in more pictures that the field of bluebonnets in question was by the Bill Coats Bridge. Google maps is my friend. The map showed me right where it was, on the southern end of the park.

That Wednesday I set out to find and photograph them. I was nervous though. Just because I had seen a picture of the bluebonnets weeks ago, would they still be there? I knew it was about a six week growing season, but had it just started, or was it ending? Well I had no worries because I walked from the parking lot smack into a huge field of them. They were beautiful, and I was not disappointed!

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