By Claudia Kolker
What Does The Last Thing We Grab In Disaster Say About Us?
When push came to shove, Diane Sanchez went for the hedgehog.
Why a hedgehog? Why, as Houston reeled under Hurricane Harvey, and putrid water rose in the 47-year-old teacher's house, when it became clear she would soon lose the home where she'd lived for 13 years – why did Sanchez seize the family dog, sling a bag of clothes on her shoulder, and with her remaining free hand, grab Auggie the hedgehog?
Disasters open unexpected windows into who we are. The question of why, in extreme moments, we choose to save what we do has no single answer. Instead, after that first impulse to save loved ones, the last object chosen from a left-behind life can be a signal of what really matters.
Marketing plays a role, of course; infusing objects with meaning is the industry's sole purpose, notes Utpal Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice Business. The more compelling the story, the more valuable an item will seem. Yet it's rarely marketing that determines the truest object of desire. Instead, deeper instincts – some universal, some utterly personal – make the decision for us.
Six months after Hurricane Harvey drove some 39,000 people out of their homes, the stories of what those Houstonians grabbed under duress can be instructive. Many survivors had time only to save themselves and the clothes on their backs. But others could save a bit more. In the chaotic moments before plowing into the water to safety, these Houstonians grabbed an oddball array of objects from their old lives.
The items they took – and those they left behind – reflected more than what was just possible, or even practical. They signaled who these Houstonians were, and what they felt they needed to survive.
Holed up on the third floor of his house in West Houston, Allen Wuescher heard chimes. He was, he thought, alone. The neighborhood was underwater, his wife Lucie and three small children were in Austin. rescuers had yet to arrive. All evening, as the water crept in, Wuescher had hauled valuables upstairs. The first floor went quickly. Now, the second story was gone too, and Wuescher waited on his final floor in the dark to be rescued.
It was just before firefighters shouted from outside that Wuescher figured out the chimes. A box of wine glasses was floating near the living room ceiling, clinking as though held by unseen partiers. By the time he called his wife to say he was fleeing, Wuescher was so rattled he just did what she said: He jammed a Disney "Frozen" backpack with small valuables, and then he stuffed a Minions mini-suitcase with avocados.
Avocados? Even though he was armed with credit cards, a cellphone and friends who could shelter him, Wuescher still believes the avocados were a good choice. "I had no idea where I was going," he says. That Minions bag of vegetables signaled he was never alone. "Lucie made sure I had food," he says. "It's good in that kind of situation to have someone think for you."
Clearly, external sustenance like food and family are essential. But emotional rescue can take other forms. Psychotherapist Rosalie Hyde, who specializes in trauma and works with Harvey survivors, notes that all people hold onto things that have meaning beyond the object themselves. These choices, she says, can be conscious or unconscious, and often complex, rooted in very early emotional attachments.
One flood survivor, for example, might save a jar of pennies because it reminds her of someone tender and nurturing. But another might grab an object reminding him of a positive moment with someone who was not otherwise kind.
For Sharon Bippus, an ESL teacher who fled her townhouse, the cherished object was a deck of cards. Soft-spoken and impish, Bippus can put the most anxious student at ease. But moving back to her still-gutted house has infuriated and depressed her, as she recently indicated with a series of Facebook snaps of an Elf On The Shelf in dire poses in her unfurnished living room.
This wasn't Bippus' first encounter with disaster. More than a decade ago, Bippus lived in Izhevsk, Russia, with the Peace Corps when her apartment building caught fire. She left behind money and passport, but had just enough time to pluck a Russian English dictionary. "Totally impractical," she says.
So when the water invaded her town house last fall, she had given some thought about what to grab. This time she took money, documents and a garbage bag of clothes. She also took a deck of Tarot-style cards, and not because she needed to understand her future. "They're not for fortune telling," Bippus says.
Instead, by randomly choosing one of the cards with their lush, Edwardian images, and phrases such as "rescue" or "unexpected visitors," she can commune with her unconscious self no matter where she is. "It's like doing artwork," Bippus says. "A way to get in touch with my intuition, by meditating on pictures and symbols."
She's still pleased with the choice. "Everything in my house was torn up, everything was chaotic. I needed to do something creative, for my soul," Bippus says.
Mark Austin, a music promoter who manages the much-loved Houston soul band the Suffers, saw similar priorities as he rescued people by van in Harvey's wake. Shortly after the rain stopped, the Fender guitar company quietly asked Austin to distribute 30 new guitars to flooded-out musicians. Ninety percent of the guitarists who fit that description, Austin discovered, had lost everything but their instruments. "Once you find that guitar," Austin said, "you just know it can't be replaced. One guy hid from the water up in his attic. His guitar was the only thing he saved."
Another musician who lost everything else told Austin, "I don't have a really good relationship with my father, but he bought me this guitar. It's the only thing I have that carries a good memory of him."
For people fighting to keep their heads above water long before Harvey struck, though, saving even one sentimental object was a luxury. When the giant NRG Center – home to the Houston Texans – transformed in one day into a shelter for 10,000, it was obvious which flood survivors had no clue where they would go next.
Many who came from poor areas held nothing but blankets and pillows, said Angela Blanchard, president emerita of Houston's Baker Ripley human services agency, and the shelter's organizer. Blanchard's own childhood told her why.
"When you don't have a lot of money, and you go somewhere to visit, you know they're not going to have a couch for you, because someone will already be using it, and they're not going to have a linen closet full of pillows and sheets for you," Blanchard says. "You know you need to bring your own."
Some arrivals at NRG had instinctively prepared for the worst. As each drenched, exhausted guest entered the stadium, polite guards gently labeled and confiscated all weapons. The center's security locked away a couple of dozen guns, some 30 knives – and two rocks.
Other last-minute grabs were fueled by emotional concerns. At 2 a.m. on the night of the storm, after her mother woke her announcing the family of seven needed to flee, 19-year-old Allison Daniel knew what she needed.
Rushing to her closet, she stared for a moment at the water bubbling malevolently through the floorboards. Then she grabbed the soft pajama pants she wears every day after school and some giant fluffy green earrings suitable for a Dr. Seuss heroine. Saving these objects helped to stabilize her after the storm, she believes.
"Oh yes," Daniel says. She has wide, espresso-bean eyes and a childlike jumpiness. "I just wasn't thinking – I brought things that comfort me. My clothes are a really big way I express myself. And my fluffy earrings: They were so fragile. I had to take care of them! These things make my life feel normal."
Clinically speaking, Daniel's split-second choices were quite sound. Even for nonteenagers, what we wear has a measurable effect not merely on our moods, but on our ability to function. In one set of experiments, researchers from Columbia and Rice University asked subjects to slip on crisp white coats. Some were told they were wearing lab coats; others were told they were wearing painters' uniforms.
The subjects who thought they were dressed in doctor garb performed better on attention-related tasks than those who didn't wear the coats. And those who were told the coats were painter's uniforms performed the same with or without the coats on.
But survivors didn't save just their own clothes. Jerriann Nettles, a 43-year-old school teacher, prepared to leave Harvey clutching a Chanel dress that was precious because of the person who could no longer wear it.
Nettles, who had moved to an expansive house outside Houston only the year before, was sure the hurricane would miss her tranquil neighborhood right up until the moment her adult daughter, now in the Coast Guard, called and told her to get out.
Frantically, Nettles and her husband dragged mementos from her daughter's childhood – trophies, tchotchkes, toys – to the second floor. Then, just before plunging into the water to rescue her elderly neighbors, Nettles grabbed her grandmother's Chanel dress. It was silky, covered with deliciously smooth loops of thread. "My grandmother didn't have a lot of money, and she saved to buy this dress from a resale shop," Nettles says. "To this day it still smells like her. She wore Chanel No. 5 perfume. She wore the powder. Anything she had held that combination of her body chemistry and Chanel."
Breathing that scent felt like having her grandmother nearby. "The smell," Nettles says. "It's the last thing on earth you may have on earth from someone's life. If the flood were to take it away..."
Flooded by social media advice about clutter and author Marie Kondo's exhortations to toss those possessions that don't "spark joy," Harvey survivors often apologize when admitting their sorrow. "I know they're only things and it could be so much worse," one man says, standing in the bare kitchen of his small townhouse. Contractors had stripped but not yet replaced the drywall, making it possible to walk straight into his neighbor's dining room. "But they were our things."
That's why, maybe, those items that Houstonians rescued still feel precious: not because of their monetary value, but because they embody the deepest feeling and investment of the individual. It's why we love our kids. It's the reason imperfect shelves built at home give more pleasure than flawless ones from the store, and why we will pay more for a coffee cup if we've cradled it for a little while in our hands.
It definitely explains why Diane Sanchez, bolting from her deluged house, grabbed her hedgehog.
The foul-smelling water sloshed chest-high in the front yard. Helicopters were roaring. Sanchez knew she'd have to leave the fish and the snail behind. But the family loved Auggie, even though one couldn't truly know if he loved them back.
Undeniably cute, with pointy noses and moist button eyes, hedgehogs are largely inscrutable. "They are not cuddly," says Sanchez. "They aren't going to learn their names or snuggle with you." They also dislike other hedgehogs.
What they do offer is the chance to lavish effort upon them. Without constant attention, Auggie would have been downright painful: His unrestrained quills might stab anyone who touched him. To gain a hedgehog's acceptance, its caregivers must carefully hold him in their palms every night (and it has to be night, because they're nocturnal). After several months of this, Auggie gradually began flattening his quills around family members – which is how Sanchez was able to pick him up.
After six months with relatives, the family has just returned to their house. "Figuring out how to put our lives back together is probably the worst thing that's ever happened to me. And I've had cancer twice," Sanchez says. "I feel more out of control now."
But Auggie, impassive as ever, is a sure thing. Her teenage kids adore him, doting on him and taking comfort from the continuity he brings, Sanchez says. Saving their small, prickly pet from the flood might have been her first step toward saving her family, and herself.
This article originally appeared in Gray Matters, Houston Chronicle.