"Water, more water." Experiencing Harvey through the senses

August 30, 2017

The Washington Post has an excellent article today discussing the bodily, sensory experiences of people in Houston facing flooding by Harvey. While most media coverage focuses, understandably, on the immediate threats to life and property that such a disaster poses, a major part of the experience manifests in the tangible interactions between people's bodies and the material transformations of the disaster itself, in this case, water where there was no water before, new smells, cold and wet sensations, and the constant sound of both water and people talking about water. A taste from the article

 

“I feel like I’m under water!” yelled Taylor Cauthen in her third day and fifth hour of directing traffic away from flooded roads, her third day and fifth hour of slanting rain slapping her bare face, of water rolling down her cheeks and into mouth when she opened it to yell, as she did now at a truck, “Turn around!” It tasted like sweet metal.

 

And such immersion brings with it a transformation writ in the body, as Ms. Cauthen succinctly describes to the reporter: 

 

Her feet at the moment: “Beyond pruny,” she said.

 

Her hands right now: “Prunes.”

 

Her whole being on the fourth day of this: “I’m a prune.”

 

With so much rain and rising floodwaters comes new smells, new "funk" that can attach itself to places and bodies alike, as a man named Troy Roy describes: 

 

Water was all there was — more than a trillion gallons of rain, officials said Tuesday, the equivalent of Niagara Falls for 15 days. Troy Roy watched it invade his lawn, his patio and his living room until the water finally seemed to be invading him, nose first. It smelled like wet carpet Saturday, wet sewage Sunday, and by Monday Roy gave in and walk ed ankle, thigh, then chest-deep into the brownish-green water, navigating by texture — carpet, sidewalk, grass and out into his new riverine neighborhood. Now he was standing on the patio of Gringo’s restaurant, still wet and with little chance of not being wet in the future.

 

“I’m wondering how to get whatever funk is on me off,” Roy said as the falling rain filled the parking lot that surrounded the restaurant.

 

Much of the media coverage of the initial aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (which made its deadly second landfall 12 years ago as of yesterday) also focused on smell as an inescapable spatial transformation following the recession of the floodwaters. Even years later, the smell of Katrina remains significant for many survivors, as illustrated in this National Public Radio (US) report on the 10-year anniversary that quotes a New Orleans therapist named Kim Vangeffen who helps people deal with the long-term aftereffects of the disaster:

 

"There's a smell we call the 'Katrina smell,' that was related to mold and mildew that grew on things," Vangeffen says. "I still have things in my garage that I have never fully gone through. And if I open those boxes you can still smell those smells — and it just brings you back to those times."

 

The close connection between smell and memory ensures that smell may be one of the most vivid conduits in the future for Harvey survivors to return to the horror of the present moment. 

 

In the days and weeks to come, as survivors, the media, and politicians take stock of Harvey's toll on human life, infrastructure, and homes, such sensory experiences will permeate, well, everything, and will remain written in space and on the bodies of survivors. Houston and the Gulf Coast of Texas will never look, feel, or smell the same.

 

Read the full Washington Post article here

 

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