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Residents move through flood waters brought by Tropical Storm Harvey in Northwest Houston

In the wake of Hurricane Michael, this poet recognizes the way disaster can change you

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last year, Heather Jacobsen watched as her old neighborhood made national news as the “city turned into an inland lake.”

Jacobsen borrowed that phrase to write a poem that explores the sudden rush of old trauma she experienced watching her friends and family struggle to rebuild. Living across the country, she was bombarded by feelings of grief and sympathy yet helpless to assist in the physical recovery efforts.

“There was just mass destruction,” Jacobsen said. “I was so devastated because people were rebuilding for the third time in as many years. I had the leisure to write this poem only because I wasn’t there this time.”

Jacobsen, who has lived in Miami, Florida, as well as Texas, the Philippines and now Connecticut, has weathered many a hurricane. A composite of those experiences — the waterlogged books, the pots and pans bobbing on the surface of chest-high water, and the homeowners forced to seek refuge on their roofs — all appear in “City Turned to Inland Lake.”

Today, watching Hurricane Michael devastate the Florida Panhandle and kill more than 20 people across the Southeast, Jacobsen is again reminded of the scenes she left when she moved north. The trash trucks driving double down the street, picking up soggy couches and dead televisions. The roaches, cocksure and huge, floating through floodwaters on paper plates. The refrigerators full of food, left to rot as entire communities spent months without power.

“Leaving all that behind just felt wrong,” Jacobsen said, but writing about it at least offered a kind of catharsis and a small way to help.

One thing Jacobsen could never forget about the storms is being woken in the middle of the night by a blaring emergency alert, and how hopeless she felt trying to escape the rising floodwaters.

“Your interiors just shift,” Jacobsen explained. “The interiors of your house, yes, but also my own interior. My brain and my insides. There are some parts of this poem that are not just what happened to my house, but what happened within me.”

City Turned to Inland Lake
BY HEATHER JACOBSEN

it was always a trying place to live
soupy summer evenings
under hazy orange skies
jeans plastered to your thighs
tree roots cracking through sidewalk concrete
super allergies caused by toxic pollen
collisions and near misses every day
on those twelve lanes of highway
paved over prairie land

lopsided houses
from rapid-swelling soils
there’s always a door that won’t shut
unless you water your foundation
during the drier months
gumbo soils
too thick to build basements

when it rains
there is nowhere for the water to go
when it rains
finally breaking the hot heavy tension
why is it always so violent?

cocky pistol-packing roaches
swaggering through your kitchen
that’s when they aren’t in flying season
now even they cling to life
floating on a plastic plate
through your dining room

it’s not the middle of the night
lightning bolts and whistling wind
shatters of glass and falling trees
that changes your life instantaneously
but the gradual rise of water creeping in
inch by inch
that eats away at you
like the slow leaching of corroding pipes
the constant drip drip drip
gnawing at your very infrastructure
increasingly louder the longer it goes on

it’s the days and days painfully anticipating
how high the water will go
sleepless nights
your brain like cheesecloth
as rain seeps through the roof
incessant crying, jolting phone alarms
eight tornadoes yesterday fifteen tonight
a subterranean machine-like thudding
from an earth in constant turmoil

by daybreak your heavy eyelids
don’t know if its dusk or dawn
you awake with drunken fatigue
to find the crossroads flooded
raging muddy waters disobeying
submerging the stop sign
personal power outages
in the hundreds of thousands

your interior is shifting
on slow motion reel
as you helplessly watch
sofas and armchairs bob through the living room
like an apprentice’s enchanted buckets and mops
hang the pots and pans from the ceiling
place your laptop above the cabinet
save the memories
try to save the memories

mucky brown waters still rising rising
serpents, sharp objects and cesspool shit
now you feel sick
a slow dull sinking pit
in your leaky leaky gut

so much water
and none of it drinkable
your thirst
for clarity, purity
is stifling
can disinfect the piles of Legos
but the books are all soggy, bloated
that gunk will never come out
of Daddy’s silken ties
dump the rotting refrigerator contents
all that stuff from Costco’s last run
tear it down to the studs
a flooded house can never be sold

straining to breathe
your chest feels pressed
by stacks of sandbags
trapped beneath fifty-one inches
in this city turned to inland lake
there aren’t enough resources
for this millennial flood
deploy the Naval warships

you’re normally resilient
good at keeping those flood gates closed
but the dam spilled over for the first time ever
unprecedented
now paralyzed by your helplessness
in this time of crisis
you wish you could have been a better protector
how do you even get out, onto the roof
to wave your arms for rescue?
you left the axe, the ladder
in the garage
float the kids out on an air mattress
carry the baby over your head
don’t look the dog in the eyes
as you leave him behind

“out of calamity… chaos
you find what people are made of”
God’s love still shines
through a stranger’s smile
as he hands you a dry pair of socks
fresh bottled water

somewhere in a parallel life
it’s sunny and seventy-five degrees


Photo courtesy Heather Jacobsen

Heather Jacobsen has been passionate about writing since she was nine, when she was the shy girl who sat in the back of the classroom. Though it took years for them to leave her lips, words were always her best friends. Today she writes poetry, medical and nutritional non-fiction, and creative non-fiction (and no longer sits in the back of the room). Her book, Going Gluten-Free, was a Book of Note in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food & Nutrition Magazine and she is currently working on her first creative non-fiction manuscript.

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