“It happened in Texas and Texas can handle anything,” said President Donald Trump. Houston faced Hurricane Harvey with a spirit of unity despite our tribal politics.
The people who help bring These Stone Walls to your screen or device know that I cannot see it. So weekly posts are printed and sent to me along with the comments. Those who send them also print a weekly “stats” report that is always fascinating. Its four pages of demographics help me see what posts are widely read and why – and also where.
The weekly report lists the top ten countries visiting TSW. The top five are always the same: United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, and Ireland. The next five vary just a little. In recent weeks they included Italy, India, Singapore, South Africa, China, and Guam (technically Guam is a U.S. territory), and most of the European Union countries.
Another part of the report lists the top ten North American cities visiting TSW that week. North Port, Florida is often there. So is Washington, DC; Boston; and Ottawa, Ontario. During the first week of September, one of the top ten cities visiting These Stone Walls was Houston, Texas, though I did not know how this could even be possible.
Throughout that same week, as you know well, Houston and all of Southeast Texas were assaulted by a massive Category-4 Hurricane named Harvey. Harvey dumped up to 52 inches of rain – more than Houston’s entire average annual rainfall – in just five days.
That’s well over four feet of rain. If such a storm happened in New Hampshire in winter, this amount of rain would translate into more than 43 feet of snow in a five-day period.
Harvey made landfall as a Category-4 hurricane in Corpus Christi on September 1, and then it stalled over the Gulf of Mexico. The rain that fell over the next five days far exceeded the previous rainfall record for the continental United States.
Harvey left over a third of the city of Houston submerged under water. Its streets and highways became deep, rushing rivers strewn with abandoned cars. Over 10,000 people had to be rescued by emergency workers in boats, trucks, and helicopters. Over 100,000 homes and one million vehicles were destroyed.
Tens of thousands of residents were driven from their homes into 231 emergency shelters, and then some of the shelters themselves became flooded. One of the saddest photos from the disaster was an image of hundreds of Houston residents driven into the high bleachers of a gymnasium that had been their refuge while everything they owned became submerged under the ever-rising waters.
By Wednesday of that week – post day for These Stone Walls – the death toll from the storm stood at thirty. By the end of the week, it had doubled. The tragic deaths struck at our hearts: grandparents and their four grandchildren who became trapped in their van in rushing water; a young mother who perished saving her three-year-old from the rising torrent; a police officer who lost his life trying to get to work to save others.
The deluge tainted the floodwaters with toxic chemicals. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner called out the entire 12,000 member Texas National Guard to aid in rescue efforts. Harvey knocked Texas oil refineries offline with a nationwide impact in gasoline prices. It seems minor compared to the tragic loss of life and homes, but it reveals the nature and scope of this storm.
HOUSTON’S ‘DUNKIRK’ MOMENT
The 2017 hurricane season is fast becoming one of the most destructive on record. Southern Florida was barely spared the most vicious version of Hurricane Irma, but as I write this, a Category-5 Hurricane Maria has just devastated the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. The entire island is without power and will be for the next four to six months. Some of the poorest Americans have become infinitely stranded.
But if post-Harvey Houston is any indicator, recovery is not only possible, but a challenge all of America will meet. As devastating as Hurricane Harvey was for Houston, it offered “a glimpse of the United States as we should strive to be,” wrote Christian Caryl in the Washington Post.
In a time of human tragedy, the people of Texas remembered that the power of community can far exceed that of any disaster. On this, President Trump was right in a statement to reporters. “What happened is epic, but it happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything.”
When the raging five-day storm finally passed in Houston, it left upwards of $20 billion in property damages in its wake. However, the loss of life, tragic though it was, would likely have been far greater if this community had not been as strong as it has demonstrated.
In the National Catholic Register, writer Peter Jesserer Smith has an excellent analysis of what happened in Houston in the face of disaster. The title of his article, “Houston’s ‘Dunkirk’ Moment” (NC Register September 17-30, 2017) equates the courage and generosity of the Houston community with that depicted in the recent film, ‘Dunkirk.’
In late May and early June 1940, the ordinary British citizens of Dunkirk risked their lives as they set out in their own private boats to rescue more than 300,000 stranded British and French soldiers who were pinned down by advancing Nazi-Germany forces. Winston Churchill called it “the miracle of Dunkirk.”
Writing for the Washington Post, columnist Christian Caryl saw all the “tribal divisions” of politics set aside in the face of disaster. Thousands of volunteers set out in boats “to help people they’d never met before.” Human beings risked their lives with no distinctions, or even notice, of race, or creed, or political party. Tragedy unites. Just as happened in Manhattan in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, all divisions ceased.
In his inspiring article, Peter Jesserer Smith details how the Catholic community of Texas rallied to respond to the tragedy and was instrumental in aiding the community to survive Hurricane Harvey. There was suddenly no left or right, no Democrats or Republicans, blacks or whites, Catholics or Muslims. There was only tragedy, and Americans set aside all our divisions to remember who we are in our hearts and souls.
IMPORTANT NEWS FROM THESE STONE WALLS
In some recent posts on These Stone Walls, readers got a glimpse inside the place where I had lived for the last 23 years. For eight of those years, including this past year, I lived in the most difficult environment where prisoners are housed eight to a cell. “Hebrews 13:3 Writing Just This Side of the Gates of Hell” described life there. There were daily assaults, drug overdoses, all manner of trafficking in just about anything illicit you can imagine, and a daily struggle to survive.
Your friends behind These Stone Walls lived there for so long, not because we should, but only because we could. We endured it, and in many ways, Pornchai-Max and I and some of our friends kept the peace.
In two posts in August, “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads,” and “Labor Day Weekend Behind These Stone Walls,” I described the new place to where we have finally been relocated after all these years. I still marvel at it.
After 23 years of virtually round-the-clock confinement, my writing now suffers because I cannot stay inside long enough to type anything. I climb on average about 650 stairs per day just coming and going, and I have lost ten pounds in the six weeks I have been here.
We have other major changes coming, and I must ask for help with some of them. In coming months, this prison will be taking a major step in prisoner access to communication with the outside world. Due to the rampant influx of illegal drugs here, visits and mail have been severely curtailed over the last year.
But this fall, the prison system here will be implementing a tablet system that will allow prisoners direct access to email and other electronic services. By late fall, Pornchai and I will be purchasing a tablet from a vendor currently being approved for a contract with the prison system.
The tablet will provide an email service that prison officials hope will greatly reduce the volume of visits, physical mail, and telephone calls. For the first time in its eight years of existence, those who assist me with These Stone Walls will be able to contact me. Up to now, my only access outside is to place a pre-paid telephone call. No one can call me.
This new system will mean that reader’s comments and questions can be emailed to me directly, and I will be able to respond. The vendor will sell blocks of emails, telephone calls, and other services such as music and eBooks directly to prisoners for a monthly fee.
Prison officials here have said that this technology will, in a single week, move prisoner communications from about 1980 to 2017. I do not yet know the cost of the tablets or services, but this is just one of the expenses that we must meet this fall.
Each year in October and November, I have several other costs related to These Stone Walls that come due. These include domain and hosting fees and an annual fee for a “Co-Schedule service that assists with the social media sharing of my posts. That is a great help as I have no direct access to social media.
Additionally, for TSW to operate, I must make daily phone calls to Father George David Byers or Charlene Duline both of whom assist me with communicating and hearing comments, etc. I add about $200 monthly to a required pre-paid telephone account so I can make phone calls. We are charged 5-cents per minute for calls, the lowest prison telephone rate in the United States.
Also in October, my annual subscription to The Wall Street Journal expires. Its $400 annual subscription rate is my one luxury. The WSJ subscription was originally a gift, but I have had to renew it each year. I have come to depend on it for news, and it helps greatly in my writing. Its annual cost is far less than that of The New York Times or The Boston Globe, and the Journal is by far a superior news source.
Lastly, by late October, Pornchai and I must place our orders for an annual 25-pound food package which we will receive from an approved vendor between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is something readers have helped with in the past and we are most grateful for that.
Many readers have asked me how they can help. So once a year at this time I re-post the mail rules here which include the rules for how you may help me financially if you are able and wish to do so. I only ask that you be modest.
And if such aid is beyond your means, you can still help by sharing my posts, and by connecting with our LinkedIn and Facebook pages that have been established for TSW (neither of which I have ever even seen). (In your connection request, please mention that you are a TSW reader). Once connected, you can help by sharing posts on your own social media accounts.
Thank you in advance for your help, the far greater help of your prayers, and most of all for the great grace of your friendship with us behind These Stone Walls.
RULES FOR MAIL AND GIFTS
- No greeting cards of any type, or for any occasion, are allowed in mail to a prisoner here as of May 1, 2015. Inmates can still send greeting cards, but families & friends can no longer send a greeting card to me – not even at Christmas. Bah, humbug!
- Letters and enclosures must be written or printed on standard stock stationery. No heavy, layered, or decorated paper is permitted. Mail is limited to 10 physical pages per envelope, but double-sided printing counts as one page.
- Photographs and printed material, including printed photographs, are still permitted as long as they are printed on plain or “photo-quality” paper. Printed images, articles, and other Internet material is allowed.
- Though material printed from the Internet is permitted, photocopies of published materials, e.g., from a book or magazine are not allowed due to copyright rules.
- Please include your return address on both your envelope and letter. Prisoners may retain the contents of mail, but not the envelopes. Please be patient with me as answering mail is a challenge here. The coming tablets may help.
- Books ordered from Amazon.com are allowed, but please ask me first as I must turn in one to receive one.
- Please address mail to me using no title (eg., “Rev.” or “Fr.”) as follows:
Gordon J. MacRae
P.O. Box 14 – No. 67546
Concord, NH 03302-0014
- The Pay Pal account on These Stone Walls is active and may be used to send gifts. (Note that the listed recipient is Charlene Duline who maintains the PayPal account for TSW. She immediately transfers all gifts directly to me). See the “Donate” page.
- Checks or money orders are allowed with letters to prison. Please note the following rules: Checks must have prisoner name & number on the “Pay to” line. (Eg: Gordon MacRae #67546 or Pornchai Moontri #77948. Senders cannot send a check to each of us in the same envelope.
- Checks must have sender’s name and address written legibly on the check or money order.
- We have an alternate address for financial assistance without the above restrictions or rules. This account is maintained by my sister. If you wish to send a gift to me or to Pornchai Moontri, just make it out to me as below and my family will get it to us as instructed. There is no need for prison numbers, and you can call me whatever you want (within reason). Thank you! Here’s the address:
Fr. Gordon J. MacRae
P.O. Box 205
Wilmington, MA 01887-0205