Rachel Tolbert Kimbro, a professor of sociology at Rice, has produced the rarest of commodities: an easily readable book, rich with academic value. In Too Deep: Class and Mothering in a Flooded Community is the story of 36 upper middle-class mothers on Houston’s southwest side before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey. It’s about:
- Why they chose the neighborhood they live in – despite knowledge of prior floods
- Their struggle to survive during Harvey
- The fight to recover after the storm – financially, physically and psychologically – while holding their families together
- Why most chose to stay instead of move, despite repeated floods.
Professor Kimbro interviewed the women extensively over the course of several years and found common themes between their stories. Among them: the struggle to protect their children, neighborhood, school, and friendships. The values they found in their neighborhood – affordability, diversity, walkability, a good school, safety, and a supportive network of neighbors – brought them together. And fear of losing those values after the flood kept them from moving elsewhere. Sound familiar? You could substitute “proximity to nature” for “proximity to museums” and understand why so many flood victims chose to stay in the Lake Houston Area after Harvey.
Qualitative Research Yields Insights
For In Too Deep, Kimbro used structured qualitative research, not quantitative. The result is a moving narrative, replete with insight and pathos. It mirrors, in a different part of Houston, many of the interviews I have done in the Lake Houston Area since Harvey.
Those who flooded will find painful memories and, ultimately, a sense of kinship that comes from a recognition of their shared struggles. Kimbro’s description of rescues by kayak; of several families crowding into one upstairs room with their pets; of struggles with contractors and adjusters; and of families sleeping on air mattresses for more than a year will bring many people to tears.
Policy makers will gain insights into what makes buyouts so difficult despite such difficulties. The book explains why many people in this neighborhood wanted to stay put after Harvey despite prior, severe flooding during the Tax and Memorial Day storms.
Kimbro’s editorial decision to focus only on women in one area and from one social class limits her research somewhat. But what it loses in breadth, it gains in depth. There is little academic research into how upper middle-class moms cope with disasters. Most research on flooding focuses on less affluent, communities of color.
Professor Kimbro recreated the Harvey experience completely and faithfully from the standpoint of her interviewees. Women in the Lake Houston Area will likely identify with the struggles Kimbro’s subjects faced. Spoiler alert: keep a box of tissues handy when you read this book.
Kimbro changed women’s names and even the name of their neighborhood to protect their privacy and confidentiality. Many of the women felt almost violated from having neighbors and contractors traipse through the private spaces in their homes (bedrooms, bathrooms, etc.) to rip out wallboard, tile, and carpet. I just wish she had mentioned the fictitious neighborhood name in the introduction, not at the end.
Throughout the book, she refers to the neighborhood as “Bayou Oaks” and the school that the children go to as “Bayou Oaks Elementary.”
I wanted so much to photograph this neighborhood that I Googled the names to find their locations. I also tried to look them up in multiple map apps and Google Earth. No joy! There is no Bayou Oaks Elementary in the Houston ISD. And there is no Bayou Oaks where she described it.
As a consequence, at times I wondered how real In Too Deep was. But it is very real.
Suggestion for Future Research
One thing struck me as odd though. Unless I missed it on first reading, none of the women focused on political action (lobbying for flood mitigation) as a solution to their flood woes. None of these mothers turned into political activists lobbying for flood mitigation dollars – despite their fear of future floods.
In contrast, less affluent, predominantly minority communities seize headlines and more dollars every week. Why the difference? Is it financial desperation? Lack of alternatives? Or something cultural?
This is certainly an area for future investigation. And I hope Kimbro takes it up. She’s both a talented researcher and storyteller. We have a lot to learn from her.
In Too Deep comes in paperback, hardbound and digital editions. I purchased the Kindle edition from Amazon. I highly recommend it.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/25/2022
1669 Days since Hurricane Harvey