Hous­ton’s long re­cov­ery qui­etly heads in­side

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SCOTT WIL­SON IN HOUS­TON

When Hur­ri­cane Har­vey hit and hov­ered for days above this city, a half-dozen school dis­trict em­ploy­ees man­ning pumps stayed at Kolter Ele­men­tary School in the flood-prone Mey­er­land neigh­bor­hood. Even­tu­ally, they had to be res­cued from the roof.

The flooded school is now full with con­struc­tion crews, its stu­dents miles away in a cramped cam­pus to which they ar­rive on char­ter buses, the deluxe kind fit­ted out with video screens. “To them, it’s like they’re go­ing to the Gram­mys ev­ery day,” said Ju­lianne Dick­in­son, the school’s prin­ci­pal.

For Dick­in­son, the novelty of dis­place­ment has worn off. Like many here, she feels for­tu­nate that her ru­ined school has a new home, even if the cam­pus is holding 200 more stu­dents than it was ever meant to. Im­pro­vi­sa­tion has be­come an art, as it has

for many in the coun­try’s fourth­largest city.

The school halls bear the fa­mil­iar crayon-and-con­struc­tion­pa­per decor of stu­dent draw­ings. Kids in cos­tume lined up one re­cent morn­ing for the Pa­rade of Book Char­ac­ters, a lit­er­ary twist on Hal­loween unique to Kolter Ele­men­tary.

But it is not the same place. Two spe­cial-needs classes have been taken in by an un­dam­aged school with more room. Pal­lets of do­nated copier pa­per and print car­tridges line the already tight hall­ways. The small cafe­te­ria holds only one class at a time, so lunch hour runs all day. The en­tire staff shares an of­fice, and at home, Dick­in­son has taken in a fourth-grade teacher whose house was de­stroyed in the flood.

“We’re only eight kids short of what we an­tic­i­pated,” Dick­in­son said, not­ing that, de­spite it all, just a few fam­i­lies moved out of the dis­trict af­ter the flood. “It’s pretty won­der­ful, and it says some­thing about us and all these peo­ple want­ing to stick it out.”

Nearly three months af­ter the storm, a very pub­lic dis­as­ter has be­come a largely pri­vate one.

To the eye, the city has re­turned to a sem­blance of nor­malcy. Schools are open. The power is on. The In­ter­na­tional Quilt Fes­ti­val packed in visi­tors on a re­cent week­end in the down­town con­ven­tion cen­ter where thou­sands sought shel­ter dur­ing Har­vey.

Much of this has hap­pened ahead of sched­ule. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has paid out about $1.4 bil­lion in emer­gency hous­ing and other as­sis­tance to peo­ple in Hous­ton and the other coun­ties designated dis­as­ter ar­eas, money to fund the im­me­di­ate re­pairs needed to make homes liv­able as quickly as pos­si­ble.

But the chal­lenges, which will take years to solve and will re­draw this city’s ge­og­ra­phy in do­ing so, have moved in­side homes and class­rooms and gov­ern­ment of­fices.

De­bris piles have mostly dis­ap­peared. They have been re­placed by con­trac­tor trucks parked in the drive­ways of thou­sands of Hous­ton homes, the pound­ing of hammers and buzzing of saws com­ing from in­side.

More than 9,000 city res­i­dents are ad­just­ing to life in ho­tel rooms. The steady sound­track of ra­dio ads of­fer­ing cash for dam­aged homes is ev­i­dence of the pri­vate money that is turn­ing once-sta­ble, now gut­ted neigh­bor­hoods into a spec­u­la­tor’s par­adise.

In ad­di­tion to the emer­gency hous­ing aid, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, strained by com­pet­ing dis­as­ters in South Florida and Puerto Rico, has paid out more than $4.2 bil­lion in flood in­surance claims as­so­ci­ated with Har­vey. But some, par­tic­u­larly those who have the least, com­plain about weeks-long de­lays and backed-up bills.

The gov­ern­ment’s bills lie ahead. Hous­ton schools opened within a month of the storm, a re­cov­ery that far ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions af­ter more than 200 of the dis­trict’s 287 cam­puses were dam­aged. But the re­pair costs will be ex­or­bi­tant, prob­a­bly ex­his­toric ceed­ing $200 mil­lion, in­clud­ing the likely need to re­build at least four schools from the ground up.

The weak­ened state of the city is work­ing against the dis­trict’s abil­ity to raise the money. Hous­ton pub­lic schools are funded by prop­erty tax rev­enue, and those are pro­jected to plum­met in the years ahead be­cause of the ex­ten­sive storm dam­age.

“I’m very, very pleased with the speed of the re­cov­ery and how the city is bounc­ing back,” Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “That is not to say that there are not tremen­dous needs. There are tremen­dous needs, so let me be clear about that. But I don’t think any other city could have re­sponded more quickly than this city has.”

Rush to nor­mal, then wait­ing

Har­vey dumped more than four feet of rain on Hous­ton over a few days in late Au­gust, and even as boat res­cues con­tin­ued in res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods, Turner be­gan to look ahead to re­cov­ery. His early pri­or­ity, af­ter en­sur­ing pub­lic safety fol­low­ing a storm that killed scores and left tens of thou­sands home­less, was to make the city feel as nor­mal as pos­si­ble.

He turned to base­ball. His of­fice helped co­or­di­nate an ap­peal to the New York Mets, who agreed to keep their dou­ble­header date with the now-world cham­pion Astros in down­town Minute Maid Park be­fore the storm had even cleared the city. The Astros won both games, in­clud­ing a win against Mets start­ing pitcher Matt Har­vey. He called Janet Jack­son. The singer had a con­cert planned for the Toy­ota Cen­ter the fol­low­ing week­end, and she con­sid­ered can­cel­ing, given the state of the city. Turner talked her out of it, and she vis­ited the nearby Ge­orge R. Brown Con­ven­tion Cen­ter be­fore­hand to spend time with the more than 1,000 Hous­to­ni­ans shel­tered there. All emer­gency shel­ters have closed. Many have re­turned to patched-up homes or moved in with fam­i­lies. More than 50,000 oth­ers statewide are liv­ing in ho­tel rooms.

Now Turner is look­ing at the long-term costs of the storm and the way the af­ter­math will de­ter­mine how and where Hous­ton, which has flooded each of the past three years, is re­built.

Local of­fi­cials have iden­ti­fied 65 neigh­bor­hoods, com­pris­ing roughly 3,300 homes, that have flooded re­peat­edly. Turner said the city and county gov­ern­ments will look to buy out hun­dreds of home­own­ers — on a vol­un­tary ba­sis — be­fore they re­build in those high-risk ar­eas that lie at least two feet be­low the flood­plain.

Fu­ture devel­op­ment will also come un­der closer scru­tiny. Ear­lier this month, Turner used his

prerog­a­tive to pull con­sid­er­a­tion of a new hous­ing devel­op­ment off the city coun­cil’s agenda to al­low for more study.

Reser­voirs will have to be built to pro­tect the city’s vul­ner­a­ble west side. The poor and the el­derly, who suf­fered se­verely in a storm that gen­er­ally did not dis­crim­i­nate by class, will need longterm as­sis­tance to re­gain pur­chase on dis­rupted lives.

“We are liv­ing in the postHar­vey world, and so we just have to be mind­ful of the im­pact of what we do,” Turner said. “But we are still the same city. We are still de­vel­op­ing.”

Congress ap­proved $15 bil­lion for Har­vey as­sis­tance, and the state of Texas has given an­other $50 mil­lion to Hous­ton so far. Turner be­lieves the re­cov­ery cost for the re­gion may run as high as $180 bil­lion, and his city and the coun­ties around it need money quickly.

He has lob­bied the state for ad­di­tional fund­ing. So far Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has de­clined re­quests to open the rainy­day fund for emer­gency re­lief, say­ing Hous­ton has enough money so far. Abbott has said he would re­con­sider his po­si­tion as the re­cov­ery pro­gresses, and Turner be­lieves he will even­tu­ally send more money when the costs be­come clearer.

“It’s like we we’re just wait­ing on the dol­lars to come down from D.C. so we can get into these homes and put them in bet­ter shape,” Turner said. “It’s like a wheel. We are mov­ing, and we’re mov­ing at light­ning speed. We sim­ply want the oth­ers to do the same.”

Re­cov­er­ing on credit

In the Gulf Mead­ows neigh­bor­hood south­east of Hous­ton’s down­town, Dru­cilla Bolden is one of those wait­ing.

She is 64 years old, a re­tired school­teacher, and her sis­ter and house­mate, Vera, is 70. The two were among 200 women evac­u­ated by fish­ing boat from the sub­urb of small, sin­gle-story houses as Har­vey poured down. Her home for the past 25 years suf­fered se­vere wa­ter dam­age, and on a re­cent day, a con­trac­tor sawed through moldy dry­wall in the ef­fort make it liv­able again.

Bolden does not have any money to pay him. She re­ceived a $40,000 ad­vance against her fed­eral flood in­surance claim from the gov­ern­ment, but the money only paid for sup­plies and a bit of la­bor.

The con­trac­tor has been work­ing on credit for weeks. Dur­ing Bolden’s fre­quent trips to Lowe’s, she hears from many oth­ers in her neigh­bor­hood lin­ger­ing in the same fi­nan­cial limbo.

The sis­ters have been stay­ing with an­other sis­ter not far away. But Bolden said she feels like a bur­den with no money to con­trib­ute for the emer­gency hospi­tal­ity.

“Vera al­ways tells me to ‘pack my pa­tience,’ ” Bolden said. “My pa­tience is done.”

‘It’s go­ing to take time’

In the city’s low south­west side sits Mey­er­land, a com­fort­able up­per-mid­dle-class neigh­bor­hood whose de­sign ethic has been shaped by suc­ces­sive floods.

New multi-floor homes — raised four to five feet off the ground — loom next to the neigh­bor­hood’s ini­tial sin­gle-story ranch­ers and ar­chi­tec­tural orig­i­nals. The new houses iden­tify those who re­built af­ter the Memo­rial Day flood of 2015, in­clud­ing the Flip­pen fam­ily.

Mar­garet Flip­pen said the fam­ily’s orig­i­nal home was de­stroyed in that flood and only af­ter long con­sid­er­a­tion did she and her hus­band, an en­ergy ex­ec­u­tive, de­cide to re­build in the same spot.

The mother of three said the de­ci­sion was based in large part on keep­ing the chil­dren in Kolter Ele­men­tary, which she called “the heart of the neigh­bor­hood,” just up her oak-lined street. She used to walk her chil­dren there, as did most of her neigh­bors. Now her hus­band drives them to the new cam­pus a few miles to the north.

The Flip­pens moved into their new home in De­cem­ber. A set of steep stairs leads to their porch and front door. As Har­vey be­gan, three fam­i­lies in older, lower homes ar­rived, fill­ing the spa­cious house with 10 kids un­der the age of 7 to wait out the storm.

Soon, boats be­gan pa­trolling what was the street out­side. The wa­ter rose, all the way to the top step of the porch, prompt­ing the fam­i­lies to move all the fur­ni­ture up­stairs. But the house re­mained dry, although many on Flip­pen’s street filled with wa­ter.

“It’s go­ing to take time — more time than the last time — to re­cover, but I feel like there are sec­tions of the neigh­bor­hood that already have mo­men­tum,” she said. “Peo­ple are rein­vest­ing. But whether to stay is a very per­sonal de­ci­sion.”

A few streets away, Jim Dub­bert has made the de­ci­sion to leave, only he can­not. His orig­i­nal mid­cen­tury mod­ern home, built in 1961, is a com­plete loss. It flooded two years ago with 18 inches of wa­ter; Har­vey filled it with 44 inches.

He and his wife, Mary-Dodd, would have moved the last time if he could have sold the house for enough to pay off the mort­gage. In­stead, he be­gan mak­ing the ren­o­va­tions him­self, un­able to hire a con­trac­tor for the work, be­cause the home it­self does not meet city code.

The back of the house is all glass, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to raise. A semire­tired con­sul­tant, Dub­bert worked on the ren­o­va­tions against the clock, know­ing an­other flood was in­evitable, but he was un­able to fin­ish in time to sell be­fore it came.

He has be­gun again, the TV news on in the back­ground, his dog Aug­gie nearby. Out back is an RV, which he and Mary-Dodd call “Har­vey,” lent to them by friends so they do not have to sleep in­side the musty house.

“If you don’t have friends, you have no chance at a time like this, no way to do it by your­self,” said Dub­bert, who is 72. “But if we flood again, sorry, the bull­dozer starts on that end of the house and pushes all the way to that end.”

“It’s like a wheel . . . . We’re mov­ing at light­ning speed. We sim­ply want the oth­ers to do the same.” Hous­ton Mayor Sylvester Turner on the pace of re­cov­ery in his city

A worker re­pairs Kolter Ele­men­tary School, dam­aged by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, on Oct. 31. Its stu­dents have moved to an in­terim cam­pus.


Hous­ton Mayor Sylvester Turner turned to re­cov­ery even be­fore Har­vey wholly dis­si­pated, try­ing to get his city back to nor­mal.


Dru­cilla Bolden checks on her Hous­ton home mid-re­pair on Nov. 1. From out­side, the city seems to have more or less re­turned to nor­mal af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, but years of work still await.

Mar­garet Flip­pen’s house weath­ered Har­vey with­out flood­ing, thanks to its height. Her pre­vi­ous house was de­stroyed by a flood in 2015.

Dru­cilla Bolden sur­veys her home. Her in­surance money has been slow to come in, and her con­trac­tor has worked on credit for weeks.

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