‘Harvey Homeless’ endure
Texans struggling to rebuild homes ruined by floods
WHARTON, Texas — Behind a maze of wavy flooring, torn-up drywall, broken furniture and boxes of water-stained clothes stacked like a wobbly Dr. Seuss tower, Susan and David Elliott huddle in the back room of their floodravaged home. It’s where they eat meals, at a table in front of their bed. It’s their “command center.” It’s where they live now, a year after the water came and sullied everything else.
“I’m back here!” Susan Elliott calls out, above the chirping of crickets that have nested in holes in the walls, above the whirring of box fans that move the stale air in the Texas heat. The bedroom in their home here, 60 miles southwest of Houston, is their only refuge, their only option, their last resort.
One year after Hurricane Harvey trudged out of the Gulf of Mexico and parked over southern Texas, dropping what seemed like endless rain, thousands of residents throughout the region remain essentially homeless in their own homes. Everything they own is moldy, rotted, dusty, unsafe. Some wash dishes in the bathtub. Others still shower using a bucket.
At least 197,000 homes were badly damaged in the floods, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, a count that many suspect is low because not everyone with a damaged home reported it to authorities. In many working-class and lowermiddle-class communities like Wharton, residents say they can afford only a fraction of the repairs necessary to make their homes livable, such as drywall, wiring and plumbing, expenses that often can run tens of thousands of dollars. So they live in one room. Or on a relative’s sofa.
“We are what Texans call the ‘Harvey Homeless,’ ” says Susan Elliott, whose house was pummeled with waves of murky, mosquito-ridden water, several feet deep, during the Aug. 25, 2017, storm. “There are days we feel paralyzed because we are out of money or emotionally drained. We just keep trying, day by day, even a year later. Now all the videos and news of the anniversary — it’s like we see how long it has been and how slow the recovery is.”
Recovery here hasbeen monumentally slow, a draining slog that is due in part to the magnitude of the historic storm’s 60 inches of rain — thought to be one of the largest rainfalls in U.S. history — and because nearly 80 percent of households affected by Harvey did not have flood insurance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Affordable-housing advocates call Harvey one of the largest housing disasters in U.S. history, next to only Hurricane Katrina, which overwhelmed New Orleans in August 2005.
Because of the low levels of insurance coverage, many people were financially blindsided when Harvey hit — and their lives haven’t yet returned to normal.
Some scrape by living in moldy half-built homes, others have fled to motels, others still rely on donations or relatives to house them.
While the storm is long over, rebuilding could take years or even a decade for some, said Mary Comerio, an expert in disasters and an architecture professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
“This is not a one-year process for most folks,” she said. “Those without huge savings or backup plans will likely live in poor conditions until they can fully raise the funds to completely build back. We have seen this around the world. Life will really never be the same.”
FEMA’s hotel voucher program ran out in July, said Lauren Hersh, an agency spokeswoman, meaning that those living in hotels and motels must start paying for the emergency housing themselves. Hersh said the agency is “pushing residents to buy flood insurance” because the payouts are far more than FEMA provides; she said the average FEMA payout to homeowners after Harvey was $4,203.
“The government paying for every single home to be completely rebuilt would cost more money than you and I are ever likely to see,” Hersh said.
Elliott, 60, described the flooding from Harvey as “a fast-moving river” that inundated almost everything in her home. It also destroyed thousands of dollars worth of her husband’s airbrush equipment, so he was unable to sustain his custom car-painting business and was unemployed for several months.
“I just want walls,” she said, in tears. “We just want people to know things are not OK. We are still not OK.”
In an impoverished section of east Houston, Bethel Baptist Church lead pastor Jaime Garcia is jumping on the back of a pickup, dripping sweat as he hauls in lamps and sacks of clothing from Anthony Araoz, a contractor who lives across town in Cypress.
“We got lucky and didn’t flood,” Araoz said. “So that means helping is on us. It’s the right thing to do. Next time, it could be us.”
The church’s gym is full of mattresses, blankets, diapers, bags of clothing, popcorn, cans of beans.
There are still so many people in need that it feels like a perpetual recovery effort.
“If someone from outer space came here, they might think the hurricane happened last week,” Garcia said.
His hashtag, #NothingIsNormal, has been a rallying cry to let the wealthier parts of Houston know that those less fortunate are still struggling, including those who are undocumented and not eligible for federal assistance or some state programs. He hosts a weekly Sunday “Harvey prayer service,” so people can come and pick up supplies.
Garcia also aims to help the poorest of the poor, those who already were in dire need before the hurricane and couldn’t afford flood insurance, leaving them with next to nothing.
“They were already hand-to-mouth,” he said.
The desperation in some areas of Texas is widespread, such as in the coastal city of Port Arthur, about 90 miles east of Houston, where about half the 55,000 residents are still displaced as a result of the hurricane, according to John Beard, a former city council member. Beard said people are living in gutted homes without working bathrooms and with fast-spreading mold spores creeping through the walls in the humid climate.
After Harvey — when as much as 75 percent of the largely African-American and Latino city was displaced — Beard formed the Port Arthur Community Action Network, which pushed for federal money since Port Arthur was left out of the first round of government funding, with its focus on Houston and its exurbs.
It recently was allocated $15.7 million in federal funding, but that is largely to buy out people in repetitive flood zones and to fix infrastructure, not to repair homes.