‘Har­vey Home­less’ en­dure

Tex­ans strug­gling to re­build homes ru­ined by floods

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By Emily Wax-Thi­bodeaux The Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

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