Recovery Continues in Houston Two Years After Harvey Hit

When Sandra Edwards moved back to Kashmere Gardens last October for the first time since Hurricane Harvey, her house had long since been gutted, revealing dozens of gaps through which she could see the sky, the ground and surrounding houses.

The Houston Chronicle reports each hole was an invitation to critters, and, as she puts it, "I don't do critters."

So, Edwards started patching, creating a desperate collage of old wallpaper, duct tape, fabric, newspaper, cardboard and her favorite, rainbow-patterned tape she bought when the Dollar Store ran out of gray.

To avoid sitting idle and unable to cook on broken appliances she could not afford to replace, Edwards, a security guard, asked her boss to schedule her seven days a week.

"I had to find something to focus on. Many a night I came home and I'd just sit here in the dark and cry until I fell asleep," she said. "I'm just surviving, put it like that."

Two years after the worst rainstorm in continental U.S. history, life in Houston, at least on the surface, has returned to normal. Kids are back at school; the Astros are gearing up for a playoff run; vacant lots are plastered with campaign signs.

And the city is living up to its reputation -- real estate development continues in flood plains, though at higher elevations as mandated by new city and Harris County rules, and the region is setting records for home sales, including many properties that flooded during Harvey.

Just 7% of respondents to the annual Kinder Houston Area Survey this year named flooding the city's biggest problem, half the tally who said so after Harvey -- even though the same overwhelming majority expects more major storms to come.

Yet, thousands of Harvey survivors remain displaced or live in damaged homes. Thousands more relive their trauma with each rain, making mental lists of what to grab if they must evacuate or comforting family members troubled by memories of rising water.

And, two years after the storm, residents have been given precious few reasons for optimism. Not in the progress of programs to repair and rebuild flood-damaged housing. Not in projects aimed at lessening the risk of future floods.

Yes, the Harris County Flood Control District has 50% more work in progress than it did before Harvey, thanks to the $2.5 billion bond voters approved a year ago. Only a fifth of the 149 bond projects underway, however, have started construction.

Houston officials, without a comparable source of local funds, acknowledge the city is no more prepared for a flood than it was when Harvey hit, in large part because federal flood mitigation aid has been crushingly slow to arrive. Much of the city's funds for capital projects are tied up repairing storm damage to its own facilities.

For many of those whose homes were swamped by Harvey, urgency has given way to frustration and resignation.

Though the city and county finally got access to a combined $2.5 billion in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recovery funds last December, as of late this month city officials had disbursed aid to or begun repairs on just 15 homes; the county had yet to start any repairs.

City and county housing officials stress they are working long hours to ramp up an astoundingly complex process, but Edwards cannot help but feel that government officials grew complacent.

"If they were on their job to do what needed to be done, half of these people, including me, our houses would be done. And the thing is, it's not even our fault. This was Mother Nature," Edwards said, wiping away tears. "It's hell to be poor, I guess. I don't care how hard you work, if you don't have the money you're going to suffer."

Houston's Harvey home repair program headquarters marinates in jargon -- SSERs, ISIs, 1101 forms, DOB calcs -- and plain-language references to the complications they represent: Asbestos, lead, mold, insurance.

Coating the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Midtown are index cards bearing applicants' names, addresses and application numbers. Some sport star- and circle-shaped stickers; special cases are marked with neon sticky notes. Checklists border each card, scrawled on the windows in purple marker.

"We started out with 81 files. Thirty-seven of them needed final feasibility, and the feasibility team knocked out all 37, which is awesome," senior recovery division staffer Sharon Washington said at a mid-August meeting. Then she pointed to a colleague. "That means you guys are next on deck for those 37."

More than 19,600 Houstonians have filled out surveys about Harvey damage, and a quarter of them have been invited to apply for assistance repairing or rebuilding their homes. To get help, they must gather roughly 20 required documents, be deemed eligible, schedule inspections, agree on repair plans and get approval from the General Land Office -- HUD's partner agency in Texas, through which the aid is routed.

"Index cards on a window are not going to move 200 files a month, but you can work the bugs out," city housing director Tom McCasland said, referring to the volume he hopes the program soon will reach. "And until you can talk about -- by name, by address -- what's going on and how that person is getting across the finish line, nothing else matters."

The city's process did not begin this way.

After shepherding four families through the pipeline and hosting a press event with the mayor in late April, the city finished May without helping any more homeowners. The city's Harvey housing recovery chief left in early June amid "pace and quality concerns," and McCasland redirected staff to the effort.

The index cards went up soon after, helping the city send 75 files to the state for approval by the end of June. A "miscommunication" about how detailed files needed to be before being sent to the GLO for review set the city's efforts back, however, as staff adjusted processes and spent weeks gathering additional information.

It took until the end of July, McCasland said, before he felt the system was primed to move efficiently.

"The city program so far has to be viewed as a complete failure. That's definitely the feeling on the ground," said Ben Hirsch of West Street Recovery, a nonprofit working primarily in hard-hit northeast Houston. "People are like, `Well, that's kind of an imaginary program."'

Washington, who was hired in late July, said she joined the recovery effort to find colleagues working with the same urgency she felt, spurred by her own memories of a storm that collapsed the ceiling of her bedroom at her family's Dallas home.

"With that in mind, I came in driving hard," she said. "Here we are in hurricane season again, two years later, and people are terrified of the weather reports. We have not forgotten."

Harris County has hit its own hurdles in the housing recovery, including the work of the vendor it hired to gather applications, ICF International.

The county invited 3,911 families to apply, but just 123 had completed applications as of mid-August. Only five of those -- all seeking home buyouts, not repairs -- were about to receive aid.

Even if the county had gotten more families through the application and approval process, it has yet to hire builders dedicated to Harvey home repair and reconstruction.

"I totally empathize with our applicants," said Harris County Community Services Department Director Daphne Lemelle. "I know they're waiting for this assistance, and I feel really bad that we're not where we should be. We should be helping people today."

In contrast, the Texas General Land Office, which is running the recovery in the 48 Harvey-affected counties outside of Harris, was able to launch its efforts more than three months before Houston and Harris County. That is because the city and county pushed HUD to grant them more autonomy running their programs, leading to an extra round of paperwork needing approval in Washington.

When the GLO was at roughly the same place in its program as the city and county are now, it had approved 240 homes for construction and finished 11.

McCasland said he still is aiming for the city to finish 250 homes and have another 250 under construction by the end of the year.

"The urgency that we felt before Harvey when we went into life-threatening homes -- because deferred maintenance was so severe in some of these neighborhoods -- just got compounded dramatically after Harvey," McCasland said. "The difference is we now have money to address this, but a very, very technical process through which to do it."

Robert Ellis-Montgomery had never checked bayou flood gauges online during storms, nor scanned his home for possessions that should be moved to higher shelves to escape a flood. That was before his Westbury home took on 13 inches of water during Harvey.

The county Flood Control District has set aside $30 million of the $2.5 billion bond voters approved last year to improve the nearby Fondren Diversion Channel, which some residents blame for recent floods.

That project is not among the 149 active bond projects, however.

"We do fear that in the next big rain we should expect the same outcome, because nothing has changed, and that's a terrible feeling," Ellis-Montgomery said. "It's coming, and there's nothing you can do but just hope that somebody is going to eventually get around to taking care of it. It's such a helpless feeling."

The bond money means marquee projects -- including improvements to Brays, Hunting and White Oak bayous and Clear Creek in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- can be accelerated, Flood Control District Deputy Executive Director Matt Zeve said, as can long-planned local projects.

Even an accelerated schedule, however, does not mean projects can be finished overnight, something Zeve said he often tells community groups, ticking through the studies that must be done, the land that must be acquired and the engineering plans that must be produced before construction can start.

"For people that flooded and people that are involved in recovery from Hurricane Harvey, I think the sense of urgency is actually greater over time," Zeve said, "because now we're in hurricane season and a lot of people think not enough work is being done."

Even if the county's work was done, thousands of homes still would be at risk of flooding from inadequate drainage on local streets. And, without a similar infusion of cash, Houston has not accelerated those repairs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency just this month approved Houston's first bit of federal flood control aid: $5.4 million to design flood gates for the Lake Houston Dam and large detention basins to be built on a former golf course in Inwood; in time, the city expects to get the $87 million needed to build those improvements.

HUD this month published long-delayed rules on how $4.3 billion in mitigation funds for Texas can be spent, but that will be only the start of a months-long planning process that is expected to deliver about $1 billion to both the city and county.

Jim Blackburn, co-director of Rice University's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, said despite waning urgency among the public, he feels a more sustained focus on flooding than after previous storms. That does not mean local governments have the funds to act on that focus, however.

"Luckily, the county's in the position where they can at least begin to address these problems with money," Blackburn said. "The city, frankly, needs more resources. How much controversy are we willing to take on to tackle this issue? If you don't have money you're going to need to get way out of the box."

In some neighborhoods, there are concerns the county bond alone will not be enough.

For example, local civic leader Keith Downey said, even if Hunting Bayou is improved through flood-prone Kashmere Gardens, the city drainage system on individual streets is often poor, with clogged ditches, blocked culverts and streets that slope away from the bayou.

"People are saying, `OK, I'll go for a $2.5 billion bond, but how are you helping to alleviate water from my property?' Which, of course, is the city," Downey said. "Residents are very concerned. I know -- `Where's the funding?' -- I get all that. But still, the people are saying, `I'm a taxpayer and I need help."'

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he understands residents' frustrations.

"When it comes to dealing with natural disasters and how dollars flow from the federal level all the way down," he said, "we do need a new paradigm shift because it does take far too long."

Sandra Edwards had given up hoping for aid -- she applied for city help after the 2016 Tax Day Flood and Harvey and said she was denied because her home was not in her name -- when she was introduced to workers with West Street Recovery.

The nonprofit's staff helped her tackle the deed problem and reapply for aid, and plan to soon make repairs on her home.

"I can sit here and look at it now because I know it's not going to be like this forever," she said, gesturing at her patchwork walls. "I know some help is on the way."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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