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Flood survivors face housing crisis during ‘many-year recovery’

August 30, 2017 at 8:00 PM

epa06168742 Mindy Walker and her three year old son Connor Martinez are helped out of a boat after being rescued from their home along Cypress Creek at Kuykendal 15 miles northwest of downtown Houston, Texas, USA, 28 August 2017. The areas in and around Houston and south Texas are experiencing record floods after more than 24 inches of rain after Harvey made landfall in the south coast of Texas as a category 4 hurricane, the most powerful to affect the US since 2004. Harvey has weakened and been downgraded to a tropical storm and is expected to cause heavy rain for several days. EPA/MICHAEL WYKE
Alexendre Jorge evacuates Ethan Colman, 4, from a neighborhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
A Houston fire department rescue boat is seen stranded near a car rental shop during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
A truck driver walks past an abandoned truck while checking the depth of an underpass during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Flood victims walk through a shelter in the George R. Brown Convention Center during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
People wait outside a shelter in the George R. Brown Convention Center during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
A family salvages items from their garage after floodwaters receded during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Ducks make their way through floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A home is surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Belinda Penn holds her dogs Winston and Baxter after being rescued from their home as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Joe Garcia carries his dog Heidi from his flooded home as he is rescued from rising floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A row of tractors are surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Cattle are stranded in a flooded pasture on Highway 71 in La Grange, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
People evacuate a neighborhood in west Houston inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: Stranded vehicles sit where they got stuck in high water from Hurricane Harvey on Dairy Ashford Drive, August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey made landfall shortly after 11 p.m. Friday, just north of Port Aransas as a Category 4 storm and is being reported as the strongest hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
Firefighters put out a fire during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: Local apartment residents cross high water on North Braeswood Blvd to escape the flooding from Hurricane Harvey August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in areas of Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
A Jeep drives through a neighborhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Spc. Garth Parks, left, and Pfc. Taylor Garen, center, chat as Garen packs her alert bag at the Tyler Armed Forces Reserve Center in Tyler, Texas, on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. Unit 136 military police battalion has deployed some members and equipment for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in Houston while the headquarters unit waits for their mission instructions. (Chelsea Purgahn/Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP)
Robert Dressell of Tyler and Adam Turner of Tyler pack the back of a pickup truck with fuel before leaving from WC Custom Boats in Noonday, Texas to head to areas affected by Hurricane Harvey Monday morning, Aug. 28, 2017. The group took six boats stocked with fuel and water headed to the Houston area to assist in Hurricane Harvey rescue efforts. (Sarah A. Miller/Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
LA GRANGE, TX-AUGUST, 28: Residents of La Grange view the devastation to parts of the downtown flooded by the Colorado river rising by 54 feet because of rains caused by Hurricane Harvey. Residents from this area were evacuated yesterday and the river flooded the area early this morning
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People get off busses after being rescued as they seek shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, TX on Monday, Aug 28, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: A Coast Guard helicopter lowers someone in Houston, TX on Monday, Aug 28, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: A man sleeps as people seek shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, TX on Monday, Aug 28, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People move from helicopters to busses as they land on Highway 69 after being rescued in Houston, TX on Monday, Aug 28, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People move from helicopters to busses as they land on Highway 69 after being rescued in Houston, TX on Monday, Aug 28, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
A man helps a woman get covered up at the George R. Brown Convention Center that has been set up as a shelter for evacuees escaping the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Robert Salgado, center, sleep with relatives Jesse Alexander Leija, right, and Leliana Salgado on the floor at the George R. Brown Convention Center that has been set up as a shelter for evacuees escaping the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Sam Speights exits a window of his home that was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Rockport, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
WESTLAKE, TX - AUGUST 29: Texas Army National Guard members help down families that were rescued from their flooded Pine Forest Village neighborhood due to high water from Hurricane Harvey August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
A woman is wheeled by first responders into the George R. Brown Convention Center that has been set up as a shelter for evacuees escaping the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
People wait in line for an HEB grocery store to open during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 29, 2017 in Deer Park, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Volunteers in boats rescue people and their pets from their homes near interstate 45 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
In this aerial photo, water is released from the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters rise from Tropical Storm Harvey on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)
Water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Residents evacuate their homes near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Airplanes sit at a flooded airport near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A Texas flag flies over floodwaters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in La Grange, Texas, Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
Highways around downtown Houston are empty as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey overflow from the bayous around the city Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Volunteers in boats rescue people and their pets from their homes near interstate 45 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
US President Donald Trump(C) listens alongside Texas Governor Greg Abbott(L) and First Lady Melania Trump(R) during a firehouse briefing on Hurricane Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas on August 29, 2017. President Donald Trump flew into storm-ravaged Texas Tuesday in a show of solidarity and leadership in the face of the deadly devastation wrought by Harvey -- as the battered US Gulf Coast braces for even more torrential rain. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSONJIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
REFILE - CLARIFYING LOCATION Isiah Courtney carries his dog Bruce through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont Place, Houston, Texas, U.S., on August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Volunteers line up to sign up to help with the shelter for victims of the flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey at a shelter opened at the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Kingwood, TX-AUGUST, 29: Police and volunteers rescue residents flooded by the San Jacinto river in Kingwood, Texas. The boats are on a road that was passable yesterday.
Kingwood, TX-AUGUST, 29: Volunteer Dustin Langley, who lives two hours North of Houston and came down with a friend to volunteer, helps a family to their escape their flooded apartment in Kingwood, Texas. They placed them on their boat and took them to safety.
Kingwood, TX-AUGUST, 29: Volunteer Dustin Langley, who lives two hours North of Houston and came down with a friend to help, points to an apartment with stranded residents flooded by the San Jacinto river in Kingwood, Texas
People wait to help evacuees during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Hurricane Harvey has set what forecasters believe is a new rainfall record for the continental United States, officials said Tuesday. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Larry Koser Jr. (L) and his son Matthew look for important papers and heirlooms inside Larry Koser Sr.'s house after it was flooded by heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey August 29, 2017 in the Bear Creek neighborhood of west Houston, Texas. The neighborhood flooded after water was release from nearby Addicks Reservoir. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
People wade through chest deep water down Pine Cliff Drive as Addicks Reservoir nears capacity due to near constant rain from Tropical Storm Harvey Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 in Houston. ( Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle via AP)
Local residents check the water level of the Barker Reservoir after the Army Corp of Engineers started to release water into the Clodine district as Hurricane Harvey caused heavy flooding in Houston, Texas, on August 29, 2017. Harvey has set what forecasters believe is a new rainfall record for the continental US, officials said Tuesday. Harvey, swirling for the past few days off Texas and Louisiana has dumped more than 49 inches (124.5 centimeters) of rain on the region. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTONMARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Volunteers and first responders work together to rescue residents from rising flood waters in Houston on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. Forecasters expect the storm to linger over the Gulf before heading back inland east of Houston sometime Wednesday. The system will then head north and lose its tropical strength. (Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via AP)
Residents are rescued by a truck from floods caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in east Houston, Texas, U.S. August 29, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Glenda Montelongeo, Richard Martinez and his two sons are helped out of a boat after being rescued near Tidwell Road and Toll road 8 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: People are unloaded after being rescued by a large truck along Tidwell Road near Toll road 8 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: People are rescued by large trucks along Tidwell Road near Toll road 8 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Kingwood, TX-AUGUST, 29: Police and volunteers wait to help residents to shore who were saved by police and volunteers in boats from the flood caused by Hurricane Harvey in Kingwood, Texas
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: People are rescued by large trucks along Tidwell Road near Toll road 8 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Downtown is seen from Highway 69 in North Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: People are rescued by large trucks along Tidwell Road near Toll road 8 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Samaritans help push a boat with evacuees to high ground during a rain storm caused by Tropical Storm Harvey along Tidwell Road in east Houston, Texas, U.S. August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
WESTLAKE, TX - AUGUST 29: Texas Army National Guard members Sergio Esquivel, left, and Ernest Barmore carry 81-year-old Ramona Bennett after she and other residents were rescued from their Pine Forest Village neighborhood due to high water from Hurricane Harvey August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in areas of Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
Photo Gallery: Houston officials described a vast rescue effort and said about 3,500 people had been brought to safety.

On the flooded Gulf Coast, hundreds of thousands of people are facing a housing crisis that will drag on long after the floodwater recedes.

Many have little information about the homes they fled. Now they must navigate the complex process of filing insurance claims, seeking government assistance and deciding whether to rebuild or pick up stakes.

"We expect a many-year recovery in Texas, and the federal government is in this for the long haul," Elaine Duke, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said Wednesday.

The federal agencies in charge of recovery face a task that is complex and massive in scale.

"The life-sustainment mission is huge. It's going to grow," said Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator William B. "Brock" Long, who hours earlier had returned from a trip to Texas, where he had seen the storm damage and flooding firsthand.

He reissued a call for volunteers and said their help is needed beyond the immediate rescue effort.

"The need to volunteer is going to take place over the next couple of years, okay. And the need to volunteer, let me remind you, is in 50 counties now, not just in Houston but everywhere," he said.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who helped lead the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said, "We don't have complete knowledge of what everybody's situation is. We know some people went to shelters. Some people went to relatives. It was like a diaspora. What we don't know is how many housing units were lost."

"It is insurance claim adjustment on a scale we have never seen before in the history of this country," he added.

Linda Thompson, a resident of the Robindell neighborhood in southwest Houston, said this week that she had endured smaller floods in 2015 and 2016. This time, the water would have reached over her head had she not evacuated. She managed to salvage one cardboard box containing soggy photographs that she was trying to pat dry with a towel in a hotel lobby. She said Harvey's floodwater has destroyed at least $50,000 in belongings, including custom-made furniture and original artwork. She plans this time to move rather than rebuild.

Related: How Houston’s ‘Wild West’ growth may have contributed to devastating flooding

"I'm just bracing myself to see if I can do this, because I know: Get the elevation certificates, get your documents for the insurance, and start fighting with the insurance company," Thompson said. "You've got to write all, like, seeing what receipts you have and write every single itemized list."

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Evacuees and volunteers at Purple Heart Recreational Center's ad hoc shelter described the conditions Aug. 29 in Lake Charles, La., where Tropical Storm Harvey continues its downpour. (Tom Moore, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, nearly 35,000 people had taken refuge in 231 shelters as of Wednesday morning. Officials said 294,000 people remained without power from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur.

More than 10,000 rescues have been conducted by state and county agencies, the report said, though that total did not take into account rescues conducted by civilians. FEMA, which has coordinated the federal response, said 12,400 employees from 17 agencies are working to help the disaster survivors in Texas and Louisiana. The agency said its urban search-and-rescue teams had rescued 2,500 people, with another 4,200 people and 1,000 pets rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Houston officials have opened three major shelters: the George R. Brown Convention Center, which quickly filled with 10,000 people; the Toyota Center, where the Houston Rockets basketball team plays; and the NRG Center, a convention center close to the old Astrodome, which was a major refuge 12 years ago for survivors of Katrina who were transported to the city. Dallas is ready to take on another 6,000 storm survivors.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said the federal aid package necessary to respond to Harvey "should be far in excess" of the roughly $120 billion spent on the Katrina recovery. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who represents central Houston, said the federal response will likely reach about $150 billion.

By Wednesday morning, 195,000 people had already filed for assistance from FEMA, said Alex Amparo, who leads the agency's recovery directorate. The agency has given out more than $35 million in disaster assistance so far, he said.

He urged people to start the process of recovery by filing an insurance claim if possible. Then they should register for FEMA aid at www.DisasterAssistance.gov.

"Our assistance is not designed to make you whole, which is why it is important to register with your insurance company," Amparo said.

In the counties declared a federal disaster area, only 16 percent of homes — about 400,000 homeowners — have flood insurance through the federal flood insurance program, said Laura Lightbody, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Flood-Prepared Communities initiative.

"This is an event unlike we've ever seen before that no one could have predicted. It forces a national discussion about flood preparedness, the way that we plan and develop and think about living in areas that are prone to flooding," Lightbody said Wednesday. "Does it make sense to rebuild or build in an area that we know is prone to flooding?"

Long acknowledged that the shelters "are obviously not ideal" but that people will have to be there for a while. So far, he said, 1,800 people have been placed in hotels and motels under FEMA's Transitional Shelter Assistance program, in which the government seeks to alleviate crowding in emergency shelters by directly paying hotels and motels to put up disaster survivors.

"The next goal is to save houses," Long said. "This is where the volunteers have to be organized — helping people muck out their houses."

FEMA is hiring temporary workers to supplement the disaster response. Volunteers can also sign up with the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is also charged with assisting in a disaster. Like FEMA, HUD drew criticism for how it handled the aftermath of Katrina.

Before Harvey slammed into Texas late Friday night, Houston had an 11 percent vacancy rate in its rental housing market, according to HUD. But many of those rental units, which could be used to house those displaced by the storm, are likely underwater.

"It's still early yet, but we're working to determine if the rental market can absorb the significant number of families forced from their own homes," HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said Wednesday.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson said President Trump's declaration of a disaster in 18 Texas counties will allow the department to offer mortgage and foreclosure relief, among other types of assistance.

"As FEMA begins to assess the damage and respond to the immediate needs of residents, HUD will be there to offer assistance and support the longer-term housing recovery efforts," Carson said.

In the meantime, there is a lot of uncertainty in the communities where people have not had a chance to return to their homes.

"I don't think I ever will recover financially from this," said Linda Oliver in Katy, Tex., as she stood on a soggy golf course near her submerged subdivision. As she spoke, helicopters buzzed overhead, helping with rescues. Her son-in-law had managed to rescue her in his truck.

"I'm certainly just happy to be safe," she said, clearly shaken.

Eva Ruth Moravec in Austin, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux in Katy, Tex., Avi Selk in Houston, and Wesley Lowery and Peter Whoriskey in Washington contributed to this report.

Read more:

Related: ‘Where are we supposed to go?’ Scenes from Harvey’s aftermath

Related: What 500-year flooding could look like around five cities

Related: Here’s how you can help people affected by Harvey


Joel Achenbach covers science and politics for the National desk. He has been a staff writer for The Post since 1990.

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