A year after Harvey, this Houston neighborhood is still recovering

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For 45 years, middle-class Houstonians raised their children in a friendly northwest neighborhood called Bear Creek Village.

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

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The community of 1,974 homes was quiet and kempt, nestled among parks, trails and transportation arteries. It was the kind of place where families moved in and never left.

Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post

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Then Hurricane Harvey hit.

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post, David J. Phillip/AP

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The Washington Post

At Category 4 strength, Harvey slammed the Gulf Coast in August 2017, stalled over Texas and dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the Houston area in five days. Across the city, water covered highways and invaded neighborhoods. In Bear Creek Village, an estimated 1,500 homes flooded.

Some residents there found a few inches covering their floors; others kayaked through six-foot-deep lakes that swallowed their couches and kitchens.

The water receded 10 days later.

David J. Phillip/AP

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On Kat White Soulé’s street in Bear Creek Village, piles of debris lined her drive home.

Kat White Soulé

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Today, a year after Harvey, the once-tight-knit community of Bear Creek Village is still rebuilding. An estimated 400 houses remain empty — for sale, for rent or abandoned. Harvey fundamentally altered the fabric of the community.

Those who stayed span the recovery spectrum. On one end are the fortunate and insured, some of whom moved away from their ruined homes or returned to beautifully renovated ones. Then there are others, the uninsured and unlucky. They are living with family, in driveway campers or, like Kat White Soulé and her husband Josh, inside active construction sites.

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Hickory Downs Drive

Kat and Josh White Soulé

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

The White Soulés lost nearly everything. Four feet of water seeped into their one-story home, followed by mold and stench. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides aid after natural disasters, awarded them $27,000, enough to start rebuilding but not to finish.

Like many of their neighbors, Kat and Josh had no flood insurance because they didn’t know they needed it.

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Much of Bear Creek Village hugs the Addicks Reservoir, a large plot of federally owned land meant to hold excess rain water during major storms. The proximity to the reservoir was a perk, Kat and Josh thought, because it wouldn’t be developed and provided undisturbed natural surroundings. And the reservoir was supposed to prevent a flood.

Instead, it caused one.

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Houston’s bayous are natural drain pipes that flow southeast and empty at the coast. Reservoir water is released into the bayous through spillways the Army Corps of Engineers operates. But during Harvey, water filled the Addicks faster than officials could release it, causing the reservoir to flood upstream — and into Bear Creek Village.

Like many other residents, Josh and Kat purchased flood insurance after Harvey. Kat once wanted to stay in the quiet neighborhood forever. Now Bear Creek Village just makes her sad.

After working full-time jobs during the week, the couple spends weekends fixing up the house. Contractors are too expensive, so Josh is doing the work with the help of YouTube videos. The first-time homeowners considered selling, but they owed too much on their mortgage and couldn’t afford the loss. Their only choice was to stay.

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

“Everyone seems to [have] forgotten and moved on, and we’re still living it day-to-day. … Everyone here can relate. This neighborhood and especially this street. We got it real bad.”

— Kat White Soulé

Standing in Josh and Kat’s driveway, evidence of Harvey is everywhere. Some neighbors on their street got FEMA relief money and fled. Others sold to investors, who flipped those homes in an attempt to sell them again.

Some had insurance and stayed, like the White Soulés’ next-door neighbor, Connie Adair.

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Hickory Downs Drive

Connie Adair

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A homeowner in Bear Creek Village for 16 years, Connie Adair said her house had never flooded before Harvey. But a year prior, the Tax Day Flood in Houston brought water halfway up her front lawn. For the first time, Connie, 75, pondered purchasing flood insurance.

Her research uncovered a pleasant surprise: Because her home on Hickory Downs wasn’t in a flood zone, insurance would cost her a manageable $450 per year. So when Harvey hit, that one annual payment yielded a $160,000 insurance claim — and a new interior and furnishings.

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Zeke Adair

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Connie’s son oversaw the construction in Houston while she stayed with her daughter in Austin for almost 10 months. On June 9, Connie returned to her finished, but empty, home.

On Connie’s first night back, she slept on an air mattress. She has since purchased furniture and unpacked the few keepsakes she had time to save before neighbors helped her evacuate. Next, she’ll reacquaint herself with the neighborhood, which feels both old and new.

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Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Though Adair lost so much, she knows there are others in Bear Creek Village who lost more. “That’s why I have survivor’s guilt, because there’s too many who are still struggling,” she said. “They lost everything and didn’t have any way to replace it.”

She is re-hanging artwork that Harvey spared. Others, like Gil and Carla Parks, remain essentially homeless.

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Mill Hollow Drive

Gil and Carla Parks

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While the Tax Day Flood was a warning for Bear Creek Village residents like Adair, it was the first in a one-two punch for Gil and Carla Parks. Their house flooded twice: first in April 2016, then when Harvey hit 16 months later.

Even before the hurricane, the couple says they were struggling. Gil, a veteran, had been laid off from his job in the oil industry, they said, and Carla had suffered a debilitating stroke. The bank began foreclosure proceedings on their home, they said.

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Gil and Carla said they spent their first seven months after Harvey in a hotel. Gil was in the hospital for a month, he said, after ingesting contaminated flood water. He gutted the house to its studs, but knew the $28,000 from FEMA wouldn’t be enough to fix the house. The couple used $20,000 of it to buy an RV instead.

Most days, they split time between their shell of a home and the camper, watching TV, smoking cigarettes and drinking. They don’t know what comes next.

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

“We’re surviving. That’s pretty much it.”

— Gil Parks

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Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

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There are nearly a dozen others in Bear Creek Village like Gil and Carla, camping out on their own lawns and driveways.

But elsewhere in the neighborhood are families like the Valencias, eager to take root again. They stayed for their community — and can visualize its renaissance.

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Blueberry Hill Drive

The Valencia Family

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Jennifer and Gabriel Valencia and their children, Emilio and Salma, have lived in Bear Creek Village for 15 years but moved to Blueberry Hill Drive only months ago. Their new house was for sale before Harvey hit and didn’t flood because it sits at a higher elevation.

Before last August, the Valencias lived in a different house in the neighborhood with a tranquil backyard that opened to the reservoir. It flooded on Tax Day, so they rebuilt with insurance money, only for Harvey to flood them again. Instead of rebuilding a second time, they moved — but couldn’t bring themselves to leave the neighborhood.

Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post

Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post

“I would love to still be [in our old house]. I’d love to still have the neighbors across the street and do what we used to do. … That’s not an option anymore. Everybody’s gone.”

— Gabriel Valencia

Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post

Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post

Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post

Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post

There are hints of the Valencias’ old home in their house on Blueberry Hill Drive. They saved a tub of the kids’ Legos from the flood and together scrubbed the muck off with toothbrushes. Gabriel, who works for HP, had digitized many of their photos. Jennifer’s damaged wedding dress was restored. As the water rose, Emilio and Salma placed their valuables on their beds, hoping the mattresses would float. Salma’s lightweight Beanie Babies made it; Emilio’s heavy books did not.

Inside their own walls, the Valencias are adapting. Outside, so is their neighborhood.

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Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post

As the first year after Hurricane Harvey comes and goes, the neighbors of Bear Creek Village are looking toward year two.

Josh and Kat White Soulé wanted to host a flood anniversary party in their finished home, but now they just hope for a Christmas on floors that aren’t concrete. Connie Adair hung a sign in her hallway to remind her that she is blessed. Gil and Carla Parks plan to park their RV on Mills Hollow Drive until someone makes them leave.

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Across Bear Creek Village, white contractor trucks loop in and out of the neighborhood, where rebuilt homes sit next to hundreds of empty ones.

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At the end of June, those who remain watched as a quick, intense storm dropped several inches of rain on Bear Creek Village. Again, water filled their streets, spilling onto the sidewalks and yards. This time, it stopped short of their homes.

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Eventually, the rain let up. The water receded. The residents of Bear Creek Village relaxed — wondering what the next storm might bring.