WHARTON, Tex. —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 flood-ravaged 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 lower-middle-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 wave after wave of murky, mosquito-ridden water, several feet deep, during the August 2017 deluge. “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 has, in fact, been 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 American history, next to only Hurricane Katrina, which overwhelmed New Orleans in 2005.
Because of the low levels of insurance coverage, many people were financially blindsided when the storm hit in August 2017, 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.
The agency has been trying to focus on local preparedness. Officials and relief experts say FEMA was never designed to be a complete safety net — leaving the most vulnerable residents open to catastrophic losses from massive storms.
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 okay. We are still not okay.”
In an impoverished section of east Houston, Bethel Baptist Church lead pastor Jaime Garcia is jumping on the back of a pickup truck, 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.
Authorities estimate that 1 out of every 10 Houstonians is undocumented. Some say they are afraid to fill out paperwork — including with local charities — because they fear it could lead them to immigration court or deportation.
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.
After Garcia unloads the donations, he hops in his truck to visit Valerie Van Note, who lives in the Lake Forest trailer community near Greens Bayou. She had been caring for an elderly woman there before the storm, but the woman’s son brought her to Dallas ahead of the rain. Van Note stayed as the waters rose. Two of her dogs — pit bull mixes Sweet Pea and Girlfriend — went missing as the floodwaters rose above three feet. She later found them, drowned, and buried them near her old trailer.
“I really thought the waters were going to take me,” she said.
She clung to a floating tire out of desperation, and she eventually was rescued by civilians in a boat as she hung on to a pole.
After spending some time in a local shelter, she came back to devastation: Dirty brown water had risen more than four feet; sweaters and books sat waterlogged, the sofas were full of mold, and the air conditioning units no longer worked.
For six months, she slept in the back of an old Lincoln Navigator, atop her dogs’ old beds.
Now she’s staying in a half-built, loaned trailer that doesn’t have running water; she showers outside by stringing up blankets. She’s collecting scrap metal for money and hopes to care for an elderly person again. Garcia delivers her a case of bottled water and says he has an extra mattress and more box fans he can bring by.
“I don’t know sometimes if I’m living like a human being,” she said. “I didn’t think life would be this hard if I survived the thing.”
Daphanie Pinkston, 42, a former hospice nurse who was working on getting her real estate license when the flooding started, drives from house to house, checking on neighbors she helped during the first chaotic days after the flood. She’s still checking in, offering a seemingly random assortment of donated supplies.
“I have some wooden doors, do you need ’em?” Pinkston asks one family in Wharton. She wears flip-flops and torn jeans and holds a list of addresses and names of the worst-off, the elderly. “The forgotten,” she says.
She’s trying to bridge the gap between the most vulnerable and the mounds of paperwork and programs that claim to be able to help them.
On a recent afternoon, Pinkston drove to visit a couple in their 80s, Jesse and Janie Pena, who is suffering from dementia.
Jesse Pena served in the Army and worked two jobs for most of his life: during the week, at a sugar factory that’s now out of business, and as a barber on weekends. His wife worked as a nurse for more than 25 years. The family is well-known here in Wharton, a town of about 9,000; his brother Mike Pena received the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2014 as part of a group of overlooked Hispanic and Jewish veterans. A nearby highway was named after him.
The family raised three children in a three-bedroom home, which sits on about an acre of land. They bought it 50 years ago, and paid it off long ago. Harvey completely destroyed it.
The aging couple now live in the second story of their grandson’s apartment, which was also damaged in the flood. They gave about a third of the $9,000 in FEMA relief funding they received to a contractor who disappeared with it, they said.
Nearly five months after Pinkston filled out paperwork with multiple charities for the Pena family, the Christian ministry group Samaritan’s Purse, which helps disaster victims around the world, planted a dumpster outside their home last week. They are now entering the permitting process with the city and have been asked to raise their house as much as four feet off the ground to protect it from flooding.
“We may get to finally go home,” Jesse Pena said. “It’s been a long time. And maybe we can be where all our good memories are.”
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 Hispanic 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.
“Most folks have come back now, but back to what?” Beard said. “People are still very much in limbo.”
Beard said it will be difficult to rehabilitate many of the damaged houses because the problems are so big, and because building in this climate — with its high humidity, frequent rain and tropical storms — is tough to begin with. He said that some homes in “repetitive flood areas must be elevated, or bought out and relocated.” Though he is thankful for their help, well-meaning charities and volunteer organizations have trouble doing competent rebuilding work, Beard said, especially on houses that were severely affected.
“I’ve seen so many houses where the floors are buckled,” he said. “There are some houses with gaps between the floor and wall so large you can see rodents eating through the drywall.”
In Wharton, the Elliotts think it will be months before they can get the mice and bugs to stay out of their home. They received $13,000 in federal assistance — for which they say they are very grateful — but that’s far less than they’ll need to bring their house back to some sort of livable state. For now, they’re confined to one room.
“We’re not rich people,” she said. “I managed a restaurant, cleaned houses, took care of an elderly couple. I did whatever to work. I never had to ask for help. But we never thought we would be living like this.”