HOUSTON — The saddest part of all this redundancy, Marina Robles thinks, is that it's unstoppable.
For the second time in three years, her apartment is a humid wasteland, filling quickly with the suffocating stench of mold, as she tries to decide, once again, if anything is salvageable. For the second time, she has carried her family’s rotting clothes and furniture out onto the grass, forming a pile of bedroom doors, mattresses, chairs, an oven and a refrigerator — all destined, once again, for the dump. And for the second time in three years, she’ll move back into the same apartment.
Some observers have called Hurricane Harvey an “equal opportunity” disaster, as the storm spread rain and floodwater widely and indiscriminately across Southeast Texas.
But as Houston airs out and begins to rebuild, the opportunities for what comes next are far more limited, and the divisions between those who can afford to escape the mold growing in Harvey’s wake and those who can’t will become more stark.
Greenspoint, the predominantly Latino and black neighborhood in north Houston where Robles lives, is a spread of two-story, low-income apartment complexes set close enough to Brays Bayou that residents say a heavy rainstorm almost guarantees a flood. Its layout was so poorly conceived — a product of Houston’s building boom — that local leaders say it probably should never have been built in the first place. And its working-class tenants already struggle to pay their rent — in the $600s and $700s for a small two-bedroom apartment — in a normal month.
It’s the kind of neighborhood where “you already live a disaster every day of your life,” said Carol Moore, the NAACP’s co-chair of disaster for the state of Texas. In Greenspoint, she said, Harvey’s floods constitute no less than “a disaster on top of a disaster.”
Many residents, like Robles, 41, are also undocumented immigrants, which means when disasters strike, they have no outlet to seek relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — as government assistance is only available to legal residents of the United States — and little power to challenge landlords who refuse to repair the damage.
“A lot of us don’t get no food stamps. We don’t get no help from the government,” Robles said. “We lost everything we have.” And now they’ll start over, she said, as they did before, “from point zero.”
Robles knows what point zero looks like because she was there — along with many of her neighbors — just last year. The “Tax Day flood” of April 2016 was “just a day of rain,” residents say. But it overflowed the bayou and flooded the first-floor apartments in Greenspoint.
That disaster brought mold and despair, piles of ruined furniture tossed to the curb, a slow trickle of FEMA assistance to those with legal status, and a desperate wringing of wallets for all. Though some people were able to move out, most stayed, like Robles.
The flooding from Hurricane Harvey started here early on the first Friday morning of the storm — two days before many other Houstonians’ homes fell victim to meteorologists’ worst-case scenarios. As the rains soaked the parking lot with fast-growing puddles, the residents of Biscayne at Cityview and nearby complexes had nothing to do but cringe in anticipation. And when the bayou began to overflow, Robles knew it was “game over.”
Robles, her husband and her adolescent stepchildren hoisted two mattresses over their heads and carried them upstairs to the neighbors’ as the water spilled in the front door and crept up the wall.
There were few around here who stockpiled food and drinking water to wait out the storm, because stockpiling requires extra cash, and extra cash is not a luxury they have.
“When we started distributing food on Tuesday, there were people who said they hadn’t eaten since Saturday,” said Dannie Kelly, a youth pastor at the Harvest Time Church in Greenspoint, which has delivered thousands of meals along with stacks of clothing, diapers and cleaning supplies to the neighborhood over the past week.
“A lot of people are behind on their rent,” she said.
As the sun came out last week, drying the floodwater, the residents of Greenspoint, as in other parts of the city, ventured into their waterlogged homes and dragged out the furniture and belongings that had been rendered useless by the water and were fast growing mold. Robles and others began to consider their options — if they had any.
Some had secured spots in vacant upstairs apartments or with neighbors to wait out the storm. But now that the water had receded, “I have to move back tonight,” she said, surveying the pile of rotting belongings sitting outside and wondering how she could sleep in the stinking room they came from.
“I’m not throwing anything away. I’m just gonna wipe it down,” said another resident, George Osorio, 26, who waited out the storm at the airport, where he works. “I just bought my bed set. I have till January to pay it off.”
Television sets, soggy sofas, mattresses, dressers, clothing, shoes and piles of torn-up carpeting sat rotting at the curbside, the stench permeating the neighborhood along with a growing concentration of flies.
Residents like Fatima Vargas, a mother of three, and Mark Bryant, a lung cancer patient, thought wistfully about moving to hotel rooms but knew that they couldn’t afford it — “$130 for a night,” Vargas said.
The shelters seemed frightening for a number of reasons. First, leaving the neighborhood made you vulnerable to break-ins — something that several residents said they had already experienced during the storm. But more dauntingly, Robles and her neighbors said, shelters seemed sure to attract the attention of immigration authorities for those who are not here legally.
“They’re afraid because of their status,” said Harvey Nevills, a 57-year-old volunteer from north Houston, who on Sunday night was pleading with a family of nine in Biscayne to leave their apartment because he feared the mold had already rendered it too dangerous.
“I was trying to tell them: ‘They got showers there, beds,’ ” he said. “But they’re afraid.”
FEMA was also completely out of reach, or a mysterious option at best. No one from the Biscayne management office was available to help residents navigate the website to register. Even as local church groups and other volunteers filtered through the neighborhood with free hot dogs, clothes and outdoor church services, no one seemed to have answers to the bigger questions: Where can we go? What do we do about the mold?
As concern seemed to grow with the almost palpable proliferation of spores, rumors circulated that a U.S.-born child would make you eligible for government assistance — even though it does not — so some of those who could get online tried registering for FEMA help using their children’s Social Security numbers.
Others said just asking for help was too risky.
“I don’t want them asking for papers,” said Cecia Ramirez, a 29-year-old house cleaner, who said she would figure out her own path to recovery for her and her children.
“They ask for your address, they go into your apartment,” she added.
Flood insurance — already rare among many better-off homeowners in this Texas metropolis — is largely nonexistent in Greenspoint, where renters live paycheck to paycheck. Even the developer, Steve Moore, who owns 5,000 of the neighborhood’s apartments, said he could afford to insure only about a quarter of them; and it was the responsibility of residents to request their own FEMA assistance, either way, he said.
“If we had insured everything, we’d be paying well over half a million dollars a year, maybe a million,” Moore said. He said he lost about $20 million after the Tax Day flood, as residents departed or didn’t pay rent on damaged units, even after receiving FEMA aid, he added. Plus, the tile floors he put down to replace the carpets then shouldn’t require removal now. They can be wiped down, he said — a claim that had many tenants feeling skeptical.
And then there was that other cost that Moore failed to mention, but that tenants like Ismail Baltazar, 40, ran into as soon as they walked into the leasing office to sort out their options.
“They said it was $600 if I break the contract,” said Baltazar, who was searching for a way out after his son developed a fever this weekend — he thinks from the mold — and who has another 10 months before his lease is up.
By Sunday evening, black mold was filling the corners of Baltazar’s white-painted living room, and he was thinking about taking his son to the hospital. Robles, who had also become sick, took breaks in between fretting and helping her fellow residents — to vomit in the grass outside her stinking home.
And a group of activists and community leaders had arrived to survey the wreckage and declare the quickly molding first-floor apartments “unlivable,” even as it remained unclear where else the tenants could go.
Finally, after some agitating — a representative from the office of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) declared the apartments were too dangerous to stay in — Biscayne at Cityview’s management office on Sunday night released a hastily composed flier that Robles volunteered to distribute.
“Biscayne at Cityview Apartments has been in touch with the Red Cross. Red Cross buses will be dispatched to evacuate residents whose apartments have been rendered unlivable by water damage,” it read, only in English.
“We strongly recommend that . . . residents who are living in the water-damaged apartments accept transportation to the shelters. We are concerned about the long-term health effects of living in water-damaged units.”
The Red Cross said it sent city buses to the complex, but as Robles and several others expected: There were few, if any families, willing to get on them.