When Hurricane Harvey hit and hovered for days above this city, a half-dozen school district employees manning pumps stayed at Kolter Elementary School in the flood-prone Meyerland neighborhood. Eventually, they had to be rescued from the roof.
The flooded school is now full with construction crews, its students miles away in a cramped campus to which they arrive on charter buses, the deluxe kind fitted out with video screens. “To them, it’s like they’re going to the Grammys every day,” said Julianne Dickinson, the school’s principal.
For Dickinson, the novelty of displacement has worn off. Like many here, she feels fortunate that her ruined school has a new home, even if the campus is holding 200 more students than it was ever meant to. Improvisation has become an art, as it has for many in the country’s fourth-largest city.
The school halls bear the familiar crayon-and-construction-paper decor of student drawings. Kids in costume lined up one recent morning for the Parade of Book Characters, a literary twist on Halloween unique to Kolter Elementary.
But it is not the same place. Two special-needs classes have been taken in by an undamaged school with more room. Pallets of donated copier paper and print cartridges line the already tight hallways. The small cafeteria holds only one class at a time, so lunch hour runs all day. The entire staff shares an office, and at home, Dickinson has taken in a fourth-grade teacher whose house was destroyed in the flood.
“We’re only eight kids short of what we anticipated,” Dickinson said, noting that, despite it all, just a few families moved out of the district after the flood. “It’s pretty wonderful, and it says something about us and all these people wanting to stick it out.”
Nearly three months after the historic storm, a very public disaster has become a largely private one.
To the eye, the city has returned to a semblance of normalcy. Schools are open. The power is on. The International Quilt Festival packed in visitors on a recent weekend in the downtown convention center where thousands sought shelter during Harvey.
Much of this has happened ahead of schedule. The federal government has paid out about $1.4 billion in emergency housing and other assistance to people in Houston and the other counties designated disaster areas, money to fund the immediate repairs needed to make homes livable as quickly as possible.
But the challenges, which will take years to solve and will redraw this city’s geography in doing so, have moved inside homes and classrooms and government offices.
Debris piles have mostly disappeared. They have been replaced by contractor trucks parked in the driveways of thousands of Houston homes, the pounding of hammers and buzzing of saws coming from inside.
More than 9,000 city residents are adjusting to life in hotel rooms. The steady soundtrack of radio ads offering cash for damaged homes is evidence of the private money that is turning once-stable, now gutted neighborhoods into a speculator’s paradise.
In addition to the emergency housing aid, the federal government, strained by competing disasters in South Florida and Puerto Rico, has paid out more than $4.2 billion in flood insurance claims associated with Harvey. But some, particularly those who have the least, complain about weeks-long delays and backed-up bills.
The government’s bills lie ahead. Houston schools opened within a month of the storm, a recovery that far exceeded expectations after more than 200 of the district’s 287 campuses were damaged. But the repair costs will be exorbitant, probably exceeding $200 million, including the likely need to rebuild at least four schools from the ground up.
The weakened state of the city is working against the district’s ability to raise the money. Houston public schools are funded by property tax revenue, and those are projected to plummet in the years ahead because of the extensive storm damage.
“I’m very, very pleased with the speed of the recovery and how the city is bouncing back,” Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said in a recent interview. “That is not to say that there are not tremendous needs. There are tremendous needs, so let me be clear about that. But I don’t think any other city could have responded more quickly than this city has.”
Rush to normal, then waiting
Harvey dumped more than four feet of rain on Houston over a few days in late August, and even as boat rescues continued in residential neighborhoods, Turner began to look ahead to recovery. His early priority, after ensuring public safety following a storm that killed scores and left tens of thousands homeless, was to make the city feel as normal as possible.
He turned to baseball. His office helped coordinate an appeal to the New York Mets, who agreed to keep their doubleheader date with the now-world champion Astros in downtown Minute Maid Park before the storm had even cleared the city. The Astros won both games, including a win against Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey.
He called Janet Jackson.
The singer had a concert planned for the Toyota Center the following weekend, and she considered canceling, given the state of the city. Turner talked her out of it, and she visited the nearby George R. Brown Convention Center beforehand to spend time with the more than 1,000 Houstonians sheltered there. All emergency shelters have closed. Many have returned to patched-up homes or moved in with families. More than 50,000 others statewide are living in hotel rooms.
Now Turner is looking at the long-term costs of the storm and the way the aftermath will determine how and where Houston, which has flooded each of the past three years, is rebuilt.
Local officials have identified 65 neighborhoods, comprising roughly 3,300 homes, that have flooded repeatedly. Turner said the city and county governments will look to buy out hundreds of homeowners — on a voluntary basis — before they rebuild in those high-risk areas that lie at least two feet below the floodplain.
Future development will also come under closer scrutiny. Earlier this month, Turner used his prerogative to pull consideration of a new housing development off the city council’s agenda to allow for more study.
Reservoirs will have to be built to protect the city’s vulnerable west side. The poor and the elderly, who suffered severely in a storm that generally did not discriminate by class, will need long-term assistance to regain purchase on disrupted lives.
“We are living in the post-Harvey world, and so we just have to be mindful of the impact of what we do,” Turner said. “But we are still the same city. We are still developing.”
Congress approved $15 billion for Harvey assistance, and the state of Texas has given another $50 million to Houston so far. Turner believes the recovery cost for the region may run as high as $180 billion, and his city and the counties around it need money quickly.
He has lobbied the state for additional funding. So far Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has declined requests to open the rainy-day fund for emergency relief, saying Houston has enough money so far. Abbott has said he would reconsider his position as the recovery progresses, and Turner believes he will eventually send more money when the costs become clearer.
“It’s like we we’re just waiting on the dollars to come down from D.C. so we can get into these homes and put them in better shape,” Turner said. “It’s like a wheel. We are moving, and we’re moving at lightning speed. We simply want the others to do the same.”
Recovering on credit
In the Gulf Meadows neighborhood southeast of Houston’s downtown, Drucilla Bolden is one of those waiting.
She is 64 years old, a retired schoolteacher, and her sister and housemate, Vera, is 70. The two were among 200 women evacuated by fishing boat from the suburb of small, single-story houses as Harvey poured down. Her home for the past 25 years suffered severe water damage, and on a recent day, a contractor sawed through moldy drywall in the effort make it livable again.
Bolden does not have any money to pay him. She received a $40,000 advance against her federal flood insurance claim from the government, but the money only paid for supplies and a bit of labor.
The contractor has been working on credit for weeks. During Bolden’s frequent trips to Lowe’s, she hears from many others in her neighborhood lingering in the same financial limbo.
The sisters have been staying with another sister not far away. But Bolden said she feels like a burden with no money to contribute for the emergency hospitality.
“Vera always tells me to ‘pack my patience,’ ” Bolden said. “My patience is done.”
‘It’s going to take time’
In the city’s low southwest side sits Meyerland, a comfortable upper-middle-class neighborhood whose design ethic has been shaped by successive floods.
New multi-floor homes — raised four to five feet off the ground — loom next to the neighborhood's initial single-story ranchers and architectural originals. The new houses identify those who rebuilt after the Memorial Day flood of 2015, including the Flippen family.
Margaret Flippen said the family’s original home was destroyed in that flood and only after long consideration did she and her husband, an energy executive, decide to rebuild in the same spot.
The mother of three said the decision was based in large part on keeping the children in Kolter Elementary, which she called “the heart of the neighborhood,” just up her oak-lined street. She used to walk her children there, as did most of her neighbors. Now her husband drives them to the new campus a few miles to the north.
The Flippens moved into their new home in December. A set of steep stairs leads to their porch and front door. As Harvey began, three families in older, lower homes arrived, filling the spacious house with 10 kids under the age of 7 to wait out the storm.
Soon, boats began patrolling what was the street outside. The water rose, all the way to the top step of the porch, prompting the families to move all the furniture upstairs. But the house remained dry, although many on Flippen’s street filled with water.
“It’s going to take time — more time than the last time — to recover, but I feel like there are sections of the neighborhood that already have momentum,” she said. “People are reinvesting. But whether to stay is a very personal decision.”
A few streets away, Jim Dubbert has made the decision to leave, only he cannot. His original midcentury modern home, built in 1961, is a complete loss. It flooded two years ago with 18 inches of water; Harvey filled it with 44 inches.
He and his wife, Mary-Dodd, would have moved the last time if he could have sold the house for enough to pay off the mortgage. Instead, he began making the renovations himself, unable to hire a contractor for the work, because the home itself does not meet city code.
The back of the house is all glass, making it impossible to raise. A semiretired consultant, Dubbert worked on the renovations against the clock, knowing another flood was inevitable, but he was unable to finish in time to sell before it came.
He has begun again, the TV news on in the background, his dog Auggie nearby. Out back is an RV, which he and Mary-Dodd call “Harvey,” lent to them by friends so they do not have to sleep inside the musty house.
"If you don't have friends, you have no chance at a time like this, no way to do it by yourself," said Dubbert, who is 72. "But if we flood again, sorry, the bulldozer starts on that end of the house and pushes all the way to that end."