HOUSTON — The final Summer Creek High School bell chimed, sending more than 2,000 chatty, energetic students into the parking lot and headed for home. But before Principal Brent McDonald could make his way outside to direct traffic, a murmur of voices began to swell inside the school. Even though the main hallway was now empty, the noise grew louder.
It was coming from behind a gate separating the hallway and the athletic wing, where a new group of teenagers had formed. Students from Kingwood High School, backpacks in tow, were there waiting for the gate to lift and their schoolday to begin.
In a matter of minutes, Summer Creek's 489,677-square foot campus would turn into Kingwood High School. It was the regular routine for this group of almost 5,000 high schoolers and 500 staffers. Every day between 11:25 a.m. and 11:40 a.m., the switch would be made, a stream of students headed out as a couple thousand others came in — one school turning into a welcomed shelter for the other.
"We are the house, and we are housing a school that needs us," McDonald said.
Following Hurricane Harvey's destructive path through Houston in late August, Kingwood, which took on more than six feet of water due to flooding, has been forced to share a building with Summer Creek since the beginning of the school year. Summer Creek students attend classes at their school from 7 a.m. to 11:25 a.m., while Kingwood kids travel 13 miles down West Lake Houston Parkway to take over the campus from 12:11 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Kingwood, which is planned to move back into its building on March 19, is the last major high school of its size in Harris County and the greater Houston area to remain closed due to damage from Harvey.
On this Friday in early January, the neighborhood rivals turned co-occupants would be competitors once more, as the two schools' basketball teams would face off that evening. Kingwood would play as the "home" team and Summer Creek the away team on their own home floor. Since the start of the school year, Kingwood and Summer Creek had shared gyms, locker rooms, offices and practice times across 22 total teams. When Harvey hit, most of Kingwood's athletic equipment was lost. The football field was engulfed by the flood, and the gym floor was left floating.
For Abbie Brabham, a senior on Kingwood's varsity girls' basketball team, sports were a welcome distraction from Harvey's fallout — destroyed homes, friends' families starting over from scratch — and an opportunity to spend more time with her teammates, whom she considers her sisters.
"Sports, it gave kids the sense of purpose," said Trey Kraemer, assistant superintendent of high schools for Humble ISD, the school district in which Kingwood and Summer Creek reside. "Kids were thinking, 'We may not have our field or gym, but we have each other and can compete.'"
The storm and the damage
Four months earlier, the murky, sewage-filled water crept through the walls of the Brabham family's two-story Kingwood home. It climbed over the two steps leading to her family's front door, up toward the towering pile of items on top of their ping-pong table, and soon 4 ½ feet off the ground as Hurricane Harvey ravaged through Houston.
Kayaks, boats, inflatable rafts, canoes and helicopters came through the neighborhood, as rescuers — some professional, some amateur — responded to neighbors who literally waved white flags. Brabham and her family were evacuated by one of her classmates, who drove his 4x4 truck to the house the first night of the flooding.
Inside Brabham's home, any items that weren't on higher ground were left drifting atop the water. The backyard looked like an extension of the San Jacinto River, with a sliver of a black fence poking above the still-moving water. An inflatable toy swan floated in the corner of the family's living room, blown up by Brabham the night of the floods in case she needed it to evacuate.
"I was like, 'If I am forced to float out of here, I'll float out in style,'" said Brabham, one of 262 Kingwood students who were unable to live in their homes following the hurricane. "But after the storm, the swan was a sign of hope that we had our stuff and we could eventually get back."
Displaced from their home, Brabham and her family stayed with friends and close relatives until they could move back into their upstairs part of home in November. They moved back into their rebuilt ground level in late December.
In relative terms, Brabham's family was fortunate. As of the second week in January, 257 Kingwood students were still displaced from their homes. Of the 40 Summer Creek students who were unable to live in their homes due to Hurricane Harvey, 26 were still not moved back in. Families are currently living with other relatives and friends, or, if approved, are using FEMA's transitional sheltering assistance program (TSA), which allows those who are eligible to stay in a hotel or motel for a certain period of time with FEMA covering the cost.
Within Harris County, which includes the city of Houston and where an average of 40 inches of rain fell from Hurricane Harvey, more than 23,000 families have utilized TSA, and as of Jan. 11, over 5,000 families remain in TSA, according to FEMA. According to The Greater Houston Partnership, initial estimates in October suggested Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed more than 97,212 single-family homes in metro Houston.
At the time of the hurricane, Brabham's vision of walking through the doors for her senior year at Kingwood was only days away. That day still hasn't come.
"It was very emotional at first," said Brabham, 18. "I had grown up in Kingwood and my sister had went to Kingwood, so honestly, it was pretty bad at the beginning. It is my senior year and my house flooded and it is kind of difficult to move schools."
Some of Kingwood's banks remain closed. The Lake Houston Family YMCA is still vacant after the water rushed through the facility and over the playground. Many homes are left abandoned, with paint cans, garbage piles and sheet rock scattered on various driveways, lights flicking on in some homes as others remain dark.
But there are signs of life in Kingwood. The local Torchy's Tacos reopened before Christmas, with a display on the wall showing that the floodwater depth neared seven feet. There's also Kingwood High itself, busy with workers entering and exiting the building as the smell of paint fills the air. The walls are starting to look new again, with murals uncovered from when Kingwood was first established. The gym floor, newly put down, is awaiting the arrival of students.
A bridge between two schools
On Sept. 2, eight days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston, Kraemer, the assistant superintendent, gathered with McDonald and Kingwood Principal Ted Landry to break the news: Kingwood and Summer Creek would be sharing a school building.
McDonald, who is in his first year as Summer Creek's principal, knew he didn't really have a choice. His school was the only feasible option to fit that many students, and he would have to make it work.
"I would think if we were flooded, Kingwood would be down here helping us," McDonald said. "Now certainly there is a bridge between the two schools."
Kingwood and Summer Creek are different demographically. Brabham represents the majority of Kingwood, which is almost 74 percent white, with 5.5 percent of its students economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency. Summer Creek, which opened in 2009, is 43.5 percent economically disadvantaged and over 80 percent of the student population is African American or Hispanic.
To have two schools share a building is an intricate operation, one that wasn't perfected for weeks after the merge. Summer Creek and Kingwood students rarely interact, with their school days so separated. The crowded parking lot during the switch-over, and then again during games, are the only times the students cross paths. That has made traffic into a bit of a problem, according to several students, but McDonald insists that discipline and academic issues haven't increased during the arrangement. Many Summer Creek students expressed an appreciation for their new schedule, citing the earlier dismissal time.
Quontell Shephard, a senior on the Summer Creek boys' basketball team, said he likes how his school was chosen as the "perfect" option to help another out.
"Honestly I hoped it would bring us together," Shephard said. "I liked that we were rivals and from the same district, but I was hoping at the same time it would be a good thing for us and it turned out to be a good thing."
Shephard, who lives with his mother Yolonda and his little sister, was unaffected by the flooding. But like his teammates, he continued to help nearby communities by clearing streets and delivering food. Yolonda said she cooked some of her best meals during the aftermath of the hurricane, inviting neighbors and others affected by the floods to take part in the feasts.
"It's a gross understatement for me to say how much gratitude I have for the Summer Creek community, parents, students, faculty, administration for taking us in," Landry said. "They didn't have to. They could have said no. They impacted themselves unselfishly for us."
'We had to make that work'
Back in Summer Creek's main gym, as the clock ticked closer to 6 p.m., Brabham donned her white Kingwood jersey for warm-ups. Temporary printout photos of the Kingwood basketball team were on one wall while the permanent Summer Creek team photo was plastered to the opposite end.
McDonald stood by one of the main gym's four doors, a wide smile on his face as he leaned on the wall, and Landry took his place next to one of his assistant principals in the stands. The girls varsity teams would face off in a matter of minutes — one on their home court, the other on their temporary one — and fans began to fill in both sides of the bleachers. Sports being the common factor, they were all together in the main gym: the community in need, and the one that helped it recover.
"This whole experience has punctuated the fact that in Humble ISD, sports are very important to our students, staff and family, and we knew that no matter what we had to make that work," said Elizabeth Fagan, the school district superintendent. "Sports has been huge."
But one thing that remained unchanged from before the hurricane — as the final seconds on the warm-up clock ticked off and Brabham tightened her ponytail — was the desire of each team to beat its rival.
"We are all in the same school, and we've all seen each other at some point, and it is like we are all combining, but there is always still going to be that rivalry there," Brabham said. "And we want to win."