Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A year since Harvey

One year ago today, the floodwaters were just starting to recede and people were only beginning to take stock of devastation. As I one of the lucky ones who survived Hurricane Harvey relatively unscathed, I really don't have much to say about the one-year anniversary of the storm that dumped a catastrophic amount of water on the city and changed the lives of untold numbers of people.

Others, however, do have stories to tell, including Jeff Linder of the Harris County Flood Control District, who recalls what it was like to become the media's "face" of Hurricane Harvey last year:
Most major storms have a "face" that goes with it -- a person who carries the region through the event. In 1992, it was Bryan Norcross, a local meteorologist with a TV station in Miami when Hurricane Andrew moved across south Florida and in 1999 it was Gary England with a TV station in Oklahoma City that talked Moore and Bridge City through a catastrophic EF 5 tornado . I don't think anyone ever thinks they will be that person one day. I never thought that, but Harvey became that storm for me -- more the "blue" shirt maybe than the face. To this date I have not watched a single interview I did during Harvey and I did not see much of the news coverage during the storm. You have to stay focused on the information that needs to get out "as timely and accurate as possible" so people can make the decisions they need to make. I have always approached interviews from the standpoint of what would I want to know if I were watching from home: what is going to happen, when is it going to happen, and what do you want me to do. Those are the three basic questions I would want to know and I think anybody would want to know. The more I was able to get information out and answer the questions that so many people had, the better the decisions that could be made. In the end it all boils down to, I just did my job. I had information and provided it in a way that people could understand. If I didn't know, I said I didn't know. I never had a script unless it was an official evacuation notice. I would write important notes, facts, information on a notepad, but most everything else was in my head. I spoke with facts and would never speculate on topics and tried as much as possible to stay away from words like possible or maybe instead using likely or unlikely which commits more in one direction or the other. I knew people's lives were being devastated and information can be of great help to ease fears during such times. I don't know what it was or why I became the "face" of Harvey, and I really did not know how big an impact I was having until about Wednesday or Thursday when the volume of messages of support were simply overwhelming on social media, texts, and e-mail. I still to this day have a hard time comprehending that people I don't know would raise $26,000 to send me on a vacation. That money was instead used to help 26 different families recover from the damages of Harvey. Each one of those 26 people I would visit would have a story from the storm, what they did when the water was rising, describing what it was like to come back to their destroyed house, and how they planned to move forward. Some were simply in complete shock and disbelief, unable to comprehend how they would ever recover. I remember each one of the 26 people I visited, but one has stuck with me to this day. It was one house in Kingwood that had flooded with about 6 feet of water and had never flooded before. I remember walking up to the door and noticing neatly stacked novels on the front porch that had been clearly flooded and were beyond repair. After talking with the individual for a few minutes I asked about the stacks of books, probably about 150. She paused for a moment, clearly upset, and said those novels I have collected all my life and each one is autographed by the author and I just cannot bring myself to throw them away. It is the horrible realization of the loss of what can never be replaced that in many cases was so tragic.
One of those flooded out of his own home was former mayor Bill White:
For White, Hurricane Harvey began on Friday, August 25, 2017. Houston is no stranger to heavy rains, and neither is White: As mayor from 2004 to 2010, he governed the city through Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike. No small storms, yet as White monitored the news that day, and early rainfall projections began to rise from 20 inches, to 25, to 30, he realized this one was different. “When the estimates of the rainfall amount … went out of the range of anything that had been projected to me, had ever been viable when I was mayor,” he told me, “I realized that it was going to be pretty bad.” 
White’s home sits just above the 100-year floodplain on Buffalo Bayou. It’s built up on stilts so flood water can flow underneath. Yet in White’s 19 years of living there, the bayou had never swelled to such an extreme point.
That changed Sunday morning, when White awoke to a “murmuring sound,” like a river. It was water rushing beneath the house. He spent the next few hours moving what furniture he could upstairs, keepsakes and family photos into the attic. A recent tennis partner called, distraught: A close friend had died the night before, she told him, when she’d taken an off-ramp on the interstate and gone underwater. “I knew then that there was going to be lot of human tragedy,” he told me.
The water continued to rise. By noon, it had made the 10-foot climb to the deck. Touching the bottom layers of the house, the current had shifted from the almost pleasant rhythm of a river to a “rumbling sound, like a train.” “It was an eerie sound,” White recalled. “I was surrounded by moving water on all sides. It was like being on a boat.”
Within 15 minutes, the water found its way inside and began creeping up the walls. It began “popping” and “pooling” out of the floor sockets, like tiny geysers.
It was time to go.
He threw on wool socks, hiking boots, a backpack, and put his iPad, laptop, and some papers in his briefcase. The neighbors had called to urge him along. He found his hiking staff, waded ankle deep to his front door, and began his trek into the coffee-colored river outside.
Thus White—formerly the one to call the shots, to monitor the rescue efforts, to communicate with Washington—experienced his city’s most defining tragedy as a citizen. The thoughts roaming the mind of a flood victim are plenty: Is my family okay? (Yes, White’s wife, Andrea, was out of town.) Did I forget to move something valuable upstairs? (Yes, Andrea’s collection of cookbooks.) Where am I going to stay? (With a neighbor.) 
For a flood victim who happens to be a former public official, however, there is one question that reverberates above the others: How the hell did we get here?
White was able to restore his home after the flood. Others haven't been as lucky, including residents of the low-income, predominantly-black Kashmere Gardens neighborhood:
The Center for Disease Control ranks Kashmere Gardens among the nation’s most socially vulnerable neighborhoods, as determined by “degree to which a community exhibits… high poverty, low percentage of vehicle access, [and] crowded households.” In short: Hurricane Harvey continues to complicate lives that were complicated enough already.

The canyons of flooded waste are gone making ongoing struggles less visible. It’s hard to understate the extent of loss in this community of 10,000 residents. Based on City of Houston estimates, the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston found that a staggering 79 percent of all homes in the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Data from the 77028 zip code, which includes parts of Kashmere Gardens, show there were twice as many applicants with FEMA Verified Loss (FVL) as other Harris County zip codes. Just half of these FVL applicants received any level of FEMA assistance. Of those households “lucky” enough to get FEMA aid, four in ten still had thousands of dollars of unmet needs in that zip code. This substantial gap in assistance has been met in piecemeal fashion through an estimated 50 organizations and agencies servicing the area. But as Ms. Randle’s experience illustrates, securing help is a long and frustrating journey. 
A glance outside the car window is visual testimony to these facts. As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey approaches, while the canyons are gone, there are still piles of debris dotting the roadside. We park beside one and knock on a nearby door. Shirley Paley invites us into the modest two-bedroom home she has owned since the 1990s. Furniture sits in cellophane wrapping and a faint smell of paint hangs in the air. Ms. Paley is waiting for the contractor to finish final projects, but is praying hard that she will be able to finally move back in a few weeks’ time. “I’ve had to be my own cheerleader,” she says while mulling over the past year. 
Bam, Bam, Bam. Ms. Paley weaves her post-Harvey story in a breathless stream, each tragic turn of events followed on its heels by yet another. She sat through the storm with her 11-year-old granddaughter and 17-year-old special-needs grandson. For the first time, her house took on floodwater. Finding no temporary housing, she moved her family into her car in the driveway for the first few weeks. Getting her home gutted and repaired has been an uphill battle from start to finish. Volunteers offered to muck her home, but threw all of her personal items in an indiscriminate jumble on the curb. She found her grandson’s Social Security card and other important paperwork lying in the driveway. She sent them away, deciding to salvage important belongings on her own and managed the cleanout herself. A state-hired contractor began more intensive rehabilitation work, but their work was so shoddy that she was forced to use her limited budget to fix their mistakes.

The cost of remediating her home was more than double the $11,000 FEMA provided. Without savings to cover the difference, her only alternative was to apply for a $25,000 Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. But SBA deducted the FEMA payment from the proceeds of that loan, effectively negating the FEMA award altogether. She will now need to repay the full $25,000 with interest, making her monthly loan payment higher than her existing mortgage and more than doubling her housing costs for years to come. All this will account for the lion’s share of her fixed income. Even with the SBA loan, she has needed to find help to cover other Harvey-related expenses. Like Ms. Randle, Ms. Paley has been navigating an alphabet soup of charities and non-governmental organizations, securing assistance from YES Prep charter school, a local church, Baker Ripley, Texas PREP, and Northeast Next Door Redevelopment Council.
Last weekend, Harris County voters - or at least the ones that bothered to vote - overwhelmingly approved $2.5 billion in bonds to fund flood mitigation projects. These bond proceeds are a start, but not nearly enough; they won't fund a third reservoir, or flood control projects in surrounding counties, or the "Ike Dike" storm surge barrier. Flood mitigation projects, furthermore, will also need to be accompanied by a basic change in the way we build:
With recovery funding flowing to the county and city housing departments, the potential flood control bond and other sources aimed at rebuilding and improving the region's resiliency, Houston has an opportunity to shift what was a traditional engineering focus that built a city of highways and concretized bayous to an approach that works with the water, rather than against it, and that prioritizes community cohesion.

"The places where it flooded the most were not the same places where you got the most rainfall," said [Kinder Institute Director Bill] Fulton. "There is an interaction between the way we have built the city and the flood risk and that’s one thing we have to deal with.” 
But Hurricane Harvey brought attention not just to how the city manages floodwater but to how it functions on a day to day basis more generally.

The flood bond would go a long way toward implementing engineering solutions, many of which were on the drawing table before Harvey, but, Fulton insisted, they must be coupled with strategies that look to slow the flow of water, rather than channel it quickly to and through the bayous. Furthermore, new regulations should also be put to work to undo the development practices that have worsened and shaped the region's flooding in many ways.
"You’ve got to have traditional engineering solutions, you’ve got to have green infrastructure…and you've got to have regulations that keep people out of harm's way," said Fulton.
Regulations, however, have traditionally been anathemic to the region's powerful development community. Texas Monthly asks what Houston has learned in the year since Harvey, and notes that, when it comes to at least some of the region's developers, the answer is "not much:"
Others are just as happy to go on as before, building houses in floodplains, contributing to Houston’s urban sprawl—and increasing the prospect of more flooding. Exhibit A is the Katy Prairie. One proposal brought before city council earlier this spring required that new homes built in the floodplain be constructed two feet above five-hundred-year levels. (Post-Harvey research showed that 80 percent of the homes that flooded in Houston could have been saved if they’d been built just a few feet higher.) Then the Kabuki set in: builders claimed the rule would add $32,000 to the cost of an average home, while the city countered that it would be closer to $11,000. Mayor Turner argued that if the vote had “the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.” The city council voted 9–7 in a combative meeting to make the change.

A few weeks later, a big land developer and a big home developer went before the council trying to close a pre-Harvey deal to build hundreds of homes in the floodplain out west. Prices would range from roughly $200,000 to $500,000, which might or might not do much to ease the affordable-housing crisis. Turner agreed to the deal after they had met all the requirements laid out in the new ordinance. Opponents of the project protested that Houston shouldn’t be building in the floodplain at all. Turner stood firm, asserting that the passage of the ordinance showed that builders wouldn’t skedaddle in the face of tighter restrictions. 
In the end, the contest between flood prevention and growth had come to a draw. In Houston, that counts as progress.
The Houston Press lists eight things Harvey taught people about Houston. A virtual museum where people can share their photos and stories from Harvey is now online.

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