A year after Harvey

Madi Babine and Sally Buck

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Sitting up in bed as she rubbed the morning off her eyes, Sofia Escalona (11) knew something was wrong. She hopped out of bed and her feet hit water, not the cold wood floor she was used to.

“Niñas, despiértense, ya está entrando agua a la casa,” her father said as he rushed in. Translated, he had said: “Girls, wake up! Water is already coming into the house.”

Four hours later, the Escalona family was riding on a rescue boat down a river that had been their street. With only two pairs of outfits in her hand, Escalona thought she would be returning home soon. Little did she know, it would be almost a year until they moved back.

On Aug. 27, 2017, over 50 inches of rain poured down on Houston, leaving many Houstonians displaced and terrified. Although Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on Houston over a year ago, thousands of families are still feelings its brutal effects.

According to a Mar. 30, 2018 article in the Houston Chronicle, over 240,000 homes were damaged in Harris County alone. At Kinkaid, people affected amounted to 70 families: 40 students and 30 faculty and staff members.

This is not the first time Houston floods have infiltrated the homes of Kinkaid families. Middle School reading specialist Mrs. Ruth Stubbs and her family experienced six inches of flood waters during the Memorial Day flood of 2015. So, when Harvey filled their street with flood water, the Stubbs family prepared, moving everything off the bottom foot of their first floor. To their dismay, by 11 a.m. the next day, three feet of water had snuck into their home and cleaned off their kitchen countertops. Stubbs’s family members were unsure how they were going to get out of their flooded neighborhood.

“We were going to be carried through water,” Mrs. Stubbs said. “I told the kids to put whatever could fit in a backpack… three changes of clothes, their school laptop, cellphones… that was all we really had room for…Looking back there was probably things we should’ve brought.”   

The Stubbs family and their neighbors were escorted by rescue boat to the Interstate 610 overpass. While waiting for buses to take them to the George R. Brown Convention Center, a stranger arrived with a big plastic tarp and stretched it over them, just as it began to pour.

“I think he might have been an angel,”  Mrs. Stubbs said.

The Stubbs decided that two floods were enough; they put their house up for sale and rented an apartment until they could move into a new home–but not without uncertainty.

“If this house floods, I don’t know if I would want to stay in Houston. I would never want to go through this again,” Mrs. Stubbs said.

Despite her trauma, Stubbs explained the gratitude she felt toward the Kinkaid community for its generosity and willingness to show up so quickly.

“They were the biggest gift to me,” she said, adding that she was saved from the emotional distress of having to go through her ruined mementos.

However, many were not as fortunate to receive the same help as the Stubbs family. Brandon Formby, writer for the Texas Tribune, estimated in a Aug. 23, 2018, article that nearly 10 percent of Houstonians are still waiting to find a place they can call home.

Because Houston has no exact number of how many are still displaced, it is easy to overlook those still struggling.

Lauren Hersh, an agency spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, reported that as of June, over 400 Houston households were still living in hotel rooms funded by FEMA; however, hotel vouchers had expired in early July.

Rebuilding Houston will not be an easy task as full restoration could take years or even a decade. The lengthy recovery time could mean that Houston will face even more trouble in the final months of this year’s hurricane season.

“There is a good likelihood we are going to get a major storm event before we are even partially recovered from (Harvey),”said , Texas A&M University in Galveston flood expert, Professor Sam Brody, speaking to Reuters Magazine.  

Another storm could expel families from their homes yet again, and with thousands of homes still in the process of being rebuilt, many families are unable to handle another trauma –financially or emotionally.

“After what we went through I can never ignore the trauma that other people are experiencing and just pretend it doesn’t exist. Harvey has taught me to be much more compassionate towards those struggling,” Escalona said.

No time was wasted after Harvey finally passed: reconstruction began as soon as possible. However, this was no easy task.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,  Hurricane Harvey left behind $125 billion in damage and is ranked No. 2 as the most costliest U.S. hurricane, second only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which inflicted about $160 billion in damage to the Louisiana coast.

However, one of the biggest problems victims of Harvey faced was the lack of flood insurance. Almost 80 percent of households affected by Harvey did not have flood insurance, according to FEMA, leaving hundreds of thousands of people not only without a home but also financially insecure.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria slammed the Southeast just days after Harvey passed, stretching FEMA resources across multiple states. In the days during and following Harvey’s landfall, FEMA spent billions of dollars on direct response–shelters, food, water and medical supplies;. However, FEMA was unable to alleviate much financial strain in the following months. Its grants were able to help pay for some of the costs of damages, but the average payout was a mere $4,300, not nearly enough to cover repairs for homes and businesses.

Both local and federal governments are taking many steps to prevent a Harvey-like situation from occurring again.

Harris County voters passed a $2.5 billion flood bond–the largest bond measure ever offered in Texas’ most populous county–to protect the area in future storms. According to a Aug. 26, 2018 Houston Chronicle article, the vote had over 85 percent approval rates, allowing Harris County to build at least 230 projects in the next 10 to 15 years.

For decades, Houston has been working to add wetlands and prairies to soak up water, widening bayous to hold more water, buying out over 1,000 flood-risk homes and repairing flood-damaged infrastructure. According to county estimates, the flood bond would only increase the property tax by 1.4 percent for most homeowners.

Although the $2.5 billion bond will provide a great amount of relief to Harris County, a Aug. 24, 2018 Houston Chronicle article reported that an estimated $57.6 billion is needed to build flood-prevention infrastructure in Galveston, Fort Bend and surrounding counties.

Hurricane Harvey not only left physical effects, but it forever changed Houstonian culture.

Mimi Swartz, writer for Texas Monthly, wrote that Harris County is still suffering from PTSD from the hurricane. People think twice about getting into their cars when it rains. Others are terrified that a small rainstorm will flood the city just like Harvey did. Some continue to struggle with anxiety and depression from the storm. And for those looking for a home in Houston, “never flooded” has become a major selling point.

According to the Harris County Flood Control District, Harvey is the area’s third “500-year flood” in the past three years, following the Memorial Day flood in 2015 and the Tax Day flood in 2016).

Hurricane Harvey is gone and the water has receded, but Houston will never be the same: houses will be built a little higher and the community is forever united by this common tragedy.