Life after Harvey leaves Bear Creek Village residents with a difficult decision
A chalky waterline stains the faded blue paint of a wooden shed that sits in the corner of Shelly Schmitz’s backyard. It rests high enough that if the water were still there, it would reach just below Schmitz’s neck and would fill her backyard from the pile of firewood near a front gate to the back fence that separates her from her neighbor’s backyard. It’s a haunting reminder of the damage and destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey one year ago.
By most accounts, the faint line is one of the last remaining reminders at Schmitz’s home that succumbed to nearly five feet of water throughout the worst of the storm. It’s been a year since Hurricane Harvey brought torrential rains to Harris County that flooded nearly all of Texas’ most populous county, including Bear Creek Village in the western end, one of the worst hit neighborhoods by the historic storm.
Water reached the roofs in the southern end of the neighborhood, which sits adjacent to the Addicks Reservoir, forcing families to abandon their homes, cars and all they hold close. Of the neighborhood’s 1,974 homes, about 65 percent flooded, according to the local homeowner association.
Shelly Schmitz said there was never a doubt she and her husband were going to rebuild their home after Hurricane Harvey sent upwards of four feet of water inside. (Photo: Gregg Ramirez / KHOU)
Schmitz and her husband, Bob, have lived in their home 22 years. Harvey wasn’t the first time they flooded, but they had never seen floodwaters get as high as those that Harvey brought in. The storm forced Schmitz and the hundreds of other residents to make a difficult decision: stay and rebuild or move and start new.
For the Schmitz family, there was never a doubt—they would rebuild.
“We’re very comfortable here; we don’t particularly want to start over in another neighborhood,” Schmitz said. “This is just the place to be.”
More than their love for the neighborhood, they also own a business two miles away.
Others, like the Yuhnke family who live a mile away, couldn’t stay––the threat of another flood too much to bear.
The two had lived in the neighborhood’s south side for nearly 40 years. Their home backed up to the Addicks Reservoir, a large watershed built in the 1940s to prevent homes from flooding. Living next to federally owned land had its perks: the land wasn’t available for someone to move in behind them, allowing them to landscape the large tract of land into a beautiful backyard that allowed their children to grow and play.
Jim Yuhnke's Bear Creek Village home had flooded three times in the past decade, including 5 1/2 feet during Hurricane Harvey. (Photo: Gregg Ramirez / KHOU)
But there was a downside: In the last decade, their home flooded three times, including 5 ½ feet during Harvey.
Three floods were more than enough for Yuhnke.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m not going to live here anymore. Anytime that we have a storm coming, I’m always going to be concerned about if we flood again,’” Yuhnke said. “I just don’t want to go through that the rest of my life. And she agreed.”
Both Schmitz and Yuhnke watched as Harvey barreled toward Texas, strengthening from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane in a matter of days. The storm pummeled Rockport, a small fishing town near Corpus Christi, on Aug. 25. It then stalled, and a day later, as night fell across Harris County, Harvey sent its first rain bands across the area. The rain wouldn't let up for three days.
Schmitz had a bad feeling that the storm, but “never imagined four feet of water in this house at all,” she said.
Her home first flooded during the Tax Day floods in 2016. So much rain fell that the neighborhood’s drainage system couldn’t keep up and sent more than a foot of water inside. Unlike Harvey, the water was clear and receded once the rain stopped. Schmitz and her husband, who had flood insurance, immediately began removing sheetrock and moving out their flooded furniture. They lived on the second floor of their home as the first floor was repaired.
As Harvey approached, Schmitz and her husband took lessons from that Tax Day flood and prepared: carrying keepsake furniture upstairs, like her grandmother’s China cabinet in the kitchen; moving glasses and plates and pots and pans onto the counter tops; driving their cars to the neighborhood elementary school, which sits on higher ground.
They chose to stay and wait out the storm.
The water crept in Sunday night.
By Monday morning, it had risen to more than a foot.
The view outside Shelly Schmitz's second-story bedroom window on Aug. 28, 2017 as Hurricane Harvey flooded her west Harris County neighborhood. (Photo: Shelly Schmitz)
Tuesday morning there was more than four feet of water inside. Outside, the water reached the top of her mailbox, cars parked on the street were submerged, boats were passing through the streets Schmitz drove every day rescuing residents trapped inside their homes.
“It was almost dreamlike to look down and almost not be able to see your mailbox,” Schmitz said.
Schmitz and her husband decided it was time to evacuate, too.
A boat took them two blocks down their street to dry land, where they took Bob’s truck to their daughter’s house in nearby Spring Branch. They stayed for 10 days until the water receded.
At the Yuhnke house a mile away on Pine Mountain Drive, he watched as the water slowly crept up his backyard. Yuhnke watched a news conference with Harris County Meteorologist Jeff Linder, dressed in his now infamous blue shirt, who warned residents in his neighborhood it would be wise to evacuate. Yuhnke had just finished repairing his home from the Tax Day floods in June.
An inch of water breached the inside on Aug. 27 briefly before receding. It was enough of a scare that Yuhnke and his wife traversed through the flooded streets out of the neighborhood until they could get to their son’s apartment in CityCentre off the Beltway and I-10. In those ensuing news conferences with Linder, Yuhnke learned he likely had upward of five feet of water inside his home.
Like Schmitz, it was 10 days before the water receded.
Both Schmitz and Yuhnke returned to a nightmare that had returned too soon: toppled furniture still wet from the flood; mold growing on the floor, walls and cabinets; photo albums and other keepsakes too waterlogged to keep.
Both families began—once again—the arduous process of cleaning out their flooded homes: the Schmitzs preparing to move back home, the Yuhnkes ready to move on.
“It is a tough decision, because this is where my kids grew up—everything,” Yuhnke said. “I had to do it. So, we said, ‘We’re not going to put up with it anymore.’”
Despite of everything, Yuhnke feels he’s one of the lucky ones. He had flood insurance that paid for his home and all he lost. He took that insurance money, sold his home and moved three miles away to a home that sits on higher ground and never threatened to flood during Harvey.
He concedes that his new place will take some getting used to.
“To me, this is still not so much a home, it’s a house,” he said. “The other one was home.”
But not having to worry about the threat of flooding is a welcome peace of mind.
“I think (Bear Creek Village is) going to flood again,” he said. “It may be two or three years from now, but it’s just going to flood.”
In July, an afternoon downpour flooded the streets of Bear Creek Village. The water rose into people’s yards and even flooded a car parked in the street. Schmitz, standing in her renovated home, felt an all-too-familiar feeling.
Would a third flood force her family to move?
“I don’t know I could answer that until the day that it happened,” she said. “I just don’t know.”