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  • Writer's pictureMatt Keyser

When the floodwaters recede

Updated: May 20, 2020

In a small rural area of unincorporated Montgomery County, residents lives are stacked six-feet high in piles of flooded debris that stretch a country mile. Pictures of mothers and fathers with their children rest on top of toys and books and movies. Refrigerators, mattresses, kitchen tables, sheetrock and wooden floors cover the muddy grass.

A stench radiates off the piles, like a gallon of spoiled milk left too long in the fridge. Standing water fills small pockets of earth, serving as a breeding ground for mosquitoes that swarm residents. Residents who, weeks after the floodwaters came, still can’t return home.

Tents are erected in front of many houses and mobile homes—the structures themselves inhabitable, the families left with nowhere to go. Nearly everything they own sits in those piles.

Two large backhoes slowly make their way down the street. One by one, a long mechanical arm extends to grab another claw full of soggy memories that are hauled to a dumpster. Aside from the loud cracking of crushed memories, it’s quiet here. The residents have little to say amongst the devastation brought on by Hurricane Harvey. But they all share the same tears and pain from the disastrous storm.

A family walks along River Oaks Drive amidst flood debris.

Harvey brought catastrophic destruction across Southeast Texas—damaging 130 mph wind gusts that ripped through Rockport; flooding across the Greater Houston area; bayous, creeks and lakes all sent rising above their banks. The San Jacinto River Authority was forced to release water from the Lake Conroe Dam into the West Fork of the San Jacinto River, which pushed floodwaters into the working-class neighborhood of River Oaks Drive. Floodwaters completely submerged mobile homes, knocked others off their frames and swept them away. Homes that were built on stilts to prevent such catastrophes saw water creep through the floor.

Three weeks after Harvey hit, Gustavo Rivera is still cleaning his parents’ home. Rivera, a 38-year-old contractor who specializes in home remodeling, has yet to touch his flooded mobile home that once sat firmly planted next to the house. Floodwaters filled his home, pushed it on its side and swept it 50 yards away into the backyard. The only thing that stopped it from floating away was a single power line that once lit his home.

The last time Rivera was in there, he scrambled to save what he could before the rising floodwaters forced him to his parents’ balcony 10 feet above the water. He’s lost everything: the pictures of his 14-year-old son growing up, the power tools he needs for work, the bed he turns to for rest after a long day’s work.

“I feel powerless. I have nothing but the clothes that are on me and the little that was donated,” Rivera said. “You use your home to go look for comfort and relax, to rest when you’re not at work. What do you come home to now? To nothing. Everybody here comes to an empty house, a shell.”

He doesn’t sit around long. That’s when the constant barrage of thoughts—What’s next? Where will you go? What will you do?—fill his mind. He volunteers to help his neighbors. In his parents’ driveway, he set up a donation center for residents who need everyday essentials to maintain some sense of normalcy. Most of the items were brought in by volunteers.

Down the street, Francisco Valdez stands in front of his daughter’s flooded trailer. A dark line near the roof shows how high the water rose. Everything inside is destroyed.

Valdez was still helping her rebuild from the 2016 Memorial Day floods when Harvey hit. Water was halfway in her home then; Harvey sent water five feet higher. Valdez, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, said the last time he saw such destruction was from Hurricane Rosa in 1994.

Further down, 18-year-old Rosa Sanchez is camped in a tent with her parents and 11-year-old sister. Her family evacuated Aug. 24, the day before Harvey made landfall. They returned a week later to a horrific scene: flooding had completely submerged their mobile home, pulling it off its frame and destroying all that was inside.

Her family’s home also suffered significant flooding in the Memorial Day floods. They finished renovations just five months ago. Then came Harvey. Rather than rebuild, they hope to find new land in an area that isn’t flood prone. Two major floods are more than enough.

FEMA arrived late Thursday morning to let residents know they haven’t been forgotten. Two representatives walked through the devastation and held a brief townhall meeting in front of a man’s flooded home. Through a translator, they warned residents to be wary of scammers who promise fast work done cheap. All FEMA inspectors and contractors have identification, one of the men told the crowd while lifting up his white badge and blue lanyard hanging around his neck.

The meeting was brief, but the representatives promised “we will be back.” (Those representatives denied an interview after the meeting, citing an urgent call they received to another area.)

One woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions against her family, said she fears asking FEMA or Montgomery County for help because some members of her family, who have been in the United States for decades, are undocumented and fear deportation.

Cynthia Jamieson with the Montgomery County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management doesn’t want residents to be scared. Jamieson said those who come in one of the county’s crisis assistance centers won’t be asked to show documentation, only information pertinent to assist them.

“If they need help, they can come in and get the help they need,” Jamieson said. “They can get assistance, get money or grants.”

There’s only one condition: Residents have to reach out for help.

“We can only do as much as we can” Jamieson said. “We don’t have the resources to go be case management out in the streets.

The residents of River Oaks Drive are thankful for the volunteers, like Beau Sullivan, whom residents say has a “heart of gold.” Sullivan, who lives in Conroe, convinced Montgomery County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jim Clark to send cleanup crews to start the process of picking up the large piles of debris off the side of the roads. Those crews arrived Thursday.

Other volunteers built a makeshift outdoor shower equipped with four stalls to bathe—albeit in cold water—near the neighborhood playground. Four port-a-potties are placed throughout the mile-long street. The Red Cross and Salvation Army arrive in large box trucks twice a day to hand out hot meals and cold water.

It’s a start, but there’s still a long journey ahead. The rebuilding process will be slow. Most people in this working-class community are housekeepers and janitors, construction workers and landscapers—people in charge of building and cleaning our part of society. Many can’t afford to take extended time off work to clean up their own lives.

“Without (the volunteers), my family couldn’t be here,” said Armando Hernandez, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. “We’re making it day by day. And with the little money people make, it’s hard to have a good quality of life.”

Families are asking for small refrigerators to keep milk so their children can eat cereal for breakfast, and small stoves so they can eat a hot dinner.

Many homes won’t be repaired in time for winter, and residents worry they’ll be stranded in the cold without clothes to keep themselves or their children warm. For those who plan to stay, there’s no telling when their homes will be livable again. For those who plan to leave, there’s no timeline for when they’ll be able to move.

Residents here hope they won’t be forgotten as the rest of Southeast Texas moves on from Harvey. Back to fighting traffic on the daily commute to work. Back to meeting friends for a Friday night happy hour. Back to spending weekends with family. Doing everything to put the catastrophic storm in the back of our minds.

Because the residents along this country mile are still suffering, and they don’t know when they’ll be able to do the same.

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