WHARTON, Texas – Behind a maze of wavy flooring, torn-up drywall, broken furniture and boxes of water-stained clothes stacked like a wobbly Dr. Seuss tower, Susan and David Elliott huddle in the back room of their flood-ravaged home. It’s where they eat meals, at a table in front of their bed. It’s their “command center.” It’s where they live now, a year after the water came and sullied everything.
“I’m back here!” Susan Elliott calls out above the chirping of crickets that have nested in holes in the walls, above the whirring of box fans that move the stale air in the Texas heat. The bedroom in their home here, 60 miles southwest of Houston, is their only refuge, their only option, their last resort.
One year after Hurricane Harvey trudged out of the Gulf of Mexico and parked over southern Texas, dropping what seemed like endless rain, thousands of residents throughout the region remain essentially homeless in their own homes. Everything they own is moldy, rotted, dusty, unsafe. Some wash dishes in the bathtub. Others still shower using a bucket.
At least 197,000 homes were badly damaged in the floods, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, a count that many suspect is low because not everyone with a damaged home reported it to authorities. In many working-class and lower-middle-class communities like Wharton, residents say they can afford only a fraction of the repairs necessary to make their homes livable, such as drywall, wiring and plumbing, expenses that often can run tens of thousands of dollars. So they live in one room. Or on a relative’s sofa.
“We are what Texans call the ‘Harvey Homeless,’ ” says Susan Elliott, whose house was pummeled with wave after wave of murky, mosquito-ridden water, several feet deep, during the August 2017 deluge. “There are days we feel paralyzed because we are out of money or emotionally drained. We just keep trying, day by day, even a year later. Now all the videos and news of the anniversary — it’s like we see how long it has been and how slow the recovery is.”
Recovery here has, in fact, been monumentally slow, a draining slog that is due in part to the magnitude of the historic storm’s 60 inches of rain — thought to be one of the largest rainfalls in U.S. history — and because nearly 80 percent of households affected by Harvey did not have flood insurance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Affordable-housing advocates call Harvey one of the largest housing disasters in American history, next only to Hurricane Katrina, which overwhelmed New Orleans in 2005.
Because of the low levels of insurance coverage, many people were financially blindsided when the storm hit in August 2017, and their lives haven’t yet returned to normal.
While the storm is long over, rebuilding could take years or even a decade for some, said Mary Comerio, an expert in disasters and an architecture professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
“This is not a one-year process for most folks,” she said. “Those without huge savings or backup plans will likely live in poor conditions until they can fully raise the funds to completely build back. We have seen this around the world. Life will really never be the same.”
FEMA’s hotel voucher program ran out in July, said Lauren Hersh, an agency spokeswoman, meaning that those living in hotels and motels must start paying for the emergency housing themselves. Hersh said the agency is “pushing residents to buy flood insurance” because the payouts are far more than FEMA provides; she said the average FEMA payout to homeowners after Harvey was $4,203.
The agency has been trying to focus on local preparedness. Officials and relief experts say FEMA was never designed to be a complete safety net — leaving the most vulnerable residents open to catastrophic losses from massive storms.
Susan Elliott, 60, described the flooding from Harvey as “a fast-moving river” that inundated almost everything in her home. It also destroyed thousands of dollars worth of her husband’s airbrush equipment, so he was unable to sustain his custom car-painting business and was unemployed for several months.
“I just want walls,” she said in tears. “We just want people to know things are not OK. We are still not OK.”
Daphanie Pinkston, 42, a former hospice nurse who was working on getting her real estate license when the flooding started, drives from house to house, checking on neighbors she helped during the first chaotic days after the flood. She’s still checking in, offering a seemingly random assortment of donated supplies.
“I have some wooden doors, do you need ’em?” Pinkston asks one family in Wharton.
She’s trying to bridge the gap between the most vulnerable and the mounds of paperwork and programs that claim to be able to help them.
On a recent afternoon, Pinkston drove to visit a couple in their 80s, Jesse Peña and his wife, Janie, who is suffering from dementia.
Jesse Peña served in the Army and worked two jobs for most of his life: during the week, at a sugar factory that’s now out of business, and as a barber on weekends. His wife worked as a nurse for more than 25 years.
The family raised three children in a three-bedroom home, which sits on about an acre of land. They bought it 50 years ago and paid it off long ago. Harvey completely destroyed it.
The aging couple now live in the second story of their grandson’s apartment, which was also damaged in the flood. They gave about a third of the $9,000 in FEMA relief funding they received to a contractor who disappeared with it, they said.
Nearly five months after Pinkston filled out paperwork with multiple charities for the Peña family, the Christian ministry group Samaritan’s Purse, which helps disaster victims around the world, planted a dumpster outside their home last week. They are now entering the permitting process with the city and have been asked to raise their house as much as 4 feet off the ground to protect it from flooding.
“We may get to finally go home,” Jesse Peña said. “It’s been a long time. And maybe we can be where all our good memories are.”
The Elliotts think it will be months before they can get the mice and bugs to stay out of their home. They received $13,000 in federal assistance — for which they say they are very grateful — but that’s far less than they’ll need to bring their house back to some sort of livable state. For now, they’re confined to one room.
“We’re not rich people,” she said. “I managed a restaurant, cleaned houses, took care of an elderly couple. I did whatever to work. I never had to ask for help. But we never thought we would be living like this.”