Receding Waters in Houston Reveal Families’ Divergent Paths to Recovery


HOUSTON — The water burbled from the floors of Vickie Carson’s cottage in the semirural northern edge of Houston, saturating everything she owned.

It seeped through the ceiling of Ebony Harrison’s apartment in the impoverished Sunnyside neighborhood, dousing her newborn daughter as she slept.

It swept so swiftly into Lidia Peña’s rental home in the city’s north side that she and her young son fled without taking any spare clothes.

It drove Rick Christie out of his midcentury ranch house in the southwest Houston neighborhood of Meyerland, leaving him to sleep on a couch above his garage.

Each of their homes was left uninhabitable by Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that plowed through southeast Texas in late August. Its floodwaters capsized lives of the comfortable and the struggling, black and white, Latino and Asian. Tens of thousands of people across spectrums of race and income were left without permanent places to live, inspiring a newfound saying: Harvey was the storm that didn’t discriminate.

That may change now that the water is gone.

The poorer victims of the storm are now in danger of falling deeper into poverty or homelessness, while the wealthier are expected to rebound more quickly. Those in the middle will now struggle harder to stay afloat.

The result could be a deepening of Houston’s economic divides.

After surviving for nearly two months on temporary assistance checks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, many Houstonians are facing dire choices.

Displaced renters have found themselves reliant on the whims of landlords or the generosity of friends. Homeowners without flood insurance are in a similar bind, while those who have it are waiting for their claims to go through. Some are maxing out their credit cards, or moving back into damaged houses.

The most fortunate, meanwhile — those with good insurance, a long-term place to stay and enough cash — are moving ahead with rebuilding plans. In some prosperous neighborhoods, certain homeowners aren’t bothering to wait for their insurance checks ─ if they had flood insurance at all ─ and are paying their contractors up front.

“Yeah, money has a lot to do with it,” Carson said. “It takes money to build things.”

An uncertain future

Carson, 55, a school bus driver, bought the single-level cottage in Houston Gardens with her disabled sister 10 years ago, drawn to the neighborhood’s mix of country and city. It was a few hundred feet from Halls Bayou, normally a pleasant meandering stream.

Image: Vickie Carson has just moved back to her home that was badly damaged by Hurricane Harvey
Vickie Carson, who fled her flooded home with nine family members, returned alone after the property was burglarized.David Butow / for NBC News

The bayou spilled its banks a few hours into the storm, along with the crude roadside ditches that comprised her neighborhood’s drainage system, flooding Carson’s home. At the time, 10 members of her family across three generations were living there, including four children. Most ended up in a water-damaged hotel near George Bush Intercontinental Airport, unsure what would happen after the Nov. 7 expiration of their emergency housing vouchers from FEMA, which covered their rooms.

Every day, twice a day, Carson returned to the house to pick through her possessions and decide what she could salvage. There wasn’t much. Her nephews, with help from volunteers from a West Texas church, had stripped the walls to their studs, and the front yard was a jumble of debris: clothing, appliances, chairs, lamps, children’s toys, books, DVDs.

She moved through the piles silently, limping on an aching knee while industrial fans roared inside. She had flood insurance, but was still waiting for word on her claim. She was seeking a contractor willing to start the work, one room at a time, one small payment at a time.

“I’m not rich,” she said. “I’m not going to have a big swimming pool outside. None of that’s going to happen. Just get the walls back up and the floors back down, I’ll be very glad for that.”

City of extremes

The speed of recovery for people like Carson has a lasting impact on a city’s ability to mend, researchers say. An uneven recovery — where some homes go unrepaired, neighborhoods are neglected, workers can’t get to work and businesses struggle to reopen — can weaken a city’s overall health and make it less resilient to future disasters.

Houston is particularly susceptible to this.

Before the storm, Houston was a study in contrasts. It is the fourth-largest city in America and also one of the most diverse ─ a place of open arms and unbridled growth.

But that progress has not unfolded equitably. A hub for the engineering, energy and medical industries, Houston has attracted two disparate streams of workers: high-skill/high-wage, and low-skill/low-wage. The result is a yawning gap between the well-off and the impoverished, an imbalance made worse by an affordable-housing crisis that includes federal charges of discrimination against minorities.

The number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the region has doubled since 1980, according to a study by PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. Another, by the Pew Research Center, ranked Houston the highest in the nation for “residential segregation by income.” A third, from the Corporation for Enterprise Development, found that more than half of Houston households, including a third of homeowners, did not have enough savings to live above the poverty line for three months if they lost their income.

The Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University has warned that Harris County, which Houston dominates, is becoming “increasingly economically polarized,” with a shrinking number of middle-class neighborhoods, a decline in income diversity and a “stark division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’”

Harvey made things worse.

The storm affected about 117,000 homes in Harris County, including 25,000 that suffered major damage. It inundated many areas that weren’t designated as being in a 100-year floodplain, which meant that homeowners weren’t required to have federally backed flood insurance. An estimated 45 percent of Houston households that flooded during Harvey earned less than $50,000, according to a Kinder Institute analysis. About 15 percent earned more than $150,000.

Thousands of Harvey’s victims are now scrambling for a piece of a $15 billion federal relief package, a pot that must be shared with survivors of other disasters this year. More than 411,418 Harvey victims have applied for assistance from FEMA, which has given out $591 million to cover their short-term needs, from hotel rooms to personal property replacement to home repairs — about $1,400 per applicant.

Long-term assistance, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and distributed by local governments, is aimed at the rebuilding of homes, apartment buildings and small businesses. It’s likely that aid won’t trickle down for months. Or years.


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