As you have no doubt heard, thanks to 24-hour-a-day news coverage at the time, the city of Houston suffered the most catastrophic rainfall recorded in United States' history this past August—the result of Hurricane Harvey. The Hurricane did not "directly hit" our city, but spread its outer bands of rain directly over us.
Thanks to being on the "dirty" side (that's meteorology talk for being on the rainiest side of a hurricane storm), our city took in 50 inches of rain in a span of a few days. With that insane rainfall amount, a city with higher elevation than Houston, and even a city with better zoning and flood planning than Houston, would have suffered devastating effects. We do not have a river or ocean within 50 miles of us, but we do not have sufficient drainage either, and that is why our low elevation city suffers so badly in these major rainfall events.
When the news features stopped to focus on the next weather catastrophe, the information on the aftereffects of an event of this magnitude is nowhere to be found. It is my intention to educate on this, because the suffering goes on way beyond the actual event. Now one month out, many of Houston's fine people are still in major trauma. It's not that I don't feel sorry for Puerto Rico or the islands affected by storms after Hurricane Harvey, because I do. It is tough, though, to look beyond all of our local devastation.
Many, many neighborhoods still look like war zones with piles of wet belongings sitting at the curb waiting for trucks to come and haul it off. In my own neighborhood, we waited for the mounds and mounds of life belongings to be hauled off just this past weekend, a month after the storm. It looked like someone had dropped a bomb in the area. It took quite a bit of time to get to each section of Houston that flooded with the trucks and workers to haul off the debris. (I can only image the flood landfill and how huge it has to be.)
My Slice of the Earth, Still in Distress One Month Later
So where are we now, as a city of neighborhoods a month out from the disastrous storm?
That depends on where you are.
Over 127,000 homes flooded, and it is not an easy fix to get back into a flooded home. What becomes of the homeless? Where do the 127,000 families find shelter after their homes are no longer inhabitable?
There are many, many people still living in temporary city shelters. These people have no relatives to move in with, like many have done, and they don't have the financial resources to rent a place.
A month out, our rental market is just about dried up in the hot areas where the majority of homes flooded. People want to stay in their area of town for many reasons, and the most compelling reason is due to having school age children. Parents want their children to continue in their neighborhood school, but that requires securing a rental that is within a decent commuting proximity.
And speaking of schools, in hard-hit neighborhoods like my own, where schools, churches, synagogues, and businesses flooded along with houses, some are not yet habitable. Some schools are in temporary quarters so the school year could get started without more delays. Traumatized children survivors of this storm event are even further confused by a strange school location as well as their own temporary living conditions.
Many just want familiarity and "normal" back, but we are all in the "new normal" and it will likely be a year or more before we get back to the old normal. In fact, I belong to a few "Floodie" groups and I can tell you that many are still displaced several years out, particularly from Hurricane Sandy on the east coast. We are not talking months of displacement but possibly years of displacement. Just ask some of the Memorial Day 2015 Houston flooded neighbors. Many are still not back in their homes two and a half years later.
Several retail markets are booming besides the rental market, such as furniture retailers and mattress retailers. Just about every bed in those 127,000 flooded houses lost multiple mattresses in the rain event.
Cars are not to be had either. I read in the paper today that it is estimated that half a million cars in the Houston area flooded. Can you wrap your head around that number? I have heard of friends driving to Dallas and to Austin to get a new car to replace their flooded, but insured, car because the demand far surpasses the available inventory.
The Insured and Uninsured Both in Limbo
Now the Houston populace is divided by the insured and non-insured. The insured are every bit as traumatized as the uninsured as they navigate the red tape and documentation involved in a flood claim. They have to deal with inspectors, adjusters, mortgage people, contractors, FEMA, and it is daunting. Most are dazed and confused. Because they are displaced, their belongings that survived the waters are boxed up and unaccessible. Tempers are short, anxiety is high, impatience wins out over those who think they would be able to wait it all out. Most will not be able to replace everything lost as there is a cap on flood insurance and if your home is destroyed, the most you can receive is $250,000. You cannot build a new home for that unless you do it by hand on your own.
Real Estate Values Plummeting from Stigma of Flooding
For the insured homeowner, perhaps the worst part of the many pressing decisions that have to be made and which are causing many high anxiety, is whether to sell the land that the flooded home sits on for a fraction of its original worth or fix it up and hope to never have a flood happen again. Many first-time flooded have found their real estate values, their nest eggs, completely bottomed out no matter how good the schools are or how fine the neighborhood once was before the flood.
The lost valuables, the "stuff" that non-flooded folks flippantly tell them was not that important, are depreciated so that their worth is minimal and of course sentimental stuff cannot be replaced anyway. (See my previous blog on what not to say to a flood survivor.)
Even pianos were part of the "stuff" lost.
The uninsured are going to have a longer road, and the displacement will likely be in public places until FEMA can get to each one and give them temporary rental funds. Then they have the challenge of finding a reasonable rental place with the market limited from so many displaced people. At any rate, anything they get from FEMA won't come close to replacing all they have lost.
It is surprising, though, who is among the uninsured, because many people, who paid off their mortgages and were not in a flood plain and so were not required to have flood insurance, are among the uninsured. Unless they have a lot of life savings that they can drain to accomplish the restoration of their living quarters, they will not be able to keep and fix up their homes. I have seen many charitable funding accounts for people like this and it is also an aftereffect for many that will not be resolved any time soon.
And now let's speak of the grief. Losing a home is a grieving process and is a major life loss. It cannot be underestimated. Believe it or not, there are positivity police who try to tell people to cheer up and be positive without letting a person go through all the stages of their grief. Some are pouring out these grief emotions on social media, some are writing them in journals, some are discussing with a professional, and some—many, are bottling it all in because they have to continue with life and work. It is not a healthy state to be in, and cannot be discounted how many are still traumatized and in grief. There are large numbers of displaced children, who were boat rescued in this storm, and who are terrified at every rain storm. This is one of the saddest lingering effects.
So life goes on, but normal life is only for a lucky sector of the Houston population, and the rest are mightily struggling. This disaster does not go away and does not get fixed so quickly.
Maybe those in Houston just need reassurance that all of the above is acknowledged; that while Hurricane Harvey may be old news, the devastation, the confusion, the displacement, and the grief continue to linger on for so many.