“It’s such a helpless feeling.”
August 28, 2019 8:19 AM   Subscribe

“ ... thousands of Harvey survivors remain displaced or live in damaged homes. Thousands more relive their trauma with each rain, making mental lists of what to grab if they must evacuate or comforting family members troubled by memories of rising water. And, two years after the storm, residents have been given precious few reasons for optimism. Not in the progress of programs to repair and rebuild flood-damaged housing. Not in projects aimed at lessening the risk of future floods.” Hurricane Harvey, Two Years Later (Houston Chronicle)
posted by The Whelk (15 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for this. And worse for the people in Puerto Rico. Even Katrina, heck. Maybe the revolution will come in the form of disaster relief protest.
posted by Melismata at 9:00 AM on August 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ahahahaha. I've flooded twice in Texas in the past eighteen months, and I'm waiting on a FEMA payout for the second fucking time, held up by specific FEMA rules and bureaucracy about the last fix-up. I have no idea how I'm going to pay for increased drainage but it clearly needs to happen by spring because clearly these new patterns of long periods of dryness followed by torrential rainfall are not going to stop.

and I'm in fucking Austin. I have more financial stability and resources than a lot of these folks, because my whole community didn't flood with me, and my friends can support me a little bit while we're working--taking animals for a bit while we're fixing the house, for example. I have class privilege to lean on, student loans I can take out to handle some of this shit.

And I'm barely keeping up with it to the point that when the second flood hit, I started hyperventilating and trying not to cry the moment we found water seeping under the walls. My partner still runs out to check the walls every time we have a heavy storm. If we could afford them, we'd have more emergency supplies. As it is, last time we had the flood barriers on the affected side of the house (the high side, for what it's worth; water flows downhill, don't you know) and we killed our wet vac desperately trying to bail out the hallway and save at least one room so that it was two adults sleeping in the living room this time instead of four. (We sort of succeeded, which was amazing.)

The dry remediation folks are doing hella good business. Ours decided to branch into project management on top of their dry remediation shit, which meant--well, I can tell you a whole hell of a lot of woe as a result, but they were not good at it, and as a result I've got interest payments racking up as a result of their bullshit. There are special rules for FEMA, like.... okay. If you get a regular insurance claim on flooding, like if your sewer main backs up into your house, there are things you do. One of these is that you hire nice burly men to take all your shit out of the house, truck it off to somewhere climate-controlled (so the Texan summer doesn't melt your cosmetics and your candles, for example), and keep it safe for you while the contractors rip out two feet of all your walls and most of your flooring and replace them. Often the contractors will throw up their hands and refuse to do this work with all your shit in the way, which, fair enough: that's not meant to be their job.

For FEMA cases, this is not covered. If you, like me, live in a house full of short people who are bad at manual labor, this makes moving the furniture around so that the contractors can get to the walls etc. very difficult. But FEMA will cover what's called "content manipulation," which is when you hire nice burly men to pick up your shit and move it around your own property, so one thing that people (like me) often do is rent a storage box in the front yard and then sweet-talk a moving company into doing that work and then sweet-talk their company further into making absolutely sure not to call this task a "pack-out," which is exactly what it is except worse and stupid.

And you can't wait to fix any of it, because the longer flood damage sits, the more biohazardous it gets. It's exhausting. It's terrifying. And even if you do have flood insurance, it drags on months and years after the actual flood incident is over and all the wall patches are done. No one gets that. The construction is done but I'm on the hook right now for something like $30,000 of work and I'm still trying to figure out how to get it covered, and I am grimly aware I will be negotiating bureaucracy for the next year on reimbursement for this fucker.

And I have USAA flood insurance, y'all. My general insurers are hands down the best out there. Imagine folks who purchase their insurance through some stone cold assholes who are out to make a profit by short-changing people, as opposed to building up a reputation that every insurance professional and contractor who frequently charge insurance I have dealt with over ten years has gone "oh, okay, those ones, those are the good ones." A company that not everyone can get access to. That's luck! I hate this! I hate that there is so little support for this! I hate how much people get blamed for flood damage!
posted by sciatrix at 9:16 AM on August 28, 2019 [15 favorites]

I could go on for days about FEMA and how fucked-up it is and how many stupid little loopholes there are and how much confusing bullshit is involved. The John Oliver special is great for objecting to the places where FEMA really enables wealthy people to waste their second homes, but it doesn't at all get into just how fucked-up the situation is for people whose primary homes flood and who can't afford to pay out of pocket to live somewhere else while their homes are fixed, because FEMA doesn't fucking cover that either.

Oh, homeowner's insurance would, if it was because your sewer burst and flooded your house--which has also happened to me before the two FEMA floods. The difference in treatment between being covered by homeowner's insurance and FEMA is night and day, and it makes me so angry because people just sort of assume that after natural disasters are actually over, things are like, basically fine now. They're not and they won't be and just, aaaaaaaargh.
posted by sciatrix at 9:33 AM on August 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

My family's house took in less than an inch of water during Harvey (seeped under slab in bedrooms and came in through front door by a wake when firefighters came and picked up my grandma*). If the rains didn't stop when they did, we would have been much, much worse off. We basically had our go-bags ready and were about to hike over to a neighbor's second floor. It's a weird feeling coming to terms with what you just packed could be the only possessions you might have after it's all said and done.

Ultimtaely though, we were incredibly fortunate to be able to stay inside our house the entire time, have flood insurance, get the flood insurance money timely, and get repairs done relatively timely. We had a fully-functioning kitchen and were able to sleep in our own bedrooms at night (albeit in the middle of the floor since we removed all of the carpeting in the bedrooms and 2 ft of drywall on a handful of walls inside the house). Many of my immediate neighbors were nowhere near as lucky. Some tore their houses down, some got repaired quickly like us, some have had to repair themselves since they didn't have insurance and couldn't afford others to help, and some are still living in the squalor and mess. My mom definitely developed PTSD through these events, and again, we were incredibly lucky compared to lots of others. She's a mess when it starts to rain in this city.

Since the hurricane, I've now moved out into a high-rise apartment where flooding will not affect me or my vehicle. I'll be much more able to provide immediate help and assistance to those affected when the next storm comes.

Fuck being a home owner in this stupid ass city though. This will happen again, soon, and probably even worse than what Harvey dropped on us.

*Quick sidebar story of the clusterfuck that was evacuating my Grandma out of the house-- heard firefighters crawling down the flooded neighborhood street in a dump truck offering voluntary evacuations. My grandma and I just got into an argument (she's very selfish and unhelpful) and she was ready to get out of the house and away from me. She's quite immobile but the firefighters lifted her into the dump truck (where she banged her shin and caused a pretty intense infection that we had to treat a week or two later in the hospital) alongside a few others who accepted the voluntary evacuation but they all got stuck just a couple blocks down the road in the neighborhood. This was after most of storms and so everyone in the truck was actually getting cooked by the sun all day. Eventually everyone in the truck decided to go back home since additional help wasn't coming until the next day but the firefighters took my grandma and one other elderly person into the elementary school in the neighborhood where they broke into the school and my grandma ended up sleeping on some couch in a reception area or something. The next morning the water was a little better in the neighborhood and a neighbor drove down the street to pick up my grandma and bring her back home. 24 hours later she was back where she started and much worse for the wear. Our power ended up going out shortly after she returned and she needed it for oxygen so we took her to one of her friend's house in a neighboring neighborhood (that was of course rocked hard by the waters too) who was fortunate to have not had any water nor electrical problems. She ended up staying there for at least 3-4 days if I remember right. My grandma was with us in our house because her house ended up flooding bad (3-4 ft inside the house), this was the third time her house flooded-- it also took in a lot of water (nowhere near as much as Harvey though) on the infamous Memorial Day and Tax Day floods. She has since sold the house (which we asked her to do after the first two floods) and is now grumpily living in a retirement home.
posted by Baphomet's Prime at 10:03 AM on August 28, 2019 [8 favorites]

...real estate development continues in floodplains,"

Seems like a no-brainer to me. Only ones with no brains would allow this.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 11:11 AM on August 28, 2019

Except that the floodplains are changing because climate change is changing the goddamn weather patterns, and to re-publish the accurate GIS maps denoting what is and isn't floodplain would bankrupt FEMA entirely. So instead FEMA is refusing to update the fucking things, because that will solve the problem.

Much of Texas is currently floodplain. I think pretty much the entirety of Houston is, if you actually update maps to account for climate change. It's not as simple as saying "no more real estate development in a floodplain," not without having to effectively pack up and move an entire megacity. For context, Houston is the 71st largest metropolitan area in the world, just behind Philadelphia, and it is growing considerably faster than Philly. How do you propose to fairly pack it up and move it elsewhere?
posted by sciatrix at 11:55 AM on August 28, 2019 [9 favorites]

And this morning I heard the weather channel guy say how fortunate it looked, that this next tropical storm/hurricane looks like it will not hit the US until late this week so there's plenty of time to prepare.....as he paints a bullseye on it passing right over Puerto Rico....today.

It seems to no longer be about helping our fellow humans survive and recover when disasters occur. Especially if they aren't the right people who know the right people.

The folks whos homes were obliterated by the fires in California are forgotten. The folks in Bangladesh who enured typhoons.... nothing for them. When it's not in the news cycle you're out of luck in getting any help.

It is just awful to hear everyone's voice crying for help and all there seems to be is red tape and ineffective communication.
posted by mightshould at 1:33 PM on August 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I live on the second floor of my building, I got one of the last flights out of Houston the night before the storm and my car was safely on the third floor of a parking garage at the airport. So I wasn't flooded like my downstairs neighbors and my car wasn't flooded like my 2nd and 3rd floor neighbors. My brother's townhome was flooded for weeks and he lost nearly everything.

Now I obsessively check my nearest flood gauge at the Harris County Flood Warning System whenever it rains and I can tell you that survivor's guilt is real.
posted by Ranucci at 6:07 PM on August 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Now I obsessively check my nearest flood gauge at the Harris County Flood Warning System whenever it rains and I can tell you that survivor's guilt is real.

Me, too. I have the nearest Brazos River flood gauge bookmarked. That's the one that will determine what happens to our house.

We barely dodged the floods, with water coming right up to our doorstep but not quite inside. If the Brazos had risen as high as predicted, we would have had four feet of water in the house and we would have lost a car. I spent three days thinking that almost everything was gone--we were out of town when Harvey hit, and hadn't flood-proofed the house at all. I can't describe that feeling.

Now when a heavy storm rolls in, I refill our three 15-gallow water jugs, set out the candles and matches, make sure the electronics are fully charged and our battery packs are ready. I confirm both cars are have a full gas tank. My wife thinks I'm being overly cautious, and I probably am, but I can't sleep in a thunderstorm anymore unless everything is ready. Sometimes I see a "ROAD MAY FLOOD" sign when I'm driving and feel a quick rush of anxiety, realizing the road I'm on was well underwater two years ago.

I thought our kids hadn't been affected too badly by the flood, but one day about nine months later we were crossing over the river and the younger two started yelling down to it. "We hate you! Stupid river! You almost flooded our house!" Some things still linger.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:43 PM on August 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

Floodplain Maps Are Outdated. This Scientist Wants to Change That. (Amal Ahmed, Texas Observer)

More than half of FEMA’s flood maps rely on decades-old data. Now, a group of Texas researchers is tackling the problem with a $3 million grant and crowdsourced data.
posted by mcdoublewide at 6:13 AM on August 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Seconded that a disaster is not over when the flames are quenched or floodwaters recede. When FEMA shows up, the disaster has barely begun.

Federal disaster declarations make lots of federal money available. For events such as Harvey (but not last October's flooding), that means Individual and Household Program (PDF) grants for rental assistance while repairs are being made. It also means FEMA takes charge of everything and everything takes twice as long due to federal bureaucracy. Here, with 14000 displaced households and a 0% vacancy rate, it meant waiting more than six months before the first Mobile Housing Units arrived while displaced persons wishing to camp got kicked off their own land. The Chronicle reports Houston's target as 250 homes completed by the end of this year (28 months after Harvey) with 250 more in construction. In 1906, the U.S. government was building a thousand earthquake shacks a month.

Federal malcompetence is also behind the failure to update Flood Insurance Rate Maps. Agencies like FEMA are forbidden to acknowledge certain anthropogenic changes to the environment. Meanwhile outdated maps perversely incentivize development in increasingly flood-prone areas.

Houston wouldn't have to be moved very far to greatly diminish its risk. Five feet might be enough. Sacramento rebuilt fifteen feet higher after the 1862 flood. Raising houses on jacks and rebuilding foundations costs money, but not as much as restoring flooded buildings. The complication is that fill dirt can broaden a flood plain. Dredging and channel improvements like those undertaken in Johnstown could work (though with an ecological cost) for Buffalo Bayou but not for the Brazos River. Restricting impervious surface and restoring area wetlands might be necessary to let water escape.

There was plenty of charitable support for the tens of thousands who lost homes in and around Paradise. Which, yes, has trailed off, but donations can hardly make a dent in an 11-figure disaster. Or twelve figures in the case of Harvey. It will take competent federal assistance to recover and competent local administration of federal funds like CDBG-DRs to make affected communities stronger than they were before.

Here, destroyed homes will be replaced with new construction far more resistant to fire, though slowly given the increased expense. New construction in Houston will be at least two feet above the (obsolete) 500-year flood level. These changes will reduce the chances of future disaster. Also necessary is support for the recovery and strengthening of survivors themselves.

Because hell yes PTSD and survivor's guilt and sleepless anxiety and lingering rage. I am one of those "lucky" ones, affected less than most and more able to aid others -- though relative to the rest of the country, it's been a 0th-percentile experience. Yet when someone asks how you're doing, you suppress that because you need to be able to function day-by-day within the disaster area and the person asking needs to function too. They want to hear that you're okay, that it's possible to be okay in the midst of disarray.

Meanwhile the authorities' focus is on cleaning up the toxic mess and eventually rebuilding public infrastructure, not on survivors' quality of life. Non-governmental organizations offer one-on-one counseling and case management. No one is facilitating group discussions of issues and solutions using techniques proven to help after previous disasters. Each community is left to figure that out for themselves while also trying to compensate for the loss of facilities and community members they've relied on. The teams who get dispatched from one disaster to another need to include people specialized in helping survivors help one another get through.

And seriously, local governments need to be slapping down public housing -- anything from brutalist towers to tiny house villages -- so people have affordable and sanitary places to live, whether in the wake of disaster or otherwise. If even FEMA can get hundreds of habitable units on the ground within 8-9 months, the city of Houston could have built or installed thousands of units by now for flood victims still awaiting home repairs. America's disaster-response bureaucracy does not benefit those who most need it; it ensures those with the least suffer most.
posted by backwoods at 7:16 AM on August 29, 2019 [6 favorites]

Much of Texas is currently floodplain.
Er, what? Huge chunks of Texas are DESERT. Texas is enormous. Most of it is in no danger of high water.
I think pretty much the entirety of Houston is, if you actually update maps to account for climate change.
Most of Houston did not flood in Harvey, or in any other storm. We're coastal plain, sure, but it doesn't follow that everyone here is in danger of flooding.

There are nearly 7 million people in the Houston metro area. A fraction of those folks needed help. It was a bigger fraction than ever before owing to the unprecedented nature of the storm -- 2nd only to Katrina in damage total -- but still nowhere close to "most".

Because we're coastal plain, and we have waterways in the city, there will always be flooding. The mistake that's been made is building (and rebuilding) in areas that are known to flood, and in ignoring the reality that the "flood prone" zone is larger now than it was 25 years ago. But the change is one of degree, and not kind. People said for years that "oh, the next street over floods, but it's never reached us," and thought this imparted mystical protection, I guess. Turns out: No.

However, most of the city was safe and dry, and is likely to remain so.

So, yeah, in Houston -- which, my civic pride insists I point out, is a metro area about a million people larger than Philadelphia -- we can get a lot smarter about where things are built, and we have to. But there's no need to "pack up and move an entire megacity."

The challenge is that fixing the flood plain building patterns means either helping poor people (which Americans hate doing), or inconveniencing rich people (which we hate doing even more). In that sense, the problem is exactly the same as a whole host of other problems we struggle with.
posted by uberchet at 9:24 AM on August 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

How do you propose to fairly pack it up and move it elsewhere?
posted by sciatrix at 11:55 AM on August 28 [9 favorites +] [!]

Pier construction is the traditional way to build homes on the Gulf Coast, so guess what the commodity housing industry likes? Not to build on piers.

You don t have to move Houston, but you do have to stop building oil industry commodity housing in Katy wetlands, and not building on piers. Wetlands, not just floodplain. 3ft of water storage per acre.

All that fill and building in wetlands in western Harris county and Waller is going to do a number on Houston, but the FiRE economy knows no regulation it can t dissolve.

You ever hear of the LOMR exemption to FEMA regs? Hell of a thing. What percentage, by area, of Harris county you think has a LOMR exemption? 30%?

Has anyone been out to Elyson lately? Bear Creek runs yellow with sand. It s totally silted in. The clean water act doesn t exist in the gulf coast, not when it comes to commodity housing.
posted by eustatic at 4:34 PM on August 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Speaking as someone who has good friends in FEMA, and as someone who's both lived through and evacuated from disasters, I wish people would tone down the rhetoric a bit. A neighborhood flooding due to a main breaking is a catastrophe. It is not any where near the same scale as a city flooding because of a massive hurricane. Flood repair does the opposite of scaling well.

There are definitely total losers in FEMA and there's definitely total BS bureaucracy. But they're not generally out to screw you (YMMV with your local home remodeling contractors, I peg the out-to-screw-you numbers at 1/2). Most FEMA personnel are reasonably competent people who spend their careers burning out in disaster zones until the PTSD gets too bad and they have to quit.
posted by Ahniya at 7:52 PM on August 29, 2019

I’m sympathetic to the people of FEMA, but I am not overly sympathetic to the regulations (and like most of MetaFilter, I usually love government regulation).

As part of the post-Harvey reconstruction, FEMA required my campus to rebuild a far below-grade building to the exact same specs as when it flooded. It took two different ‘gutting to studs’ attempts just to get all the mold out. It will flood again because this is Houston and basement-or-below areas are constantly being reclaimed by the swamp. When I tell people about the requirement to rebuild as it was, they splutter and insist that can’t be true. I watched it happen so I promise it is.

As for the stress about rain, well. It took me months to stop feeling a twinge of worry in a heavy rainstorm. Good news/bad news is that in Houston it rains a lot, so I got a lot of practice. This past May we got hit by a strong storm and school was canceled. I sat there on my couch and watched the rain fall and I had a bad day. I lost nothing in Harvey: my street didn’t even get damp, let alone my apartment or car flooded, and I’m a state employee so I had paid leave for the 10 or so days I was off work. And I had a bad day two years later. Imagine the ones who lost homes and family members.

For those of you who were in Houston and haven’t yet participated in it, Rice has a Harvey registry (surveys for researchers).
posted by librarylis at 2:04 PM on August 30, 2019

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