After Hurricane Harvey: Houston’s residents pick up the pieces

‘Those guys who brought us across water to our homes are the real heroes of this story’

Irish Times Washington Correspondent Suzanne Lynch speaks with Eric Chase, a Houston resident whose family are still in their home, despite widespread flooding in their neighbourhood. Video: Suzanne Lynch

 

It’s Labor Day across the United States, the public holiday that traditionally denotes the end of summer, but for most residents of Houston, there is no time to sit back and relax.

Across the city evacuation operations are still under way and thousands of residents are struggling to get back into their homes, a week after Hurricane Harvey battered the region.

I’m driving around the western suburbs of Houston with Eric Chase, a Houston resident who is trying to reach his house in the west of the city.

He decided to venture out from his flooded neighbourhood earlier to a local supermarket to get supplies. There he bumped into a friend, Michael, who offered to drive him back to the car that he was forced to abandon two days ago.

As we drive around the streets of west Houston the traffic inches along, as drivers strain to look out the window and work out the best route to their destination. Most of the roads are closed and large swathes of west Houston remain under water.

For many there is no other option if they want to reach their house – they must wade through up to five feet of water or travel by boat.

After detouring around an area of four square miles which has effectively been cut off, we come to Kirkwood Road, a main road in the area running north to south. It is now a river.

Officers Hendrick and Adeyemi are patrolling the area, two of thousands of Houston police officers and state police who are working around the clock as Houston tries to get back on its feet.

Electrocuted

They explain that there is now a mandatory evacuation in the area. “We have already lost two rescuers who were electrocuted in the water. We cannot let that happen again so I’m afraid that means that residents need to leave their home.”

Many of the residents in the neighbourhood are not happy about the fresh calls to leave – the mayor was forced to announce a mandatory evacuation on Saturday over safety concerns. How long will the evacuation last? “Weeks, maybe a month,” Officer Hendrick tells us. For residents the only option is to stay with friends, family or check in to one of the many temporary shelters or hotels in the city.

Eric is one of the lucky ones – Although the water reached five feet outside his house, his home did not flood. As a result his family is permitted to stay, despite being marooned in a sea of water.

As he tries to plot a route back to his house, he explains that he and his girlfriend were on holiday in Mexico when Harvey struck. The rest of the family and relatives were stranded in the house all week. With airports closed, they finally got back on Saturday .

After arriving at Houston International Airport, they drove as far as they could before abandoning the car at one of the “staging posts” from where they were transported by boat with their suitcases to their home. “Those guys who brought us across the water to our homes are the real heroes of this story. The rescue effort by volunteers has been overwhelming,” he says.

This time, he is going to make the journey, with his groceries, by foot through the water, wearing makeshift wellingtons that he made with plastic bags.

This area of west Houston has been one of the worst affected by Hurricane Harvey. Located alongside Buffalo Bayou, the slow-moving river that snakes through the area, the region was left highly exposed when Harvey struck. The city’s two flood-controlled reservoirs, Barker and Addicks, are located nearby. Though they did not overflow as expected, authorities have been releasing water as a precautionary measure which has added to difficulties in the area.

Footing the bill

With thousands of houses still under water and many homes ruined, the federal government is expected to foot most of the multi-billion-dollar bill from Hurricane Harvey. Approximately 15 per cent of the houses affected by Hurricane Harvey had flood insurance, despite the city undergoing heavy flooding during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

As one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, boosted by a roaring oil and energy industry, Houston has expanded exponentially in recent years.

Questions are now being asked about whether the city’s rapid urban sprawl is to blame for much of the damage from Hurricane Harvey. Remarkably, the city does not have zoning laws, proudly embracing the tagline “the city with no limits”.

Despite bipartisan support for a federal funding package for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, there have been mutterings from some congressmen that Texas should tap into its own $10 billion economic stabilisation fund.

But for the moment, the focus in this neighbourhood is on the recovery effort. As we leave Eric to wade through the water back to his home, we pass by Westside tennis and fitness club, which offered refuge during the hurricane. Gallery Furniture, one of several furniture stores in the city run by local businessman Jim Mc Ingvale, also opened its doors to stranded residents during the height of the crisis.

For many Houstonians it is stories like this that are helping buoy spirits – whatever the future may hold.

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