Houston after Harvey: city faces huge hurdle to recovery

Texas region is grappling with the slow grind of bureaucracy, the urgent need to clear detritus and the natural desperation to return quickly to normal life

by Tom Dart in Houston

A month after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, there is still a simple way to tell if a particular street flooded in Houston. Just look at the front lawns.

Debris rose as the water receded and residents returned to gut their ruined homes, disgorging the contents curbside. There is so much to remove, and trips to landfills are taking so long, that the region is months away from clearing it all.

Those unwilling or unable to pay private companies hundreds of dollars to shift the detritus are waiting for the city to remove it. But Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, warned at a council meeting earlier this month that it could take until Christmas to deal with.

In a Friday update after clashes between council members over the handling of the problem, Turner said landfills would operate 24 hours a day as more than 300 trucks collect more than 8 million cubic yards of debris at a cost of more than $250m.

Some of the worst-affected neighborhoods are located around Eldridge Parkway, a busy road in west Houston’s energy corridor where many oil and gas corporate offices are located and a few routes remain closed because of high water. Here, piles of rancid rubbish curl like a wall around a complex of dozens of townhomes opposite a library.

Late last week, a trio of contractors sweated as they plunked large kitchen appliances on to a flat-bed truck. “The whole job’s gonna take probably a good two months,” said one, Anthony Brown.

Built in the 1970s, the houses are framed on three sides by a creek that branches off from the Buffalo Bayou, a major flooding source during Harvey that extends more than 50 miles from Houston’s western suburbs through downtown and out into Galveston Bay. The massive Addicks and Barker flood-control reservoirs and dams, which feed into the Bayou, are less than two miles away.

What four weeks ago were cherished possessions now languished as flotsam, junk chucked indiscriminately a few yards outside front doors. Flies zig-zagged over rotten food next to mattresses, door frames, wall panels, furniture, board games; more or less anything that was on the ground floor in late August. Spanish-language pop music blared from the bowels of one house being cleared out by contractors. Next door, a warning was posted out front: “You loot, we shoot.” But all that remains seems worthless.

A traffic cone protruded horizontally from the second-storey wall of one house, by a window. Olga Weber pointed at it. “That’s where they rescued me, right there,” she said. Weber is a maintenance worker at the complex and was the last to leave – by rescue boat, after she attached the cone to attract attention and wrote a cry for help on a bedsheet draped outside the window.

Bob Williams, tasked with restoring air-conditioning to some of the homes – a vital way to help them dry out and limit mold – gestured at the desperate scene, redolent of an explosion or a tornado’s devastation. “This, it would make you drink but I don’t drink,” he said. “It’s what made me smoke again. I hadn’t smoked for six years.”

Laura Goncalves has lived here for a decade. Her ground floor is an empty shell. Wearing a face mask to protect against the noxious smell, her daughter helped with the clean-up. “I’m 61 years old,” Goncalves said. “I was $22,000 away from paying off my house so I could retire in four years. And now I have to work until I die.”

Her voice wavered. “I’ve worked hard, two jobs, to pay for this house, to update it. And it just in two days was all gone. You call companies to come and clean and spray and they’re charging you $5,000. I don’t have the $5,000, I haven’t gotten any money from the insurance yet.”

‘The numbers for flood insurance are pretty low’

Harvey made landfall in Texas as a category 4 hurricane on the evening of 25 August, severely damaging several places near the coast. It weakened into a tropical storm but stalled, soaking parts of the Houston area in four days with an excess of 50in of rain – about what the city might expect in an average year. More than 80 people were reported killed in Texas and an estimated 136,000 structures in Harris County, which includes Houston, were flooded by a trillion gallons of precipitation.

The aftermath is endured at multiple speeds: the slow grind of bureaucracy and delayed responses caused by the scale of the disaster contrasts with the urgent need to clear and treat buildings before mold and structural damage may render them permanently uninhabitable, and the natural desperation to return quickly to a semblance of normal life.

Goncalves said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) provided a $500 critical-need payment a few weeks back. A couple of days ago she called and spent five hours on hold before being told someone would be in touch, but it might take 30 days.

There are jarring visions of the everyday and the abnormal side by side, as gardeners tend to manicured lawns and bushes around the corner from streets scarred by mangled heaps of belongings. Grassy medians are pockmarked with signs advertising contracting services and handwritten placards with the phone numbers of house flippers willing to pay cash for flooded properties.

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