CORRECTION: This story has been edited to clarify that neighborhoods upstream from the Barker reservoir, such as Canyon Gate and Cinco Ranch and other areas along Mason Road, flooded because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed water to back up out of the property that it owned and stored that water on private property, according to Fort Bend County officials.
Nearly nine months after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Greater Houston area and portions of the Texas coast, Katy residents like Audrey Markiton and her family of four are still not back home yet.
Markiton’s home was one of the 700-plus in the Canyon Gate neighborhood that was inundated with over 30 inches of floodwaters from Harvey.
During Harvey, the Corps’ opened floodgates in an effort to prevent the reservoirs from failing which created much of the flooding downstream of Buffalo Bayou, according to Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert. However, neighborhoods upstream from the reservoir, such as Canyon Gate, Kelliwood, Cinco Ranch and other areas along Mason Road that flooded only flooded because the Corps allowed water to back up out of the property that it owned and stored that water on private property, Hebert said.
After frantically searching for a hotel with no success, Markiton said her only option for housing after the storm was to stay with her husband’s parents at their home in Conroe.
“We were driving an hour and a half there and an hour and a half back every day, and we did that for about almost three months because initially there was no housing,” Markiton said.
After applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid and initially being denied, Markiton said she finally received notice she was approved for housing weeks after making the daily commute to Conroe.
“[The notice] told me the nearest hotel with availability was [in]El Paso, because there was just nothing,” she said.
Markiton was approved for FEMA housing assistance through the form of a manufactured housing unit, or trailer, in November. She and her family were not able to move into the trailer until March 26, seven months after Harvey hit.
“In eight months we’ve had three homes,” Markiton said. “I want that final move to be into my house.”
Of the 6,800 homes that flooded in Fort Bend County where Markiton’s home is located, 3,000 were in the Katy area near the Barker Reservoir. The housing crisis Markiton and her family experienced is something county officials said they knew could happen.
“What we are always concerned about is the number of people that were displaced by a storm like Harvey and how were they being handled on the issue of temporary housing,” Hebert said. “Right now, it’s a very spotty performance.”
‘Business as usual’
According to county officials, FEMA conducted two direct housing assessments following the Tax Day and the Memorial Day flooding events in 2016. The second study, completed in July 2016, identified Fort Bend as having a significant unmet need for housing assistance.
FEMA concluded three counties, including Fort Bend, should receive housing assistance in the form of manufactured housing units and that a state-led disaster housing task force should be implemented. Despite these proposed solutions, nothing ever came of the studies, according to Fort Bend County officials.
“Then for some unknown reason, I don’t think we ever found out an answer, [FEMA] just didn’t follow through; they just said they weren’t going to end up offering the program,” said Jeff Braun, Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management coordinator.
FEMA officials said a housing study is typically conducted for each natural disaster. Officials would not comment on whether any of the 2016 proposed solutions, if followed up on, could have helped lessen the burden on displaced Harvey families as of press time.
Braun said other disasters may have caused FEMA to redirect its resources, but agreed it was frustrating that nothing came of the studies. Hebert echoed his sentiments.
“All I know is that if you did a study and you had data that said you needed to improve, it seems to me that a reasonable person would have taken steps to be positioned to do a better job the next time,” Hebert said. “That’s not what we see with Harvey. It’s business as usual. Especially in the terms of long-term recovery.”
Disaster Recovery Manager Caroline Egan had already been working for the FBCOEM when the 2016 floodings occurred and said the housing shortage that ensued during Harvey was somewhat expected. She said following Harvey she sent the 2016 study to the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
“I sent it up to TDEM and said, ‘Hey, we need help; here’s the study from last year … this is still a need for us,’” Egan said. “That’s when … we are starting to hear that these trailers and manufactured housing units are showing up on people’s properties, not just in Fort Bend County, but all across the state.”
Immediately following Harvey, Gov. Greg Abbott issued the Texas General Land Office to take over TDEM’s responsibility with short-term recovery efforts. It was the first time in Texas history that a state agency was involved in the short-term recovery process following a natural disaster, said Brittany Eck, press secretary for the Texas General Land Office.
Egan said most local jurisdictions were used to coordinating with the TDEM after a natural disaster, not the GLO, which could explain why there was miscommunication about trailers and housing.
Under the GLO and through FEMA, new short-term housing programs that include the distribution of manufactured housing units and trailers, as well as repair and rebuild programs, were introduced to Harvey victims immediately following the storm. Nine months after the storm, federal agencies are still working with local jurisdictions to get families back home.
The most recent solution that could provide relief includes the GLO’s State Action Plan, which outlines how nearly $5 billion in congressional funding will be allocated across the 41 affected counties to address housing solutions and resources.
GLO officials said once the action plan and details for the allocations are approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the GLO will work with local jurisdictions to implement those programs. The plan was submitted to HUD on May 8.
One option available to displaced residents includes FEMA’s transitional shelter assistance program, which allows eligible renters and homeowners to stay in a FEMA-funded hotel as long as they meet certain requirements.
As of May 4, there were 51 Fort Bend County residents and 619 Harris County residents living in FEMA-founded hotels, according to FEMA spokesperson Lauren Hersh.
A Cinco Ranch resident for 16 years, Evangelina Connors said she and her husband have been living in a FEMA-funded hotel, a Best Western near Katy Mills, since the middle of September. They applied for FEMA assistance the day of the storm; it took four weeks for the couple to get into a hotel through FEMA’s TSA program.
“We were literally calling, and we were driving from place to place to place [to find a hotel],” Connors said. “And they said we don’t have enough hotels for the FEMA program. … There was a shortage.”
Connors said she looked for an apartment and was unable to find anything affordable.
“They required too long a lease, and they were as high as our mortgage,” Connors said.
Lack of affordable apartments are another component to the temporary housing shortage the county faces. Braun said the influx of new apartments with high rents might have made it difficult for victims to find housing.
Average Katy-area apartment rates spiked in August and September due to the increased demand, jumping from $1,113 in May to $1,176 in September, according to Apartment Data Services.
“From Katy down past Pecan Grove down to Richmond, it’s unbelievable how many apartment complexes have been built over the last three years or so, and there’s nothing affordable about any of those,” Braun said. “That is part of the issue. It doesn’t matter where you live after a disaster … [when]you have to go find some other place to live and you still have to pay [a]mortgage … you probably don’t have the income to basically have two houses.”
One of the proposed programs included in the State Action Plan that could potentially address this issue is the Affordable Rental program, which would allocate $250 million for reconstruction and construction of new affordable housing projects in areas affected by Harvey.
Many of the proposed programs may not help families in more affluent areas like Katy. GLO officials said many comments they have received raise concern over a requirement that 70 percent of the funding be spent in low- to moderate-income areas.
“The problem we have is… 100 percent of the homes that flooded were not low to moderate income,” Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers said.
Officials said they are aware of this concern.
“Disasters don’t just impact low- to moderate-income people, they impact entire communities,” said Heather Lagrone, deputy director of community development and revitalization for the GLO. “In the past, HUD has waived that requirement down to 50 percent…and we’ve asked for that consideration.”
HUD has 45 days to approve the final plan. In past disasters, the process has taken up to five months, according to Eck.
“[We] hope that it will be an expedited process,” she said.
For families like the Connors and the Markitons, help cannot come soon enough.
‘The forgotten people’
FEMA’s TSA program ends May 31 and will force hundreds of families to check out of their hotels by June 1. FEMA officials said they are not sure if another extension will be provided after the June 1 deadline. Six extensions have already been made.
Standing on her front porch outside of her Cinco Ranch home on a sunny April afternoon, Connors said she is not sure where to go after the deadline hits. About 10 dump trucks carrying dirt to restore Buffalo Bayou drive by.
The sounds of hammers pounding and saws cutting wood fill the air of the neighborhood, of which Connors estimates is home to only about 20 percent of the people who used to live there.
“To be honest, when we walk into our home, it’s not our home anymore,” Connors said. “We don’t see it the same way.”
The Markitons have up to 18 months to stay in their trailer before FEMA retrieves it.
After waiting for weeks for a loan while their house remained empty, the Markitons were approved for their last Small Business Administration loan May 16. Markiton said she can now start on the final repairs, but it may be another four weeks before they are able to move back in, marking almost a year since Harvey hit.
“I don’t think as a whole the nation does not believe or understands the level of people that at this point have been left behind—the forgotten people of Harvey,” Markiton said. “There are homes in this community that have not been touched since Harvey, and this is not the only community.”