Hurricane Harvey one year later: Storm's effects linger as survivors, cities work to rebuild

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Hurricane’s effects linger as communities work to rebuild
Days after moving from Colorado to a rental home in Wedgewood Village in Friendswood, Mindy Seip looked out of a second-floor bedroom window and could not believe what she saw: Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey looked like they might soon overtake a stop sign on her street.

“I was just amazed. The sign was you know, 6-7 feet up, so that just shows you how much water there was. We left shortly after that,” Seip said.

She and her brother, along with her two daughters and her ailing mother, piled onto a boat and eventually got on a truck that drove them in range of her sister in Pearland, who was able to shelter them.

Seip was able to gather some belongings and get them to the second floor, but boxes of clothes, baby books and family albums were lost, along with a car she had just purchased for her daughter.

In the nearby Forest Bend neighborhood, Melanie Galvan and her son had scrambled to get as many valuables up off the ground as possible as her house—which had never flooded in the 27 years she has lived there—took on about 17 inches of water.

“It’s the most helpless feeling, thinking about all that stuff that you couldn’t save,” Galvan said.

In the year since Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, 2017, families like the Seips and the Galvans have slowly put their lives back together with a patchwork of aid from nonprofits as well as state and federal programs, but they are far from being made whole, nor are the cities of Pearland and Friendswood, which have shelled out millions of dollars to get their communities up and running, according to city officials.

Filling the gaps

Despite over $1.3 billion in aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency disbursed to individuals in Galveston and Brazoria counties in the months after the storm, there are immediate needs that have still not yet been met, said Chris Hensman, a program officer for the Rebuild Texas Fund.

“There’s a serious lack of housing … there’s a lot of people living in moldy homes out there, transitioning from hotels and other situations. I just talked to a guy who has literally been living out of a tent,” he said.

The state of Texas estimates $12 billion worth of unmet housing needs as a result of Harvey. Part of that need will be addressed through a recently approved State Action Plan that is allocating $1 billion in federal aid for reconstruction of homes and $250 million for rental assistance. While funds have been approved, relief will not be immediate.

“It’s a challenge, because there’s a lack of capacity in terms of being able to rebuild, but also we have to prioritize … we don’t want to rebuild a home that really just needs to be torn down and bought out,” Hensman said.

The Rebuild Texas Fund, created when the Michael Dell Foundation seeded it with a $36 million donation, is close to raising $100 million total from more than 33,000 individual donors.

It is doling out grants in waves, targeting grassroots nonprofits like 4B Disaster Response Network and Samaritan’s Purse. Rebuild Texas intentionally waited to give out some funds, Hensman said, because money is not always spent wisely in the first weeks after a disaster.

On the other hand, since it is made up of private funds, it can act more quickly than government programs, he said. In addition to repairs, the organization is also funding mental health initiatives to ensure that Harvey survivors, especially schoolchildren, get help coping with the trauma of the event and its aftermath.

One challenge is to make sure the area has enough volunteers to help with home rebuilding projects, as the armies of out-of-town church groups and students that have been deployed throughout the area are likely to fade out once the summer ends, he said.

Nonprofits and church groups filled needs in the immediate and short-term aftermath. Seip, for example, got a bedroom set from Mary Queen Catholic Church in Friendswood.

“I’m not even Catholic,” Seip said. “That just blew my mind.”

Even with FEMA and donations and a volunteer crew that helped get her home repairs underway, Seip said she had to max out credit cards to get by. With the move to Texas, she did not have a job for several months after sending out hundreds of resumes, she said.

Galvan was able to qualify for a Texas General Land Office home repair program—Partial Repair and Essential Power for Sheltering, or PREPS—that made her home livable.

She was one of 1,851 homeowners to get the no-cost repair in Brazoria and Galveston counties. To be eligible, repairs had to cost the state less than $20,000 and the property had to have sustained less than $17,000 in FEMA verified loss.

“We could not have made it without the PREPS program,” Galvan said. “They did quality work, too.”

Even so, much more work needs to be done to get the home back to normal, she said.

A new normal

Like Seip and Galvan, city and county governments have had to dig into their budgets to pay for recovery efforts and have gotten creative with securing grants and hand-me-downs of their own—for example, the city of Pearland has obtained eight trucks from a military surplus program for high-water rescues.

Both cities are advocating for buyout and elevation grant funding and are hoping for additional assistance to help cover damages to city facilities and reimbursements for cleanup and other efforts. A total of 38 property owners in Pearland and another 42 in Friendswood have applied for hazard mitigation grants for buyouts or elevation. It remains to be seen whether they will be approved and whether cities can help match federal dollars. Joel Hardy, Pearland’s special projects and grants administrator, said Pearland is also trying to be strategic about how buyouts are done.

“The city is also working to design a geographic configuration of buyout property that helps to improve area flood-drainage capacity and avoids scattered buyout properties,” Hardy said.

Friendswood has spent $6.3 million in recovery, mostly on debris removal, said Jeff Newpher, the city’s communication specialist. Most of those funds came out of the city’s 90-day reserve. About a sixth of that has been reimbursed by FEMA so far.

Pearland spent around $1.3 million on debris removal, and officials said they expected reimbursement to start coming by the end of the fiscal year in September. For both cities, these funds come from a program dedicated to public assistance that is separate from the individual assistance program.

“We are in contact with FEMA, I would say, daily,” Hardy said. Friendswood officials said the same.

Despite constant communication, if history is a guide, full reimbursements could take years. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, Friendswood had $9.75 million in recovery expenses. It took 2 years to get about 85 percent of that reimbursed and 7 years total to get to 93 percent. The rest was never reimbursed, city officials said.

Despite a strain on finances and facilities, officials say they are ready for the next storm.

“We are mentally ready for the next storm, because all of this is fresh on our minds as to how to respond,” Hardy said.

Pearland has been working to update its emergency procedures ahead of the storm, including looking at requiring all city staff to get incident command training, which is typically only done by first responders, said Peter Martin, the city’s emergency management coordinator.

While the city is reviewing its process, Martin said residents need to do the same and take stock of their own preparedness, including understanding how to recover quickly.

“Understand what FEMA is going to require from you, what your insurance is going to require from you,” so you can maximize your disaster assistance, Martin said.

Officials are also heavily promoting flood insurance, noting that a significant number of homes affected by Harvey were not in zones where coverage had been required.

For Galvan, leaving is not an option, but neither is giving up. When she was diagnosed with cancer—just weeks after the storm—doctors told her that living with the disease would be “a new normal.”

“That’s what this is; it’s a new normal,” Galvan said. “It’s going to be a years and years-long process to get normal.”


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