Lost in The Woodlands

A former slave colony finds it isn't even worth basic water and sewage systems

Dolores Dean lives in a small house made of pressboard with a rusted metal roof. When it rains, she puts out buckets to collect water from the ceiling. The woman, in her late fifties, gets by on a fixed income with her disabled, diabetic husband and six-year-old grandchild.

"Life can be hard here, but it is the only way we know how to live," Dean says. "We try to make the most out of it and just go on day by day."

Others in her southern Montgomery County community of Tamina fare no better, despite its prime location just a mile or so across the railroad tracks and Interstate 45 from the affluent Woodlands.

While that planned residential community is awash in designer lakes and automatic sprinklers chattering across lawns and golf courses, most of Tamina lacks running water and standard plumbing. Dean has no tap water or sewer service.

There is no trash service, no public works inspection. An absence of street lights makes it easier for residents to view the distant illuminated Woodlands Christmas decorations than to see a neighbor's dog across the street. The only visitors are do-gooders delivering yule gifts and food.

Spread throughout Dean's neighborhood are feeble shacks with failing walls and aging mobile homes slumping slowly into U shapes atop their gray bricks. Dark streams of human feces flow in yards and underneath abandoned automobiles that house mosquitoes and strong odors.

Resembling many of the Hispanic colonias, Tamina sits inside a perimeter of muddy lanes and illegal dump sites holding debris from the explosion of construction going on around it.

In the afternoon Dean watches shoeless children play in streets named after former slaves, the first settlers of this old community founded just after the Civil War. Like those before them, most residents still use wells or haul bottled water into their homes. There are some septic tanks, but many are overflowing.

"It's like we're locked in time," says longtime resident Ranson Grimes. "The rest of the county boomed with development, and we stayed under. It's like we were forgotten because don't nobody know we're back here."

Just like their predecessors, the 1,000 or so residents of Tamina are survivors of the tough conditions. But perhaps the cruelest twist for them was the promise that progress would finally come to the community.

Montgomery County officials told them last year that a five-year federal grant would be used to link them at last with the modern-day wonders of running water and sewage disposal.

Now county officials are nearing a vote next month to kill that project. They say federal funds would fall short of financing the improvements. And besides, the county concluded, the houses are too old and the community squalor too great to bother with such services. County commissioners gave Tamina a temporary delay to try to prove the plans are feasible.

"I am so ashamed of my house," says resident Reaney Davis, 56. "It ain't got no water, it ain't got no electricity, and it ain't got no plumbing. It gets me so depressed sitting up in there alone, but what can I do?"


For a place without basic city services, Tamina began as a tribute to municipal might. History buffs trace its name to the one bestowed on it in 1871 by founder James Berry. He named it Tammany, as in New York's Tammany Hall political machine.

Within a few years the spelling had been distorted to Tamina. The post office closed 91 years ago, and the last school was boarded up 50 years later.

Concerns about living conditions have been around about that long, which made the community and its outside supporters that much more surprised when, they said, Montgomery County last year pledged $250,000 in federal funds annually for five years for a water and sewage treatment plant project.

County Judge Alan Sadler even promised Tamina residents that they "wouldn't be left out."

However, a controversial county memorandum made all that seem unlikely earlier this year. County community development director Nancy Mikeska wrote county commissioners that the Community Development Block Grant for Tamina should be discontinued. Mikeska's memo advised officials that the five-year plan to build a plant had "a wide range of complications," including unauthorized dumping sites in the area, delinquent property tax payers and a $4.8 million estimated cost.

"After looking at the situation and the funds we had available, it was clear that this thing could not go on as planned," Mikeska says.

Mikeska applauded the efforts by Tamina activists and their allies to secure the project, saying "everyone wants people in Tamina to have sewer services, even me." She blames the problems on "misinformation put out by the media."

"This thing was never about building a water or sewer plant. It never was," says Mikeska. She apparently forgot that she herself titled her memo "Tamina Water Treatment Plant Project." Her memo refers four times to a "waste water treatment facility."

"We never said there would be a plant built out there," Mikeska insists. "It cost too much."

When reminded that she referred to a plant in her memo, Mikeska pauses for a moment. "Well, that's what it ballooned into because of rumors," she says. The project, Mikeska says, "was only about getting water and sewer pipes replaced."

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