The Long Goodbye

It sounds so simple: FEMA purchasing homes flooded by Tropical Storm Allison. Then come the bureaucratic blizzards and personal angst over giving up and getting out.

On a recent October morning, the 6000 block of Woodbrook Lane in Houston is about as bucolic as its name could ever hope for. Birds from the neighboring 21-acre forest are chirping away, easily covering the gentle hum of a distant leaf blower. There's a slight breeze stirring the many pine trees that fill the backyards of the Inner Loop street, and it's too early in the morning for the humidity to take hold. The cloudless sky frames a view of contented suburbia.

Look closer, though, and something seems off. Halfway down the street, where there should be yet another modest home, there's only a vacant lot with a bit of grass surrounding a dusty patch of brown where a house used to be. A massive orange metal Dumpster stands guard.

Nearby are homes that are obviously empty. Some are newly cleaned and have "For Sale" signs in front; others seem close to abandoned.

The author's son videotapes the ten minutes it took to reduce their house to rubble.
Jeff Fitlow
The author's son videotapes the ten minutes it took to reduce their house to rubble.
The morning after Allison, streets near Woodbrook Lane were still under water.
Courtesy of Melodie Matlock
The morning after Allison, streets near Woodbrook Lane were still under water.

One of those abandoned houses is mine.

It sits in front of me, looking much as it has for the past year or so: an empty hulk with no inner walls, just wall studs marking the rooms where my wife and kid and I spent seven years of our lives.

I'm standing on the street in front of the house. If I had been standing on this spot on a certain night in June 2001, I would have been up to my waist in floodwater. And the downpour from Tropical Storm Allison would have shown no signs of letting up anytime soon (see "Wading for Godot," July 5, 2001).

But of course it eventually did. And the street that seems so clean now became a muddy, ugly mess, bracketed by piles of discarded sofas, ruined mattresses and soaked Sheetrock.

Hauling out the muck and detritus was only the beginning of the long, exasperating, wearing journey of recovery from Allison. Residents found themselves bulling their way ever so slowly through a soul-deadening bureaucratic tangle of misinformation, of finger-pointing between different government agencies, of an emotional roller-coaster ride where financial recovery seemed achievable, then impossible, then likely.

Some decided immediately to stay in the neighborhood, rebuild and try "to not get catatonic" in front of the TV whenever severe weather threatened. Others sold their houses as soon as they got what they thought was a reasonable offer.

Others tried to hold out for the brass ring: a buyout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would pay what the full-market value for the house and property had been the day before the flood -- only to find that circumstances forced them to give up the wait and sell to a private buyer for a lower price. And some who resolved to stay on the street are now looking to sell to FEMA because they feel the agency's "checkerboard" buyouts of some of their neighbors have permanently lowered property values.

And then there's me. I've also experienced the maddening chaos of conflicting advice from agencies helping Allison victims. Long, long waits in line, or on the phone, in sometimes vain attempts to talk to a real, live person. Talks with a real, live person from the county, say, who tells you that you first need a certain piece of paper from the city, which results in another long wait to talk to a real, live person from the city, who says nothing can be done without a certain piece of paper from the county.

Inspections are scheduled with one agency or another -- yes, you have to be there, sir; no, we don't know what time, anytime from 4 p.m. till 8 p.m., sir -- and then, after no inspector shows up, have to be rescheduled (once you finally get a real, live person on the phone).

"It was like a hell that wouldn't end, dealing with it all," says Melodie Matlock, another Woodbrook Lane flood victim.

But for me, at least, all those aggravations are about to end. FEMA has bought our house. It's 8:30 or so on a glorious October morning, and the demolition teams are going to tear down the empty shell. We can get on with our lives.

It's not unusual that the person whose house FEMA has purchased expresses a wish to see the tear-down. Since I'm a reporter, and am doing a wider story on the buyout project, the coordinators of the project double check to make sure everything is set for me and a photographer. Nothing can go wrong.

And so, a photographer and I are waiting patiently on Woodbrook Lane, waiting for the finale to months and months of red tape and annoyance and irritation at nuisances both major and minor.

We wait in vain. The demolition crew doesn't show up.


Last year, Tropical Storm Allison dumped almost 15 inches of rain on Woodbrook Lane the night of June 8 to 9, sending close to three feet of water from White Oak Bayou through houses that longtime residents said had never flooded. Elsewhere in Houston the storm earned a legendary status by inundating the Medical Center, the downtown tunnel system and dozens of neighborhoods throughout the city.

The official price tag for damage is more than $5 billion.

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