System Failure

Tropical Storm Allison destroyed houses that never quite got fixed, thanks to bureaucratic bungling and cheaters

Glenda Caldwell doesn't have a lot of faith in the system. It didn't crash all at once the way her foundation did after Tropical Storm Allison chewed away the earth beneath the west end of her Windsor Village home in June 2001. It withered slowly in six-month installments as one charitable agency after another began and then quit repairs to her home, even as the black mold crept from her drains and affected her already failing lungs.

Though only 51, Caldwell suffers a variety of maladies and is confined at most times to a wheelchair. She has lived on a fixed income since 1991, when she was laid out by a ruptured disc and the surgical complications that left her with nerve damage and metal rods in her back. She can speak only when a ringed finger closes over the tracheal tube at the base of her throat, the result of a breathing disorder and partial vocal-cord paralysis. Then there are two voices. One is the voice of the woman, carried softly over inflamed tissue, bearing the heat of her feelings, her failings and frustrations. The other is twined to the first, a tuneless rising and lowering like weary bellows passing through a broken pitch pipe. It is the dry wind leaking through her neck and the hiss of saliva bubbling behind the plastic tube.

With Allison's wrath came broken pipes and beams. Raw sewage backed up into Caldwell's shower and bathtub. Her oxygen concentrator, suction machine and backup generator were damaged by the water. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave her $2,600 for new sinks and a tub, a new central A/C unit, bleach cleaning and $33.60 for minor masonry work at a corner of her house. No one linked the sewage in her drains to subterranean pipes at the time. She protested her home had suffered far more damage than that and that it had become an unhealthy place to live. She needed housing assistance and major repairs, she said. She needed medical supplies. The response was "Get an estimate."

Glenda Caldwell has spent four years in a house 
contaminated by black mold.
Daniel Kramer
Glenda Caldwell has spent four years in a house contaminated by black mold.
The shower stall shows the result of broken sewer 
Daniel Kramer
The shower stall shows the result of broken sewer lines.

At last, a rep from a nearby commercial and residential construction company, All-U-Need Services, showed up. He tallied the damages at $34,000. All of the drywall four feet up from the floor and the cabinetry had to be replaced, showers and stalls had to be replaced, mold had to be removed. But still the septic problem went undiagnosed.

With the second inspector on the way in November 2001, Caldwell, a self-confessed clean freak ("If you're gonna clean my floors, you better use a whole lot of water and a squeegee"), couldn't resist wheeling about the three-bedroom home gunning for the roaches and lizards that had invaded her home through the numerous gaps left by the flood. As they scurried into the dark recesses, Caldwell leveled her can of Raid at them, taking aim into closets and dresser drawers where the mice trails led, extending the gathering insecticide fog. Then she collapsed into her chair.

"I went to spray the roaches and knocked my own self out," Caldwell says, her smile widening as she relates the freshly exposed humor of past horrors.

As significant as her suffering is, Caldwell is not alone among those overlooked or mistreated by the disaster relief system now coping with the mass of evacuees who have overloaded Houston's charitable networks. Bureaucratic ineptitude and unscrupulous contractors following Allison left other victims stranded. Four years in the making, their stories are already lost in the current rush of Katrina and Rita victims. They live quietly on the charity of family and friends or drift into homelessness. Or -- like Caldwell -- they cling to the remains, lingering in conditions that may yet prove to be their final undoing.

It was two years ago that Catholic Charities of Houston closed the files on 20 families who had experienced so much property damage that the nonprofit couldn't muster the resources to help them. FEMA had released about a billion dollars to the Houston area, but damages here were estimated as high as $5 billion by the end of 2001. Other groups performing cleanup and repairs, such as the Houston Area Urban League, ran out of funds.

According to Greg Patin, local Catholic Charities' chief development officer, there was only one agency with the resources to do the remaining heavy lifting: the City of Houston's Emergency Home Repair Program. Unfortunately, in 2003 this program had its assets frozen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for severe mismanagement under Mayor Lee P. Brown's administration.

Back in 1996 the program had outsourced all of its key services to four nonprofits and later reduced its inspection staff from eight employees to one. Organizations such as Sheltering Arms, the National Association of Minority Contractors, the Urban League and the nonprofit Private Sector Initiatives took over, hiring contractors to do the repairs and then billing the city for reimbursement. Caldwell says she witnessed numerous instances of contractors entering with good materials but later installing used and rusted equipment and making off with the superior supplies.

Though reactivated last year under strict HUD oversight, the Home Repair Program was severely criticized in a performance review by the auditing firm of Jefferson Wells earlier this year. While Private Sector Initiatives did the bulk of the work, no inspections were made on those jobs, according to the March review. In fact, no findings of "substandard, incomplete, overcharged, or non-emergency work" were reported by the city. The auditors, however, found "numerous instances" of such poor performance issues in their review of department field reports.

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