System Failure

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

Houston city leaders recently reallocated $1 million of federal funds earmarked for survivors of Katrina and Rita to instead serve local families living in poverty before the recent exodus to Houston. Numerous charitable agencies protested the move, effectively stalling it for weeks, arguing it is not only impractical but also unethical to differentiate between native Houstonians and the evacuees who have set up in local apartments and begun to swell the lines at area shelters, employment agencies and soup kitchens. After all, says Carol Little of Northwest Assistance Ministries, "even if they were living in New Orleans when they came -- they're Houstonians now…So, what are you going to do?"

According to a study conducted by the Coalition for the Homeless, 4.3 percent of the 2,294 homeless surveyed blamed "flooding" for their current situation. "We took that to mean Allison," says Anthony Love, director of the Coalition for the Homeless. That supposition was supported by the time period covered by the survey and limited interviews with core focus groups. "There's no telling who was on the edge and this kind of pushed them over."

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.

But for her three daughters, Maxine Jackson easily could have slipped into that number. She wasn't at home that second week of June in 2001, when more than two feet of rain fell, sending floodwaters washing down Oak Knoll Lane, battering her already leaky roof. She had just been discharged from the hospital after three months of on-again, off-again tuberculosis treatment that left a hole in her back and hip. At first she tried to handle her business herself, with FEMA and the northeast neighborhood's fix-it man. However, every time she saw the man, he was after a paycheck. "He kept hollering he needed money for supplies or he needed something to pay his men," Jackson says. In the end, she says, she had written over her entire FEMA check of $12,000 to the guy.

The contractor quickly put up a new roof, gutted the house, knocking several holes through the exterior walls, and disappeared. The Sheetrock that was replaced went up in pieces no bigger than one-foot squares, obvious remnants salvaged from other jobs, she says.

Bishop Marcellus Bolden of Abiding Love Church on East Houston Road met frequently with the city housing staff to try to get help for Jackson and five of his other elderly parishioners. He says that well before HUD stepped in, the city's housing program directors were unresponsive to their needs.

"Actually, they started shuffling her around even before that time," Bolden says. "What it boiled down to, all the people I referred didn't receive any help, and she didn't get any help at all. She got promises. I got promises. I called to follow up…It was real frustrating."

That left Jackson in the care of her three daughters and their families, who have each taken a year's shift caring for the 63-year-old. Each place she goes she dislodges at least one child from a bedroom. Each move strains family ties all the more. One granddaughter has recently taken to asking her to leave.

"She'll come get in my bed and I'll tell her, 'You can't sleep with me,' " she says of nine-year-old Cassie. "I know what she wants…They say they want their room back. They want their bed back. They want they stuff on they walls. You can't blame them. If I was a kid, I'd want the same thing too."

She never filed a complaint against the contractor, choosing instead to rely on Divine Justice to eventually catch up with the man. She feared what she might do if she caught hold of him. "It was God that stopped me from going after this man, because I'd be sittin' there sure enough crying in someone's prison somewhere."

Bolden went back to the city a year ago to see what was happening. He says he was told "they were working on it and that she was in the system and they were going to get to her, and I'm like, 'Well, okay. You guys haven't gotten to her yet.' "

All Skeete could offer was that his staff had found documentation that Jackson had been referred to the National Association of Minority Contractors, who have since rolled up shop, sealing all their records in an as-yet-undiscovered warehouse space. It is unclear if she will now be added to the city's rolls.

"Tropical Storm Allison created a quagmire, if you will," Skeete said. "It is also a tracking nightmare. We don't know necessarily what work was done and previously paid for because we don't have the particular details for each of the homes."

After being abandoned for several years, Jackson's home finally succumbed to thieves. Though she kept a padlock on the front door, the entry was wide open when she and a daughter checked on it while securing supplies ahead of Hurricane Katrina. After the storm passed, she went out again and noticed someone had nailed boards over the holes in the walls. She found a mattress on the living room floor. "I started to put it outside and I said, 'No, I'm going to let 'em go on with their work.' "

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