System Failure

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

However, not only were the antique dresser drawers taken from the garage, and the chinaware and 100-plus piece Vietnamese silverware set swiped from the main house, but Jackson discovered that the property itself has been subjected to an apparently fraudulent sale. Jackson got the shock when she went downtown to get her tax statement and was told another name was now listed as owner of the property. After inquiring at the appraisal district, she was told that the person on her property's tax statement had been investigated recently by the Harris County district attorney's office.

Assistant District Attorney Mike Door says he has just begun looking into Jackson's situation but confirmed the name now listed on Jackson's property tax statement is the same as one he investigated in relation to another fraudulent sale. He told Jackson it was likely an alias and that he hadn't been able to track down the culprit. Yet Jackson's gospel enthusiasm hasn't been dampened. "The good thing about it is when I get my house back it's going to be fixed. I'll have my pastor go bless it and get those demons out so I can go in."

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.

There were few complaints of contractor fraud immediately after Allison. However, the virtual flood of FEMA dollars that followed proved too great a temptation for circling opportunists, according to Russel Turbeville, chief of the consumer fraud division at the D.A.'s office. After a year of deceptive calm, contractor fraud cases exploded.

While only one or two contractor-related fraud investigations were launched annually before Allison, these days the D.A.'s office gets as many as five such complaints per week, Turbeville says. As many as 700 different contractor-related "situations" are handled every year. One case currently under investigation involves 8,000 homeowners, he says. Many involve mold remediation and testing companies.

"I think a lot of people got in the contracting business here when we were awash in FEMA money and they stayed. We're just covered up with bad contractors," Turbeville says.

One of those rare Allison cases involved Delta Thomas, who is retiring this month after 26 years with the city's Parks and Recreation Department. At 48, she's become too sick to work. Her failing kidneys were brought on by years of elevated blood pressure. That was exacerbated, according to Thomas and her doctor, after post-Allison financial strains made it difficult for her to buy her medicine, and conflict with a League City mold remediation firm played havoc with her stress level.

At Thomas's home, Allison's waters tapped the door but never entered. She counted herself among the lucky ones at first as her half-acre reduced itself over several weeks from swampy to soggy to its typical sun-baked state. As weeks turned to months, everyone in the house -- Thomas and her daughter, her niece and her niece's four children -- began to experience headaches, nosebleeds and, some days, vomiting. They discovered a home didn't have to flood to turn toxic. Black mold had invaded from the ground up, with the fungus spreading silently across the backsides of the living room floorboards.

"We were just amazed at the mold," Thomas says. "So the guy wanted to see how far the mold went. He ended up taking up the whole floor." Black mold also was discovered beneath the ceiling tiles around the house.

The group immediately left for a nearby apartment and worked out a deal with the insurance company and A-1 Global Services to clean the items left behind.

Thomas was Queen of the Southwestern Trail Riders Association when Allison struck. Some of her most prized possessions were her leather goods, including four saddles and horse tack and various expensive riding outfits. She requested these items back first.

"They called me and told me they had some bad news for me, and the bad news was that one of the saddles was going to be totaled out -- and guess which saddle it was? The brand-new one. The one I had just bought. And it wasn't the one that had the mold on it. That's when I started getting really suspicious. That's when I knew something was wrong."

Then, she says, those items the company left at her home -- a dining room set, a large television, a stereo -- were stolen out of the back of the house.

Thomas took her complaints to the company. They agreed to treat the saddles again when she insisted they were still moldy, but she had a hard time getting access to the warehouse where the rest of her property was supposedly being held. She needed her children's winter clothes, she said. Though she'd already paid over what the insurance company had sent for the work, A-1 refused to release her property, including the clothing. When she finally argued her way into the warehouse to view her things, she discovered that many items just weren't there, including her Western and trail-riding clothes. "I didn't get any of it back, any of it. I ended up with not a jacket at all, and I still don't have a jacket to this day."

She soon learned she wasn't the only one having problems with the company and joined a suit being led by the state attorney general's office.

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