System Failure

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

Caldwell had appeared before City Council in early October to find out what was going to be done about her case and to try to spark White's memory. The mayor didn't seem to recall the case. Following the meeting, he asked a Houston Police Department officer to investigate, stating in a faxed service request, "Can an inspector check this out? I cannot tell whether there is a legitimate complaint or not."

Frank Michel, spokesperson for Mayor White, says the mayor's office has tried to find ways to assist Caldwell but is at an impasse. Since $27,000 in community block grants has already been spent on Caldwell's house, HUD won't allow it to be torn down and rebuilt, as she has requested. "Once you spend money on refurbishing, the rules say you can't tear down," Michel says.

Caldwell has since quit talking to politicians. Neither does she talk with nonprofit directors or city department heads. In fact, she has written to every office she has had dealings with and requested copies of her files. She also asked that all future communications be done by mail. No more phone calls. "I've been lied to so much," she says in a voice full of exhaustion. "I don't have the money to get caught in a loophole. My family doesn't have the money to support me with all my health issues…Until I get justice, I'm not stopping."

Urban League President Brooks says it's "really unfortunate" that all of the agencies and departments involved never managed to come together and resolve Caldwell's case. Too many minor repairs were being approved after Allison, she says, when more money for major rebuilding projects was needed. "It's something I don't think was addressed, the whole cost -- particularly after Allison. Those houses need to come down. You really need to make a major investment in getting it done right."

That these "contractors from hell" were allowed to operate without discretion on Caldwell's house probably represented "everyone's bad," according to Councilmember Ada Edwards, who wrote several letters to the housing department on Caldwell's behalf. "FEMA is crazy. And if you're not too adroit at working crazy systems, you can get messed up. I feel for Ms. Caldwell…There are a lot of people who have fallen through the cracks from Allison."

Though her doctor seems to have decided her spine can wait, she is scheduled for another throat surgery this month because of the increase in infections, Caldwell says. She's supposed to use a whirlpool system in her tub twice a day to aid circulation in her legs but has gone without for years. Because of her severely depressed immune system, Caldwell says, she can bathe with only bottled water. But to date, only one agency has responded to that request -- and that was a onetime delivery. Still, the mold persists in the corners of her home and under the clear plastic she has placed over her tub and shower stall. Still, she fights, she says, on behalf of all those who can't do it for themselves.

Bishop Bolden says people are quick to lend aid when it is called for but too quick to believe a problem is solved. "People think, 'Okay, I've done something for the people of the storm and that's it.' But I don't think there's enough follow-up to know for sure, 'Have I really helped this person, or are they really going to get the help they need to have life at least as it was before the storm?' "

Those hounded to Houston by Rita and Katrina will soon learn the lesson of Allison's rejects, he says. "Just in a few more months Katrina people are going to be forgotten altogether. We've been through it, so I know."

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