Lost in The Woodlands
Dolores Dean lives in a small house made of pressboard with a rusted metal roof. When it rains, she puts out buckets to collect water from the ceiling. The woman, in her late fifties, gets by on a fixed income with her disabled, diabetic husband and six-year-old grandchild.
"Life can be hard here, but it is the only way we know how to live," Dean says. "We try to make the most out of it and just go on day by day."
Others in her southern Montgomery County community of Tamina fare no better, despite its prime location just a mile or so across the railroad tracks and Interstate 45 from the affluent Woodlands.
While that planned residential community is awash in designer lakes and automatic sprinklers chattering across lawns and golf courses, most of Tamina lacks running water and standard plumbing. Dean has no tap water or sewer service.
There is no trash service, no public works inspection. An absence of street lights makes it easier for residents to view the distant illuminated Woodlands Christmas decorations than to see a neighbor's dog across the street. The only visitors are do-gooders delivering yule gifts and food.
Spread throughout Dean's neighborhood are feeble shacks with failing walls and aging mobile homes slumping slowly into U shapes atop their gray bricks. Dark streams of human feces flow in yards and underneath abandoned automobiles that house mosquitoes and strong odors.
Resembling many of the Hispanic colonias, Tamina sits inside a perimeter of muddy lanes and illegal dump sites holding debris from the explosion of construction going on around it.
In the afternoon Dean watches shoeless children play in streets named after former slaves, the first settlers of this old community founded just after the Civil War. Like those before them, most residents still use wells or haul bottled water into their homes. There are some septic tanks, but many are overflowing.
"It's like we're locked in time," says longtime resident Ranson Grimes. "The rest of the county boomed with development, and we stayed under. It's like we were forgotten because don't nobody know we're back here."
Just like their predecessors, the 1,000 or so residents of Tamina are survivors of the tough conditions. But perhaps the cruelest twist for them was the promise that progress would finally come to the community.
Montgomery County officials told them last year that a five-year federal grant would be used to link them at last with the modern-day wonders of running water and sewage disposal.
Now county officials are nearing a vote next month to kill that project. They say federal funds would fall short of financing the improvements. And besides, the county concluded, the houses are too old and the community squalor too great to bother with such services. County commissioners gave Tamina a temporary delay to try to prove the plans are feasible.
"I am so ashamed of my house," says resident Reaney Davis, 56. "It ain't got no water, it ain't got no electricity, and it ain't got no plumbing. It gets me so depressed sitting up in there alone, but what can I do?"
For a place without basic city services, Tamina began as a tribute to municipal might. History buffs trace its name to the one bestowed on it in 1871 by founder James Berry. He named it Tammany, as in New York's Tammany Hall political machine.
Within a few years the spelling had been distorted to Tamina. The post office closed 91 years ago, and the last school was boarded up 50 years later.
Concerns about living conditions have been around about that long, which made the community and its outside supporters that much more surprised when, they said, Montgomery County last year pledged $250,000 in federal funds annually for five years for a water and sewage treatment plant project.
County Judge Alan Sadler even promised Tamina residents that they "wouldn't be left out."
However, a controversial county memorandum made all that seem unlikely earlier this year. County community development director Nancy Mikeska wrote county commissioners that the Community Development Block Grant for Tamina should be discontinued. Mikeska's memo advised officials that the five-year plan to build a plant had "a wide range of complications," including unauthorized dumping sites in the area, delinquent property tax payers and a $4.8 million estimated cost.
"After looking at the situation and the funds we had available, it was clear that this thing could not go on as planned," Mikeska says.
Mikeska applauded the efforts by Tamina activists and their allies to secure the project, saying "everyone wants people in Tamina to have sewer services, even me." She blames the problems on "misinformation put out by the media."
"This thing was never about building a water or sewer plant. It never was," says Mikeska. She apparently forgot that she herself titled her memo "Tamina Water Treatment Plant Project." Her memo refers four times to a "waste water treatment facility."
"We never said there would be a plant built out there," Mikeska insists. "It cost too much."
When reminded that she referred to a plant in her memo, Mikeska pauses for a moment. "Well, that's what it ballooned into because of rumors," she says. The project, Mikeska says, "was only about getting water and sewer pipes replaced."
Precinct 3 Commissioner Ed Chance disagrees with that explanation. "This was never about replacing pipes, because there's nothing to replace," he says. "The original intent of this grant was to bring water and sewer services to Tamina."
But Chance, whose district includes Tamina, adds that it's unlikely that Tamina will get any type of plant. One engineering report said providing services would cost the county $30,000 for each home. Chance says it isn't worth it.
"Maybe if the cost was $3,000 or $5,000 each home we could work with it, but we can't," says Chance. "We will have to look at alternatives."
Residents and a Woodlands-area group known as Friends of Tamina say that after a century of neglect the county needs to focus on the project rather than alternatives.
The Friends mustered their troops after the release of Mikeska's memo. They packed an October Commissioners Court meeting to demand a delay so that they could prove the worth of a plant for services to that community.
"These people were promised water and sewer services. They should get water and sewer services," says Tom Cox. The Woodlands resident is chairman of the Tamina support group. "Come on, these people are just asking for things the rest of us take for granted."
"I can't see how the county has allowed these people to live in these conditions this long," says Friends member Ellene Polidore of The Woodlands. "Even if the grant wasn't enough, these people need water. Period."
Responding to the pressure, commissioners delayed a vote to cancel the funds. They gave the group until early January to come up with convincing reasons why the project should move forward.
Friends of Tamina has expanded its ranks to about 30 members. It includes supporters from as far away as Willis and the city of Montgomery and has started a campaign to rally for basic services.
"I don't think there is a soul in this county that doesn't think these people should have water and sewer services," says Cox. "It is a shame that we have to go though this much to get some people the basics, only a few days before we enter the 21st century."
Cox says Montgomery County is wrong to put "real estate cost over human cost."
"What we need is for this county to step up and give the people what they rightfully deserve," he says. "No one here is trying to cause trouble, just get people in this place some services."
Cox says the county is feeling the pressure and wants to compromise by building septic systems and drilling more wells. But Cox says those quick fixes would only create more problems because they would be fouled by the illegal dumping and regular flooding of the area.
Mikeska says she has never heard of people in Tamina with sewage in their yards. She says that if that happens, it's probably because a mobile home is illegally located in a flood-prone area. "This county has rules about those things," says Mikeska. "If that's happening, it's because people are putting homes where they shouldn't be."
Polidore says such comments come out of ignorance of Tamina's history, since some of the homesites have been there since the end of the Civil War.
"What we have here is institutionalized racism," says Polidore. "This place should be a historical landmark. Instead, people can't even use the toilet like regular folks."
Cox says Mikeska and other county officials don't know much about Tamina because they never come down to visit. He says that because Tamina residents don't vote they are deemed "unimportant."
"If this was a community in The Woodlands or Conroe, they'd have their problems solved very fast," says Cox. "Since they are from Tamina, they get ignored."
Commissioner Chance says the county will look for "any way it possibly could" to improve services to Tamina, but he says it is unlikely the grant will be reinstated next month.
Longtime resident Reaney Davis, who can trace her lineage to the first freed slaves that settled Tamina, says she is tired of promises and dreams. She says she could care less what is decided, because "nothing will happen." She can't remember the last time she got excited over plans to bring water and sewer services to her home.
"I think that place started as a promise," she says, laughing. "I wouldn't be surprised if I was still living like my family did when they moved here."
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