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The Long Goodbye

The author's son videotapes the ten minutes it took to reduce their house to rubble.
Jeff Fitlow

On a recent October morning, the 6000 block of Woodbrook Lane in Houston is about as bucolic as its name could ever hope for. Birds from the neighboring 21-acre forest are chirping away, easily covering the gentle hum of a distant leaf blower. There's a slight breeze stirring the many pine trees that fill the backyards of the Inner Loop street, and it's too early in the morning for the humidity to take hold. The cloudless sky frames a view of contented suburbia.

Look closer, though, and something seems off. Halfway down the street, where there should be yet another modest home, there's only a vacant lot with a bit of grass surrounding a dusty patch of brown where a house used to be. A massive orange metal Dumpster stands guard.

Nearby are homes that are obviously empty. Some are newly cleaned and have "For Sale" signs in front; others seem close to abandoned.

One of those abandoned houses is mine.

It sits in front of me, looking much as it has for the past year or so: an empty hulk with no inner walls, just wall studs marking the rooms where my wife and kid and I spent seven years of our lives.

I'm standing on the street in front of the house. If I had been standing on this spot on a certain night in June 2001, I would have been up to my waist in floodwater. And the downpour from Tropical Storm Allison would have shown no signs of letting up anytime soon (see "Wading for Godot," July 5, 2001).

But of course it eventually did. And the street that seems so clean now became a muddy, ugly mess, bracketed by piles of discarded sofas, ruined mattresses and soaked Sheetrock.

Hauling out the muck and detritus was only the beginning of the long, exasperating, wearing journey of recovery from Allison. Residents found themselves bulling their way ever so slowly through a soul-deadening bureaucratic tangle of misinformation, of finger-pointing between different government agencies, of an emotional roller-coaster ride where financial recovery seemed achievable, then impossible, then likely.

Some decided immediately to stay in the neighborhood, rebuild and try "to not get catatonic" in front of the TV whenever severe weather threatened. Others sold their houses as soon as they got what they thought was a reasonable offer.

Others tried to hold out for the brass ring: a buyout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would pay what the full-market value for the house and property had been the day before the flood -- only to find that circumstances forced them to give up the wait and sell to a private buyer for a lower price. And some who resolved to stay on the street are now looking to sell to FEMA because they feel the agency's "checkerboard" buyouts of some of their neighbors have permanently lowered property values.

And then there's me. I've also experienced the maddening chaos of conflicting advice from agencies helping Allison victims. Long, long waits in line, or on the phone, in sometimes vain attempts to talk to a real, live person. Talks with a real, live person from the county, say, who tells you that you first need a certain piece of paper from the city, which results in another long wait to talk to a real, live person from the city, who says nothing can be done without a certain piece of paper from the county.

Inspections are scheduled with one agency or another -- yes, you have to be there, sir; no, we don't know what time, anytime from 4 p.m. till 8 p.m., sir -- and then, after no inspector shows up, have to be rescheduled (once you finally get a real, live person on the phone).

"It was like a hell that wouldn't end, dealing with it all," says Melodie Matlock, another Woodbrook Lane flood victim.

But for me, at least, all those aggravations are about to end. FEMA has bought our house. It's 8:30 or so on a glorious October morning, and the demolition teams are going to tear down the empty shell. We can get on with our lives.

It's not unusual that the person whose house FEMA has purchased expresses a wish to see the tear-down. Since I'm a reporter, and am doing a wider story on the buyout project, the coordinators of the project double check to make sure everything is set for me and a photographer. Nothing can go wrong.

And so, a photographer and I are waiting patiently on Woodbrook Lane, waiting for the finale to months and months of red tape and annoyance and irritation at nuisances both major and minor.

We wait in vain. The demolition crew doesn't show up.

 


Last year, Tropical Storm Allison dumped almost 15 inches of rain on Woodbrook Lane the night of June 8 to 9, sending close to three feet of water from White Oak Bayou through houses that longtime residents said had never flooded. Elsewhere in Houston the storm earned a legendary status by inundating the Medical Center, the downtown tunnel system and dozens of neighborhoods throughout the city.

The official price tag for damage is more than $5 billion.

Residents weren't the only people overwhelmed by Allison. For the flood-control workers trying to deal with the victims, the days and weeks after the storm were a nightmare.

"Our operators had to deal with people directly who had been through so much," says the Harris County Flood Control District's John Randolph, the project coordinator for the FEMA buyout program. "One of our people had an extra bed, so they offered it to someone. They were just in tears all the time -- a 70-year-old woman would call in looking for help, she'd lost everything, had nowhere to go -- it was just traumatic for everyone."

The lobby of the district's headquarters -- near Highway 290 and Loop 610, only a mile or so from Woodbrook Lane -- remained filled with frustrated homeowners.

"It was everything from people who were very irate to people who would just throw up their hands and say, 'Please give me some answers,' " Randolph says. "It seemed the more packed the place got the more irate people were -- it seemed to feed on itself."

As the city dried out, victims started to turn from dealing with the immediate questions of cleanup and temporary housing to the more complicated issues of long-term recovery.

Should they rebuild? If so, how would they go about it? Should they see if FEMA would buy their homes? What did they have to do to get in that program?

People were desperate for answers. The trouble was, they got a different answer depending on which government agency they eventually reached.

"It was a mess. I still can't get over it," says Darlene Mercer, 42, a lifelong resident of Woodbrook Lane's Timbergrove Manor neighborhood who had owned a house on the street for 18 years. "We didn't get any real information for two months. It was criminal, as far as I was concerned. All you ever heard was 'Don't call us, you have to call someone else.' "

"The information put out there to people was deplorable in terms of its completeness," says City Councilman Bruce Tatro, who worked with Woodbrook residents. "People were not given their full options until very late in the game."

Flood victims found themselves facing some decisions that had to be made quickly, with long-term consequences.

The minimum criteria for a FEMA buyout include establishing that the home was "substantially damaged." That meant that repairs would be at least 50 percent of the worth of the house, excluding property.

Defining that 50 percent was a moving target -- in terms of damage done, was an insurance adjuster's estimate okay? Or a contractor's? Did you need a city inspector to confirm it? In terms of the home's value, did you use the tax records or the market price?

Getting answers to all that required patience and led to many dead ends; more important was the decision it forced on homeowners. To apply for the FEMA buyout, you needed a certificate of substantial damage from the city; getting that certificate, however, meant big trouble if the buyout didn't come through.

Any house that received the certificate could not be simply repaired if FEMA ran out of Allison-buyout money or decided the home didn't meet other criteria. Homes deemed substantially damaged would have to be razed and rebuilt from scratch or raised so that their living space was above the floodplain.

On Woodbrook Lane, that meant homeowners would have to raise their houses maybe three feet off the ground. (The homes were not considered to be in the 100-year-flood plain until the maps were changed two years ago.)

Homes on the street all received about the same amount of damage, but some residents rebuilt, while others got substantial-damage certificates.

Eventually, it turned out, the system could be "gamed" by using different estimates for damage and/or home value. If you wanted to apply for FEMA, you could; if you later found you couldn't wait and wanted to rebuild, you could get a lower repair estimate -- or use a higher value for your house -- that would bring you under the magic 50-percent damage level. Then you could repair without having to raze or raise.

 

Getting to that understanding was, typically, frustrating. "I'm willing to play by the rules, but it was a matter of someone being able to tell me what those rules are," says Woodbrook resident Dave Dyer, who rebuilt his home.


The initial confusion came about, in part, because Houston was a testing lab for an entirely new method of buyout: the "fast-track" program.

FEMA essentially began its buyout program in 1993, in the wake of massive flooding in the Midwest.

"The whole point is to provide property owners with the wherewithal to locate to somewhere safer and to get their property out of flood danger," says Mark Stevens of FEMA's national office. "It's trying to break the cycle of flood damage, rather than have people who are flooded repair their homes and then have more flood damage."

But the program wasn't designed to move quickly. Flood victims were given plenty of time to assess damage and make a decision on whether they wanted to apply for a buyout. FEMA took its time deciding which houses would best suit their flood-mitigation purposes. Of course, that meant that those who were bought out might not see any money until two years or more after a flood.

Randolph, who coordinates Harris County's buyout, had long been pushing to speed things up. "I've addressed the issue at national conferences as long as four or five years ago," he says. "What I heard back was 'This is not a program to assist individuals who were in the flood event, it's a mitigation effort for the next flood.' But I'd say 'There's people hurting here, and we can do it faster. It doesn't make sense to wait 12 or 18 months, after people have rebuilt, and then say we want to buy your property.' "

He got his chance to prove it with Allison. FEMA decided to try the fast-track approach: Instead of the normal deadline of a year or so to apply for buyouts, applications would have to be made within two months. (Residents don't apply to FEMA personally; they provide the paperwork to the city or other government entity that sends in a group application.)

That meant that a slew of paperwork required under the more leisurely schedule had to be slashed. A half-dozen bureaucracies who typically sign off on an application, such as the Texas General Land Office or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were bypassed.

(One bureaucracy that wasn't: the state's Historical Preservation Office. Homes built before 1957, such as several of the utterly unhistorical Woodbrook Lane homes, had to be photographed so that Austin could approve the tear-down.)

Streamlining the process on the fly wasn't easy. The cities applying for buyouts on behalf of their residents couldn't consult the manual for past buyouts. "We had to hold their hand and lead them through it, and then we'd sit with FEMA and the state and say, 'Do we need this, can we eliminate that?' " Randolph says. "It created a lot of problems because there was nothing written down and we had to rely on people's memories that they had said this or that."

As it turned out, much of the frantic paper-chasing by Allison's victims was not as important as they thought; given the massive scale of the disaster and the tight deadlines, government entities such as the City of Houston and Harris County were submitting buyout applications for thousands of homes, whether or not the homeowners had asked to be included.

The aim was to get approval for the highest number of homes possible. If some of those homeowners decided they did not want to sell to FEMA, someone farther down the priority list would then be substituted.

"The amount of money we would have available for this, for the first few months it was all over the map," Randolph says. Soon after a storm, experts at FEMA estimate how much total recovery will cost, and the agency then devotes 15 percent of that to mitigation efforts such as buyouts. Eventually there would be $90.2 million available for the buyouts, 75 percent of it FEMA money, 25 percent coming from the local jurisdictions such as the City of Houston.

Also daunting was the scale of the projected buyout. In the past 13 years, FEMA, through the Harris County Flood Control District, had purchased an average of about 35 homes a year locally. Now it was looking at the possibility of closing on 2,800 homes in less than two years.


The bureaucratic maze was headache enough for those staffing it. For the victims trying to navigate it, even as its walls and targets and barriers kept shifting, the headaches were on a whole other level.

 

Temporary housing had to be found, either with friends or family, and eventually rental properties. (FEMA rental assistance, although invaluable, required mastering an entirely different yet equally time-consuming bureaucracy.)

And then the decisions had to be made, to go for the buyout or to stay and repair.

Lorraine Cherry and Dave Dyer made their decision immediately: They would rebuild.

In practical terms, it made sense. They had a friend who was a contractor who could start immediately. They didn't have to go shopping for a builder they could trust and then wait on his timetable.

But there was more to the decision. Cherry and Dyer had made their home into their dream house, even adding a covered pool on their modest lot. "We just love the house so much," Cherry says. "Plus we were thinking we couldn't get anything like good market value for it for a while."

Just as important, they had fallen in love with the neighborhood.

Cherry had led the fight to preserve the 21-acre forest that sits across a side street from her home. The Houston school district had wanted to build a new home for the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts there, but two years ago Cherry and others had convinced them to keep the space natural. They'd since built paths through the trees and nourished wildflowers. Leaving just seemed too hard.

And going for a buyout seemed too uncertain. "It was so screwy -- you just had no way of knowing if FEMA was going to buy you or not," she says. "The people in a position to know kept saying there were going to be no piecemeal buyouts; they were either going to buy whole neighborhoods or nothing. Everyone was in between a rock and a hard place, waiting. You could rebuild, or commit to the buyout and try and juggle two mortgages for a year."

Their house is now almost completely back to its preflood state. Insurance money came promptly and was enough to handle the job.

But though the decision to stay was made quickly, she's still not sure it was the right one. She and Dyer went back and forth, even looking for a new home as they were redoing their Woodbrook Lane house.

"Our original idea was to rebuild, stay here a couple of years and wait for the housing prices to come back, and then resell," she says. "But we've rebuilt it to exactly how we wanted it. And every house we looked at, we'd say we just wanted this house we're in, except maybe a little bigger and safe from a flood…Absent another catastrophe, we're willing to assume that [Allison] was a lifetime flood."

She's even okay with the prospect of four or five vacant lots on the 20-home block that used to hold homes bought out by FEMA. "All of a sudden there's four new pieces of public property. I don't think anyone minds. I'll be able to grow more than one tomato plant a year."

Still, living in a place that flooded remains stressful. "We've had so many different mind-sets. Last fall I said, 'I can't stay here, I'm too scared,' " she says. "I said, 'I want a new place, and it has to be a three-story town home, on a hill, built with a pier-and-beam [foundation].' We looked at 40 of those."

She says when severe weather threatens, like the recent tropical storms Lili and Isidore, "I'm terrified. I'm literally catatonic in front of the TV. I'd like to be able to wean myself from watching the news [when there's a storm], but so far I can't."

Across the street from Cherry, Steve and Sherry Duson also made a quick decision in the wake of Allison. They would sell the place "as is" as soon as they could get a price they could live with.

The Dusons saw their place as a starter home, and already had vague plans to move to a bigger place at some point. Knowing they'd get more from FEMA than they would from a private buyer, they gathered the necessary paperwork to be included in a buyout.

"We were waiting for the buyout, but when it became clear that it was going to take some time, when it looked like there'd be a delay or it might not even happen at all, we put it on the market as is," says Sherry Duson, a marriage and family therapist.

Houses in the neighborhood were selling for around $200,000, the price FEMA would have paid. But in December, a little more than six months after the flood, the Dusons sold the place for $107,000.

 

With the insurance money they were able to keep, she figures they were able to get somewhat close to market value. "With the $107,000 and the insurance, it got us back to a place we at least could move forward from and not be devastated," she says.

Her attitude is not unlike that of her neighbor, Cecil Schmidt, who also sold rather than wait for FEMA. "We took a little hickey on it," he says, "but I think it worked out all right."

Duson and her family had one of the more harrowing nights when Allison hit: In the midst of the fiercest rainfall, when the water in their house was two feet high and rising, they took to their roof. Clutching their two preschoolers, they waited endlessly for daylight and a break in the storm.

With the sale of their house, they were able to move to a new place near the Medical Center.

The house fulfills the one requirement their young son had for a new home: It's two stories tall.


Like the Dusons and Cherry and Dyer, Melodie Matlock also made a quick decision about what she would do in the wake of Allison. Unlike them, she has not been able to make it work.

She was going to be bought out by FEMA. She dutifully got her substantial damage certificate and waited. And heard all the rumors.

Word had spread of how FEMA prioritized houses: They determined which ones met all the criteria, then bought the cheapest ones first, moving up the market-value ladder until they ran out of money.

"We were getting the word that they weren't going to buy any of the houses here," she says. "It was all second- or third-hand, but what everyone was saying was 'Oh, they're going to buy houses that cost $66,000 tops. They'll buy all the poor people's houses, but they're going to run out of money long before they get to us.' "

She also had the house on the market. "I probably would've taken $160 [thousand] for it, but the best offer I got was $140 to $145," she says.

Matlock, a 45-year-old realtor, set a deadline of December 2001 on making a final decision of what to do. "It was seven months by December, and they still couldn't tell you if they ever were going to be able to buy your house or not," she says. "I couldn't see having ten or more months of my life hanging in limbo…You have to set deadlines to move forward with your life. So I said to myself by the end of the year, if I could not be sure I'd be able to sell to FEMA, or if I hadn't received a good offer from a private buyer, then I'd rebuild."

She hired a general contractor. "I sent him to the city to get a building permit. I guess they weren't supposed to issue one to him, but they did," she says, noting that the house had been declared substantially damaged.

Matlock's troubles were just beginning. The contractor took $30,000 from her, she says, and never finished the job. What little he did do would have to be redone. (She is suing him.)

She started once again, acting as her own general contractor. She rebuilt and finally moved back into the place in August, after spending maybe $100,000 on repairs (insurance paid $75,000).

A week or two after settling back in, she heard from neighbors that FEMA was indeed buying houses on the street.

And, she says, FEMA was doing exactly what, according to rumors, it had said it wouldn't do: buying the homes in a checkerboard style that would leave vacant gaps along the block.

The news crushed her. Now Matlock plans to sell to the federal agency, too; she's just waiting to see what their estimate of fair market value is.

"I probably would not be considering selling my house to FEMA -- I never wanted to sell," she says. "I love my home. But when my neighbors sold, it ruined my market value. If they had bought out everyone and made a greenbelt, it'd have been all right. If the street was full of homes, it doesn't look like it could flood again. But checkerboarding reinforces the idea it will flood again… My plan [to rebuild] would have worked well if my neighbors hadn't sold, but they have forced me into the same boat. I can't blame them, but that's what happened."

She hasn't told her current neighbors of her plans. "I don't want them over here trying to talk me out of it," she says. "If they knew that I was thinking of selling to FEMA, they'd be over here begging me to reconsider."

 

(In fact, Harris County's Randolph says, the county intentionally does not disclose which houses are about to be purchased by FEMA: "We don't want neighbors coming over there trying to influence people one way or the other," he says.)

Matlock says there are two financial costs to Allison: the obvious ones that come with getting back on your feet, and the hidden ones that come with the inordinate amount of time spent dealing with insurance adjusters, flood officials, inspectors, contractors and all the other million-and-one hassles that follow.

For someone who works on commission, it hurt. "You can't work while you're dealing with this, and if you can, then you're not as effective when you're trying to work," she says. "The tab just grows."

Rebuilding the house only to see it demolished will be, she says, "like someone kicking me in the gut while I'm down…You think of all the strife and stress, all the money and dealing with that contractor, and it was all for nothing. I didn't have to endure all that if I had just waited, but at some point you have to take control of your life and make decisions."

A scrappy woman who once owned a small business that distributed heating and air-conditioning equipment, Matlock says she wants to avoid "the victim label."

"This would not have been my first choice of how things worked out, but God didn't ask me what I wanted," she says. "I'm not going to fight it, I'm just going to let it go…I've been so overwhelmed all the time. I'm ready for some peace and quiet."

An eagerness to put Allison behind her also was part of what led Darlene Mercer to sell before FEMA bought her out.

Unlike Matlock, Mercer knew that her buyout was going through. She had endured more than a year of uncertainty, of the roller coaster of rumors, and had been told in the summer of 2002 that she had been approved. It was just a matter of some more paperwork, she was told.

"I met with the FEMA guy and things were happening, but then there was something that was supposed to happen by a certain date and it got delayed, and I thought, 'God knows how long this is really going to take -- this could just go on forever,' " says the 42-year-old geologist.

After a lifetime in Timbergrove Manor, she was moving to California -- to a desert. "The opportunity to move had been there, but if not for the flood I don't know if I would've gone," she says. "The flood made the decision all the easier."

In the weeks after the flood, she and her husband had "been all over the road about what we were going to do -- first it was rebuild and lease it, then rebuild and move in, then just sell, then FEMA; it was everything."

Mercer needed to sell her house to be able to buy one in Bakersfield, but that wasn't the only reason she decided to sell instead of wait for what turned out to be another month or so.

"There was the emotional part of it; I just wanted out and to be done with it," she says.

She sold the house for $104,000; she got about $50,000 in insurance money, so she says she knows she "walked away from a boatload of money."

"A guy made an offer and I said fine. I figured what the hell, it's close enough to what I would get from FEMA. I know I walked away from some money, but the peace of mind and the closure was worth it."


For my family and me, peace of mind and closure were supposed to happen on that brilliant October morning.

Some phone calls to the flood district reveal the contractor has gone to another house first; along with many apologies, officials offer assurances that the demolition team will be at my place that afternoon.

The change in time allows my kid to attend the festivities; we take him from school a few minutes early so he can watch on the way to a doctor's appointment.

Demolishing flood-damaged houses has turned into quite a job for the county and its contractor, Recovery Contractors of Pearland.

In years past, Bryan Meier of the flood control district has supervised the demolition of 35 or 40 houses a year as a part-time aspect of his job; now it's all he does. In the last six months, 235 homes have been torn down, and at least two or three will come down each day in Harris County for the foreseeable future as a result of Allison or other flood-control projects. Of the 2,800 homes submitted to FEMA after Allison, about half were approved and will be torn down.

 

Each job costs anywhere from $2,000 to $18,000. If asbestos is detected, as it is in a quarter of the homes, it has to be removed, adding to the cost. Things like swimming pools, detached garages, greenhouses or even long driveways also complicate matters.

The actual job is usually easily done, with a backhoe. It pays to watch out for bees that are hiding in the abandoned structures, however.

Meier has overseen the destruction of homes ranging from shotgun shacks to $318,000 McMansions. He and others in the county say they are aware that checkerboarding buyouts can hurt a neighborhood and are working to lessen the effects.

That can mean replacing urban-street sidewalks that are removed as part of the mandated goal of letting purchased properties "revert back to nature." It means working with neighborhood associations to make sure the land is mowed, or even converted to a pocket park.

"We look for creative ways to bring it back to the community as an asset," Randolph says. "When people say, 'Look at the checkerboarding,' I have to say that that neighborhood's going to flood again -- it's hard to say how far down the road that will be, yes. But we are going to be buying houses. It's the purest form of [flood] mitigation."

In buyout projects that are not on the fast track, FEMA takes more time to determine which houses it will buy and seeks to minimize plucking single homes out of neighborhoods.

Even though the government agencies would prefer not to checkerboard, the houses they buy and raze still serve a purpose, officials say.

"Those homes are never going to flood again," says Beth Walters, a flood control district spokeswoman.

One of those homes is ours. Fourteen months after Allison, FEMA bought our house for $197,000. We had tentatively put it on the market when the chances of a buyout seemed remote, and the listing had gone down to $107,000 with no takers. (Values in Timbergrove Manor had skyrocketed in the seven years since we had purchased the home for $110,000.)

In May we had been called to the Flood Control District's office and told that while it would still take a few months, we would indeed be bought out. Unsure after so many stops and starts -- and unwilling to trust our budding elation -- my wife and I probably asked the guy a half-dozen times each whether he meant it was really, nothing-can-go-wrong-now, just-crossing-some-T's, absolutely positive the buyout would happen. With the patience and good humor that, to be honest, often cropped up among the government workers we dealt with, he assured us it would.

We walked out of the offices smiling. Things were looking up.

As we return to Woodbrook Lane on that October afternoon, we find a large backhoe parked on what used to be our front lawn. Four large trailer-trucks stand ready to haul away the debris.

The job starts. It sure doesn't take too long to finish.

A whack on the roof with the backhoe, and the carport is history. Another crunch marks the end of the den my kid had marked out as his private room.

The kitchen and living room follow in a few seconds. Last to go is my son's bedroom. While it's still standing I have him pick up a loose brick and toss it at the wall.

Then it too is gone. It takes maybe ten minutes to reduce the house to a pile of rubble. I guess there was some "closure" involved, but it all went by so quickly I must have missed it.

It will take the three-man crew several hours to take away the pile, an activity less visually enthralling than demolition, so we take our leave.

My wife and son happen to be in the neighborhood the following day, so they return to the site. The pile is gone, as is the driveway, the slab, even the dilapidated ancient brick barbecue that anchored our backyard. The trees have been saved. It's hard to imagine there was a house there.

The property, like Lorraine Cherry's, is across the street from the forest, and so it will blend in well. Cherry hopes to put in some benches, make it a butterfly preserve.

We'll come back someday when all that is done. We'll determine what would be a suitable artifact and bury it somewhere.

Maybe it will be a toy, or a photograph of the house, either as it was when we lived there or as it looked being torn down. Maybe it'll be some remembrances we'll write of our time there.

 

One thing it won't be is a piece of government paperwork. You just couldn't bury that memory deep enough.


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