“Have you ever seen the TV show Stranger Things?” Allen Wuescher asks before entering what used to be his house.
From the street view, his home at the end of the cul-de-sac on Riverview Drive in Lakeside Estates, in west Houston, still looks like it’s worth a million bucks — a three-story, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architectural beauty with a yard that looks to be out of a fairy tale. Moss hangs from the towering trees. A little ravine runs through the backyard. Wuescher even began building his three small kids a mini wooden roller coaster on the side of the house — which he had to discontinue, because Harvey ruined everything.
“Well, you’re about to see it,” Wuescher said, referencing the hit Netflix show in which a boy goes missing inside an alternative reality, an “upside down” world where actual monsters lurk and everything is dark, damp and rather uninviting. “We had a great house. But now we’re in the inverse world.”
“We also now have fish refugees,” he added as we walked down the driveway past a small fountain with a dolphin sculpture in the middle.
When Wuescher says he had 17 feet of water inside his house, it’s one of those things you have to see to believe. It is the fifth time in 26 months that his house flooded, and the third time his entire first story was destroyed by water deep enough for a diving board. Since the home was built in 1979, homeowners at this address have recouped more than $850,000 in flood damage losses through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, at this point making the home more expensive to taxpayers just to exist than for the government to buy it and destroy it. It was appraised at $825,000 by the Harris County Appraisal District. The FEMA flood insurance loss payments so far don’t even include the extraordinary damage wrought by Harvey. And when we enter the home through Wuescher’s garage — which looks like a scene out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but with the lights on and with mold instead of blood — it’s immediately clear that the house really is not a house anymore.
In the first-floor rooms — once home to the kids playroom and a large lounge area with a big TV and mini bars — insulation and electrical wires hang from the ceiling, really selling the whole Stranger Things dark inverse reality idea. When you go up to the second floor, with all the walls and marble tiles and parquet wood floors and carpets ripped out everywhere, it feels as if you are standing in the middle of ancient Greek ruins. In the library the books have been replaced with cleaning supplies, and in the master bedroom fans are still blowing at the non-drywall. You can see the water line, four feet up the wall, just above the door handles — 17 feet above the ground.
How, for the fourth time, is Wuescher possibly going to rebuild all of this?
“You don’t. You just don’t,” he said. “None of these houses should be rebuilt. They should be bought out, and they should be a part of Houston’s floodplain.”
The thing is, the four sprawling homes on Wuescher’s cul-de-sac already are part of Houston’s floodplain. They always were. The little ravine running through their backyards was not put there to charm homeowners nor was it man-made to drain stormwater. It is the original waterway of Buffalo Bayou, before it was re-channeled in the 1960s — a ghost of the Buffalo Bayou, you might say, now mostly empty except when it rains. And when it rains really hard, when the Buffalo surpasses its flood stage, the bayou returns to this little ravine with all its raging current, pouring into Wuescher's and his neighbors’ homes that rest not on a hill but on the bayou’s true banks.
"I always say Mother Nature has a long memory," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said at a recent news conference, saying the county needs to identify all old watersheds in order to better inform homeowners of the dangers. "When the water gets to a certain level, it goes back to its old flow patterns."
To relieve himself and taxpayers of the burden of repairing his home, Wuescher has inquired with the Harris County Flood Control District about a buyout so many times that officials there know his address by heart, talking with him regularly. But, so far, the answer he has been given is unfortunately no.
The reason he has been given is a bit of an oxymoron: His house costs too much.
In 1966, Terry Hershey came just in time to save the remainder of the Buffalo Bayou from being reshaped all the way through downtown, its vegetation destroyed and replaced with concrete — but not quite in time to save the twists and turns of the bayou right behind today’s Riverview Drive cul-de-sac.
It really is all a bastion of bad luck for the Wueschers and their neighbors, who maybe wouldn't even be living on that cul-de-sac had Hershey discovered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cutting down trees and digging up the land along Buffalo Bayou near Chimney Rock just one year earlier. That year, in '66, the Corps was in the middle of a giant flood-control project, aiming to re-channel the Buffalo Bayou from Highway 6 into downtown Houston by straightening the bayou to speed up drainage and to account for releases from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, which were built in the 1940s. But after Terry Hershey formed environmental groups to save the bayous, convinced then-U.S. representative George H.W. Bush to take up their cause in Congress and bombarded the Corps with political pressure throughout the late 1960s, the project was put on pause.
Developers with Lakeside Estates, Inc. apparently saw it as a golden opportunity.
At the time, the Corps had finished reshaping the bayou from Highway 6 to where Beltway 8 is today, which is less than one mile east of the Wueschers' home — which means, had the Corps not made that last mile of progress, their home could not have been built. And in fact, after the re-channeling project came to a halt with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Corps never would make any more progress at all.
By that time Lakeside Estates, Inc. had gotten to work on a new subdivision called Lakeside Forest, noting on its first map for phase one in 1969 that the bayou had been moved. Section five, where the Wueschers' cul-de-sac is located, was stamped for approval by the Harris County Clerk and Houston City Planning and Development Commission in 1973. A little arrow on the map points to the “lower bank [of] abandoned Buffalo Bayou” right in the backyard as though it's no problem.
Matt Zeve, director of operations at the Harris County Flood Control District, said that all across Houston this happened, as the original watersheds for the Buffalo, Brays and White Oak bayous were moved or modified by the Corps and replaced by developments. Zeve said these homeowners are among those who complain most often about repeated flooding, such as condo owners at the Hidden Lake Townhomes. The curved “hidden lake,” which developers used to charm dwellers into thinking they had their own private moat surrounding them, Zeve said, is actually the original bend of White Oak Bayou, which floods the lower level of the townhouse repeatedly.
Problem was, FEMA floodplain maps weren't developed until 1984, after many Houston developments were already built — but Zeve said that shouldn’t have mattered, particularly in the case of the Riverview Drive cul-de-sac.
“I can only speculate what their tools and what their thought process was back at that time. I wasn’t even born yet," Zeve said. “But the thing is, I would think it would be common sense [not to build there].”
According to National Flood Insurance Program records, the Wuescher home flooded pretty much right away after being finished in 1979. It first flooded in 1981, when a tropical depression flooded 1,250 homes in Harris County and Buffalo Bayou was seven feet over flood stage. It flooded again in 1989, 1992, 1998 during Tropical Storm Francis and 1999, resulting in more than $240,000 in loss payments to the homeowners from FEMA during that time period. Then came the 21st century. See, it’s unclear how many times the home flooded before the Wueschers moved in — because when the Wueschers bought it in December 2013, they had thought the house hadn’t flooded in nearly 15 years. There was nothing even on the record for Tropical Storm Allison or Hurricane Ike, and so they assumed improvements over the years had made the home safe from floods.
Then their State Farm Insurance agent discovered after they moved in that, actually, the house also flooded in 2008 and 2009, and who knows before then — at a certain point, the previous homeowners got rid of flood insurance.
During Memorial Day of 2015, the Wueschers got ten feet of water on the bottom floor, and then while they were still repairing the house, it flooded again as the remnants of Hurricane Patricia passed over, then less than a year later it flooded just as bad as Memorial Day during the Tax Day floods. Then, three weeks prior to Hurricane Harvey, on August 8, a bad rainstorm flooded the house again. FEMA — and taxpayers — have doled out more than $606,000 to repair the Riverview Drive home since Memorial Day alone.
‘My wife and I bought this house because this was going to be our home for the rest of our lives, at least until the kids get out of college,” Wuescher said. “I have a 15-year mortgage on the house, because we wanted to pay it off quickly, before the kids went to college. Anyway, now I’m stuck with a $6,500 payment on a house that I can’t live in, and then I have no idea when decisions about the buyout program would be made. I’ve rebuilt my house four times. I don’t want to do it again.”
Neither do his neighbors. David Berringer, who lives next door in a $650,000 house slightly more elevated than the Wuescher home, said that he has recouped nearly $200,000 in flood damage loss payments through the National Flood Insurance Program since Memorial Day 2015, and Berringer and Wuescher said their two neighbors have both had similarly expensive damages.
Both Berringer and Wuescher expect Harvey damages to far exceed the $300,000 cap on their flood insurance loss payments, which, if this turns out to be the case, means that between just those two houses alone, taxpayer-funded repairs would be approaching $1.7 million total over time.
Still, they are not on the Harris County Flood Control District’s priority list for buyouts.
“They’re on the edge of meeting our criteria for buyouts,” Zeve said. “Typically, you have to be very, very deep in the floodway. You have to have flood insurance. There has to be life safety concerns involved, and there has to be no project that we can do that would decrease their risk of flooding. The point that puts them on the edge is the value of their homes.”
It can be a long process: This fall, the county only just recently authorized buyouts of roughly 140 homes that had repeatedly flooded as of 2015, after FEMA green-lighted federal funding. To expedite the process, Harris County Commissioners Court approved $20 million of its own funding to buy out 206 homes that also flooded during Harvey instead of waiting on Congress to allot more funds — which Zeve says is the real challenge.
“It’s horrible, because people like the Wueschers are stuck,” Zeve said. “They want to go on with their lives. But I don’t have a ready source of funding that I can tap into to buy them out. We try every single year to try to get every single dollar to buy out homes. There’s only so much to go around for the entire U.S.”
The cost to buy out a single average-priced home is about $200,000, including demolition and relocation costs — making the Wuescher home about four times that. But given that fewer than 20 percent of Houston homeowners have flood insurance, and that the county often buys out entire neighborhoods at once, Wuescher said he was hard-pressed to believe that every single home has flood insurance and is eating up FEMA funds the way his cul-de-sac has. And in fact, Zeve conceded that is true: Depending on the type of grant the county receives, not every home in a buyout package must be insured through FEMA — further angering Wuescher and Berringer.
"This is where I really get rubbed the wrong way," Wuescher said. "I'm 110 percent sure people don't realize they're buying out houses that don't have flood insurance."
In order for the Wueschers and their neighbors to convince the county their expensive houses are worthy of the buyouts, the main thing Zeve said they must do is prove that during extensive flooding, they pose a serious public-safety threat to first responders trying to rescue them. Which Berringer said isn't hard to show: When firefighters were walking in his neighbor’s yard during Harvey in chest-deep water, headed toward him, his neighbor had to yell for them to watch out for a five-foot ledge that divided their yards — which the firefighters almost walked right over into about ten feet of murky water.
Still, even if the county were to decide to prioritize the Riverview Drive block for buyouts, that would put the Wueschers in line with the 65 other neighborhoods that have already been prioritized. Those along the San Jacinto River have received utmost priority given the depth and intensity of the current, which posed the greatest danger to residents and first responders, Zeve said. Other priorities include neighborhoods along Cypress Creek and Greens Bayou, but the county does not release a list of all the priority neighborhoods because of homeowner confidentiality reasons.
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It seems the worst thing working against the Wueschers right now, at least, is time.
Wuescher and his wife, Lucie, and their three kids are renting a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Rice Village, and David Berringer is living in a friend’s home while they are out of town.
Standing in the Wueschers' yard, both men say it seems they have been too stressed to be sad about the life savings that have seemed to go to waste, that they don’t have time to mope. Nearby, a pot and ladle are lying in the grass along with other random objects, the way artifacts might wash up in unlikely places in a post-apocalyptic world. It doesn’t seem to faze them. Wuescher, looking up at the 17-foot-high water line on the backside of his home, talks about the home as though it is in the past, apparently coming to terms with the reality that it is unsalvageable before really even knowing what will be done with it.
‘This was a beautiful house,” he said. “It just never should have been built here.”