Sharon McCarter was floating when she woke up.
The water was halfway up to her knees as she stepped off her air mattress and walked to the window sill to peak outside — only to find her car submerged, along with all the others parked at Arbor Court apartments.
Knowing they had to get to higher ground, McCarter and her daughter placed McCarter's two grand-babies in a tote basket so they wouldn't drown, and once they opened their front door, the water rushed in, rising to waist level. They waded through the sewage up to the second-floor apartments, where they spent hours watching people float out of their homes on top of flat-screen TVs and refrigerators. They watched Dumpsters and debris barrel down the streets-turned-rivers. People swam to reach the barely visible roofs of submerged cars. They watched it all unfold for roughly 12 hours before somebody came to rescue them.
“It wasn't a public service that came for us,” McCarter says. “It was citizens, regular guys with boats coming out and helping people.”
About eight other Greenspoint Arbor Court residents the Houston Press spoke with at the shelter set up inside the MO Campbell Education Center said they and most of their neighbors had the same experience as McCarter. They say they waited from roughly 4:30 a.m. Monday to 4:30 p.m. for rescue personnel to come, before finally deciding to hitch a ride on a small civilian boat or makeshift raft. On Monday, some had told the Houston Chronicle that they felt abandoned by the city, which Mayor Sylvester Turner said he could understand given the terrible situation. But he stressed that the city was doing everything it could.
So what explains the disconnect?
Senior Captain Ruy Lozano with the Houston Fire Department said that, overall, the department rescued about 300 people in the Greenspoint area and brought them to Greenspoint Mall, where they boarded buses that took them to the shelter. The fire department had devoted the most resources to the Arbor Court apartments, among the worst-hit areas in Houston, and Lozano said the first priority in the early morning hours was to get everyone to safety on the second floor. In fact, McCarter said she called 911 around 5 a.m., worried about her neighbors who were still sleeping inside their apartment; after firefighters carried them out and took them upstairs to a safe place, the firefighters said they would be back in a few hours to begin relocating everyone, McCarter says. But by 4 p.m., residents grew tired of waiting, watching artifacts of their lives drift down the river outside.
Lozano could not explain the long delays, except to say that although they were moving as quickly as possible, moving loads of people back and forth through debris-laden high water took time. For perspective, he said, the fire department generally responds to 800 to 1,000 calls a day. On the day of the floods, HFD responded to twice that — 729 of which were high-water rescues alone.
“You have to remember, when you're waiting in a bad situation with bad weather, a minute seems like a long time,” he said. “I'm certainly not dismissing their claims, because it's hard to relocate that many people in those difficult areas. But I know we had a pretty significant undertaking; we got the assets where we needed them and started moving people as quickly as we could.”
By now, though, efforts have shifted to recovery, and the main question on residents' minds yesterday was, what now?
Nineteen-year-old Laquintas Gray had just started working full-time in January and just bought his first car. Now his first lesson of adulthood has sullenly become what it's like to lose everything you earn all at once. His soon-to-be brother-in-law, Jamal Nailor, who has two small children, was supposed to be getting married soon. Now he wants to know where his family is going to be sleeping a week from today. And Talisha Burnett was supposed to be moving to a new apartment in a few weeks. Now that plan has been tarnished by the fact that she has no belongings to move, and no car to put them in.
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Although Governor Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster in Harris County on Monday, FEMA has yet to make a decision on that. The longer it holds off, the longer Greenspoint residents grapple with uncertainty. Should FEMA decide to step in, residents could be provided with temporary housing vouchers if they are unable to afford their first month's rent and a deposit, Turner said at a press conference Tuesday.
In the meantime, the Red Cross will be keeping the shelters open for at least five more days. Volunteers were tasked with interviewing more than 300 displaced families yesterday to assess their needs and whether they would require assistance from the government. Turner said he wanted plans in place for all residents by the end of the day yesterday, and he directed the Houston Housing Authority, the Greenspoint District and the Houston Apartment Association to start looking for temporary housing units they could place residents in.
Some residents, though, are wondering how they'll even begin to pick their lives back up — regardless of where they're taken.
“Furniture and material items may have no real value," McCarter said, "but people work hard for what they have. Are we gonna have to go back home to nothing?”