It doesn’t feel like Harvey was just over one month ago, because when you drive down neighborhood streets, piles of debris still line the curbs as reliably as flags on the Fourth of July. Because large pumps with blue and yellow tubes are still sucking water out of parking garages and basements throughout downtown, where buildings like the Wortham Center and the downtown courthouse are closed. And because roughly 800 Houstonians are still living in shelters: a Houston Community College warehouse, the old Macy’s department store at Greenspoint Mall.
The National Weather Service warned on August 28 that “this event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced” — and so far that’s remained true. There’s still no way to quantify fully Harvey’s damage. For the most part, understanding Harvey’s impact has been anecdotal: There is no shortage of stories of evacuations on civilian boats and rescues from roofs, of people living in shelters and, more so lately, waiting and waiting and waiting on help from FEMA and the Red Cross and local government.
City and county officials, too, have their stories, recounting the behind-the-scenes chaos that ensued during Harvey, as first responders scrambled to answer more than 50,000 911 calls on the first night alone, and after Harvey, as thousands upon thousands of people sought shelter.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, for one, said that even though the Red Cross was on hand to organize those shelters, that responsibility ended up falling on the shoulders of a hodgepodge of public officials and private partners. People like Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart were stepping up to use county trucks to deliver food and supplies to shelters from a Red Cross warehouse, because the Red Cross didn’t have its own trucks or drivers, Emmett said. People like Councilwoman Brenda Stardig and church leaders were spearheading shelters and mobilizing hundreds of volunteers, Emmett said, because the Red Cross had failed to plan more in advance.
To get a handle on Harvey’s destruction, Emmett said, “I broke every bureaucratic rule in the book.”
As recovery continues, as the debris slowly disappears and displaced residents trickle into temporary housing, we’re taking some time to debrief: After the most destructive flooding event in U.S. history, what about the city and the county’s response to Harvey worked well? What didn’t? And what’s our next chapter? — Meagan Flynn
The Risk Return Ratio on Rescues
There were two things on Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s mind when, around noon on Sunday, August 27, he asked residents who owned boats to please help rescue people.
It had already been clear before dawn that the first responders were at capacity, as the City of Houston asked people to call 911 only if they were in a life-threatening situation. The National Weather Service started issuing urgent messages asking those trapped in their homes not to go into their attics but to go onto their roofs, where rescuers could see them. The live coverage was harrowing: people trapped on the roofs of SUVs that had become little islands surrounded by water in what was once a street, people waving from second-floor windows, signaling for help, people hanging onto trees or poles, waiting.
With thousands of 911 calls in the queue, Emmett knew that nightfall would beat the first responders to the punch before everyone would be safe.
“When I said, ‘If you’ve got a boat, bring it out,’ I had two thoughts in mind at the time,” Emmett told the Houston Press. “One was we had a lot of people in trouble, and they needed whatever help they could get. They were gonna try and get themselves out — you’ve seen pictures of people floating in thermal coolers and refrigerators and all that.
“The second part, just having grown up in Texas, is people were gonna bring their boats out anyway. I didn’t have to tell them to do it. They were gonna do it.”
Would-be helpers were directed to call the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, which would ask the boat owners what neighborhoods they could get to. There was no time for a crash course or training in high-water rescues. The names of more than 100 of those volunteers were plastered to a wall in the Emergency Operations Center on Post-it notes.
Yet for every dozen shining moments of selflessness, there was one of terror. Boats capsized. They became entangled in wires and debris beneath the murky waters. At least six young men died in two such known accidents.
Tomas Carreón Jr., a 25-year-old mechanic, and Alonso Guillen, a 31-year-old DJ and so-called “Dreamer,” originally from Mexico, died after a strong current caused their boat to crash into a bridge along Cypress Creek. They had traveled from Lufkin with a borrowed boat to help.
Jorge Raul Perez, Gustavo Hernandez Rodriguez, and brothers Benjamin Vizuet and Yahir Rubio-Vizuet were lost to Harvey’s floodwaters, too, discovered along the banks of Greens Bayou and in the Houston Ship Channel. They and a third brother, Jose Vizuet, and two journalists from the had just rescued two families trapped in a flooded apartment complex on the east side of Houston when the current from Greens Bayou pulled their boat into electrical wires. The men jumped overboard to avoid electrocution. Jose Vizuet and the journalists survived by grabbing onto trees.
When the two journalists, Alan Butterfield and Ruaridh Connellan, recounted the experience, Perla Jacquez told them, “I just want to let people know these men died giving their lives to save others.”
Emmett said that government officials in the Emergency Operations Center chided him for putting out the call for civilian help — but Emmett said he did not regret it, adding that, if it were not for the volunteer rescuers, more people likely would have drowned. The Houston Fire Department had only one-quarter of its staff called into work during the worst of Harvey, which Chief Samuel Peña said was due to the fact that HFD did not have enough high-water vehicles and boats for all its staff to use.
This, despite the fact that a lack of high-water equipment and a lack of firefighters trained in swift-water rescues plagued the department’s responses to the 2015 and 2016 major flooding events. Since then, Peña said, the department has remained woefully underfunded and incapable of responding to a flood even half Harvey’s size.
“Of course, I knew there were going to be some people who were untrained, but it was one of those things where we needed a flotilla,” Emmett said. “Some people were like, ‘Judge, you can’t do that.’
“The professional side says, ‘No, we’ve got to stick to our model of how we respond.’
“If we stick to the model, people drown.” — Meagan Flynn
A Historic Buyout?
In just three weeks after Hurricane Harvey, more than 3,000 homeowners inquired about buyouts with the Harris County Flood Control District — an unprecedented level of interest given the county usually only has funds to buy out 100 homes per year.
“This could possibly be the largest buyout in U.S. history,” said Jim Blackburn, a prominent Houston environmental attorney. “We are looking at a legacy problem of immense proportion. We’re not gonna be able to fix it now. There’s no room to put the retention ponds in that we need, along White Oak, Brays. The upstream development has been built out. The flooding downstream is occurring. The only real solution is to buy people out who keep flooding.”
Buyouts are reserved for homes “hopelessly deep” in the floodplains where projects such as retention ponds or bayou expansions just aren’t going to make a difference to stop the flooding during major events, said James Wade, manager of the Harris County Flood Control District’s Property Acquisition Department.
Which raises the question: If there’s no hope for potentially thousands of homes to be saved from floods, why were they built to begin with?
Blackburn said that’s due to a combination of early ignorance on the part of developers and continuing willful ignorance on the part of officials in later years. Floodplain maps were not issued until the mid-1980s, Blackburn said, and so developers had been building deep into floodplains. But once the maps came out, Blackburn says, the county failed in the 1990s to build enough retention ponds or basins along bayous it knew posed risks to nearby neighborhoods.
Wade acknowledged the development issues that predated the FEMA floodplain maps, but said that most of the homes that historically have been bought out were built long before the maps.
“That’s what we’re correcting with our buyout program, is to put those areas back to nature, back to their natural function as a floodplain, so that when it floods, it doesn’t impact homes and families,” he said.
The funds for the buyouts come from FEMA’s National Flood Mitigation program or its Hazard Mitigation program as grant money, funneled through the Texas Water Development Board and into the hands of local government — but this process can sometimes take more than a year to complete.
To speed things up, Harris County Commissioners Court approved spending $20 million in county funds to purchase 206 homes deep in floodplains, and hopes to start closing on some of those homes by the end of the month.
If the county purchased all 3,300 homes in areas of interest that the flood control district wants to prioritize, Wade said, it would cost about $650 million. Which doesn’t include hundreds of buyout applications from homeowners who fall outside those areas. — Meagan Flynn
Floodplain Maps Are Full of Silt
After the initial downpour of Hurricane Harvey, Cynthia Neely and her family were among the lucky few in Houston. Their house in west Houston, which had never flooded, had about an inch of water.
When the rain stopped, they mopped the floors and ate dinner, feeling safe and secure.
Then the U.S. Corps of Engineers released the water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and about two feet of water rushed in, ruining floors and furniture and filling the Neelys’ house with waste after the showers and toilets backed up.
It’s not difficult to understand why the Neelys and the homes near the reservoirs flooded. What is more difficult to comprehend is that according to experts at the University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, more than half of the houses that flooded in Harris County from Harvey sat outside floodplains — which certainly contributed to the high rate of uninsured victims.
And this is not a new phenomenon. A recent report issued by hydrologists at Rice University and Texas A&M University at Galveston found that from 1999 to 2009, in a section of southeast Houston near Armand Bayou, 75 percent of the flooding occurred outside the floodplain. That figure is high, even for Houston, explained Antonia Sebastian, a postdoctoral researcher with Delft University of Technology and one of the co-authors of the report. On average, about a quarter of all uninsured losses occur outside of floodplains nationwide, and in many coastal areas, like Houston, that figure can exceed 50 percent.
The models used by FEMA don’t account for changing land use, such as the loss of natural wetlands in favor of development. Something as simple as putting concrete in a watershed can potentially double the height of a 100-year flood. And because a city like Houston is changing so rapidly, the FEMA maps often struggle to keep up. One study published in the journal in 2003 found that 33 percent of FEMA maps were more than 15 years old.
“By the time we designate a floodplain as a 100-year floodplain, it’s already outdated,” said Kayode Atobe, a research assistant with the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at A&M.
The inaccuracies can be felt at multiple levels of local and federal policy. Only people living in a floodplain are mandated to purchase flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program, sponsored by FEMA, and the rates of that insurance are determined by the maps.
“A floodplain is this dichotomous boundary and you’re either in or out of it,” said Sebastian. “It doesn’t matter if you’re one foot or one mile; you’re out of the floodplain. And in reality that’s just not how flooding behaves.”
These floodplain maps are also not adjusting to the new reality of storms as the earth’s climate continues to warm. Rising sea levels obviously lead to more flooding, but the warming of the atmosphere also means more moisture in the air, and consequently more heavy downpours.
In the past three years, Meyerland has experienced three consecutive 500-year floods, or floods that have a 1-in-500 chance of occurring.
“That might be the new normal for Houston,” said Joel Scata, an attorney for the water program at the National Resources Defense Council. “You can argue that this is just a freak occurrence, but it’s happening enough across the country that you’re seeing these major, major floods.”
FEMA requires states to have Hazard Mitigation Plans that detail how they will deal with natural disasters. But these plans are based on historic precedents, and only recently has FEMA mandated that agencies consider future factors. Texas, which will submit a new plan in 2018, acknowledges rising sea levels, but ultimately determined they’re not a hazard.
Between 2005 and 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found, the federal government spent $278 billion on disaster assistance. — Joseph Fanelli
The Courts Get Cozy
It’s been roughly a month since prosecutors had to escape the flooding criminal courthouse with a rope, wading in single file through waist-deep water to get to safety. Since the floodwaters from Harvey and the overflowing Buffalo Bayou got so high that water seeped through the walls and into the Criminal Justice Center lobby. Since sewage burst out of the toilets and the pipes and flooded the basement, leaving the downtown courthouse completely useless and closed for an undetermined amount of time.
With more than 62,000 cases pending, the 22 felony judges and 16 misdemeanor judges are now forced to share courtrooms in the civil and family courthouses, and 700 employees of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office are spread across nine buildings.
On the very first day of the new shared-courtroom system, at least two judges had some trouble after State District Judge Nikita Harmon refused to let State District Judge Jim Wallace have a turn on their shared bench to take a couple of pleas, reportedly leading a frustrated Wallace to threaten to have Harmon arrested (they have since been separated).
In the civil courthouse where felony courts are housed, three out of six elevators leading to the upper floors are broken, and in the family-law building, two out of four elevators are broken, leading to a fantastic morning-docket rush-hour fiasco. And, because of the limited courtroom space, trials haven’t been able to resume, at least not until later in October.
This is not the first time the Criminal Justice Center has flooded and closed down. Just months after the 20-story, $95 million building opened in 2001, Tropical Storm Allison came through and flooded the basement, gutting the new building’s electrical system. It was 11 months before employees were fully moved back into the courthouse. Harris County Engineer John Blount said that, at that time, the county sought grant money from FEMA to install flood-mitigation apparatus, such as the flood gates in the underground tunnels and at the main doors. In fact, Blount said, those measures did their job during Harvey — but the water levels were just too high and the water came through the walls. The Harris County Jury Assembly building, right across the street, got nine feet of water, and County Judge Ed Emmett said it’s possible the county will need to build a completely new jury building.
Still, taking a glass-half-full approach, defense attorneys and the DA’s office are seeing the post-Harvey court chaos as an opportunity to change what they see as cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles.
Tucker Graves, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, issued a list of recommendations that he hoped judges would follow to make things easier for everyone. With Ogg’s backing, the defense bar asked that judges not require defendants to appear for court settings unless they involved a contested hearing, a plea deal or a trial.
But Graves said it did not appear that these recommendations were being followed. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg told the Press that neither her office nor the defense bar was invited to the table to discuss court scheduling changes.
“I believe that the displacement that we suffered is another reason to reform a docket system that is out of step with the rest of the justice scheduling systems in Harris County. Our docket practices are inherently inefficient and I don’t believe that it’s necessary for defendants to appear repeatedly for non-issue settings,” Ogg said.
State District Judge Susan Brown and County Court at Law Judge Paula Goodhart said each judge sets his or her own docket rules and that everyone has tried to be sensitive to defendants affected by Harvey. — Meagan Flynn
Sacrificing the Many for the Many More
The water had been rising steadily since 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 27, as Hurricane Harvey continued to pelt the Houston area. Watching from the second-story window of her condominium at The Pines, a complex in Memorial on Houston’s west side, Kelly Coleman saw the water swamp the parking lot. When she was certain the first floor was flooding, Coleman went downstairs and banged on the doors of her neighbors, inviting them to gather some belongings and move upstairs to her place.
“And this was before Addicks and Barker started releasing,” Coleman says now.
Even in Allison the Pines condos had not flooded, but then again, the dams at Addicks and Barker had not been released then. It probably never occurred to most people that the protective structures could be the source of the worst devastation from Hurricane Harvey.
Addicks and Barker were constructed in response to the devastating floods that had ripped through Houston in 1929 and 1935. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed them to stay empty until a major storm comes in. Once the system’s rain gauges register critical levels of water, the dam safety officer orders the dams to close and start retaining water. The dams then block some of the water that would come gushing down Buffalo Bayou in the event of a large-scale rain event.
For more than 70 years, Addicks and Barker have worked exactly as designed. However, in 2009 the dams were labeled as being at “extremely high risk of catastrophic failure.” Since then, the Corps has taken piecemeal approaches to keeping the dams in shape, adding filters to control seepage, more lighting, and an emergency power system to prevent a full-on collapse while also going through the slow process of putting more permanent — and expensive — measures in place.
As Harvey began, the dams were in the middle of a $75 million upgrade that started in 2016. The floodgates were closed at 8 p.m. on Friday, August 25. But as the rain continued, it soon became clear that the dams — which can hold roughly 410,000 acre-feet of water — were filling up quickly even as the storm showed no signs of moving on. (Harvey would drop more than 50 inches of rain here.)
By Saturday night, the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management was warning that Barker might spill over. On Sunday night, the Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District announced they were going to begin releasing water from the dams, unsure that the aging structures could continue to hold on against the enormous pressure coming from the floodwater.
Dozens of neighborhoods located below the reservoirs began taking on water.
Coleman evacuated Tuesday morning when the water was more than five feet high. Water was still spilling over Addicks despite the controlled releases. She walked until she found a grocery store. When a clerk looked at the plastic bags in her hands and asked her if she was there to make a donation, she burst into tears and explained the bags contained her own things.
“When I bought my condo five years ago, there was a 0.2 percent chance it would flood,” she says. “It felt like we were sacrificed for the rest of the community.”
Arturo Leon, a professor of hydraulic engineering at the University of Houston, says most structures built during the 1940s have held up well, but any dam that has dealt with frequent large rain events will have had more wear and tear on its earthen walls.
About 3,000 homes below Addicks and around 1,000 homes below Barker flooded in the wake of the controlled releases. Leon maintains this was still better than risking the collapse of the dams entirely.
“If this had happened, if the dams had failed,
30 to 40 10 to 20 feet of water would have moved in shock waves traveling more than 100 30 feet per second down Buffalo Bayou,” Leon says. (* Editor's note: Initial information given to the Houston Press was incorrect.) Houses and buildings downstream of the reservoirs [would have been] destroyed, and hundreds would have died. As bad as this was, it could have been so much worse.” — Dianna Wray
In the days following Hurricane Harvey’s Houston flooding, it was difficult to even figure out what grocery stores were operating in town, with what hours and what, exactly, they had in stock. Flooded routes kept trucks from stores. In many instances, stores allowed in only a few shoppers at a time to avoid chaos. A month later, and, for much of Houston’s major groceries, things are somewhat back to normal.
“We’re not seeing any shortages in our supply chain,” April Martin Nickels, a representative of Kroger, says, at least concerning food. Representatives from H-E-B also reported zero supply shortages. Strangely, says Nickels, “The only impact has been in floral. We’ve seen a 20 percent shortage because most of it comes from Florida, and obviously they’re dealing with Irma.”
Kroger was able to deliver more than 2,750 truckloads of product to stores within the first seven days after the hurricane. Price hikes that could come because of a hit to Texas ranchers or farmers have not become evident to consumers either.
But behind the scenes, employees of Houston’s big groceries are feeling the impact of Harvey. Kroger estimates that more than 525 of its employees requested financial assistance through its Kroger Helping Hands Fund. And with two area locations closed — the Champion Forest/Cypresswood store and the Cypresswood/Highway 249 store — about 300 employees have been absorbed by other locations. No one has lost his or her job.
The same situation is happening at H-E-B, with president Scott McLellan telling the Press that numerous employees from the shuttered, flood-ravaged Meyerland and Kingwood locations can be found working at other locations around the city. H-E-B has still not announced its plans to either renovate or relocate the Meyerland space, which was also waterlogged last year in the Tax Day floods and had barely reopened before Harvey hit. The company is still weighing its options.
Three Fiesta stores remain closed: 4330 Highway 6, 12201 East Freeway and 9419 Mesa. As for Kroger, both of its closed locations are being gutted and remodeled, with reopenings slated for some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas of this year. Until then, customers will still find a 50-foot-long mobile pharmacy operating at the Champion Forest/Cypresswood location. — Gwendolyn Knapp
Performing Arts Scramble
Jason Watt, a tenor for the Houston Chamber Choir who’s also Kingwood High School’s head choir director, lost his entire choral library — thousands of dollars’ worth of music — when the school flooded. In Third Ward’s Blue Triangle Community Center, roof damage caused mold to grow along the historic John Biggers mural, “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education.” And the Wortham Theater Center — home to the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet, not to mention a frequent stop for Da Camera, Mercury and Society for the Performing Arts — will not be closed for a few weeks as originally thought, but eight months at least.
The scope of the damage to the arts community is wide, from the Houston Symphony’s cancellation of its opening-night concert with Susan Graham because of flooding at Jones Hall, to the roof, ceiling and electrical damage at small installation space Mystic Lyon in Fifth Ward, which doubles as a studio for local artist Emily Sloan.
Fresh Arts Executive Director Marci Dallas, whose organization is also a member of the local action group behind the Harvey Arts Recovery Fund, says the effects of Harvey are expected to linger for two to three years as organizations reschedule and search for places to stage performances and hold exhibitions.
Many smaller and midsize theaters and companies escaped major physical damage, but the Gravity Players and Dirt Dogs Theatre Company both had runs interrupted. The A.D. Players, Cone Man Running Productions, the Catastrophic Theatre, Stages Repertory Theatre and Opera in the Heights all had to either delay openings or postpone their shows until the spring — all of which directly affects earned income.
The scramble for venues may also leave smaller arts organizations — the ones that rely most on financial support from the community — out in the cold, says Dallas, and Rec Room co-founder Stephanie Wittels Wachs raises an additional issue: She’s finding that attendance has been low across the board, even for the theater’s usual sell-outs, which may spell financial trouble going forward.
“If people aren’t coming to the venue, the venue won’t survive,” says Wittels Wachs by email.
Dallas believes the uncertainty of “If I wasn’t affected, is it okay to get on with my life, because you still see people who need mucking in their houses” is keeping people away. But she’s quick to remind everyone of the value art has to a community.
“I think a lot of times people look to the arts to help them put things into words that they can’t put into words themselves, so if you see something, or if you read something, or if you hear something, it helps you reconnect with the world around you.” — Natalie de la Garza
Displaced and Looking For Shelter
Looking out her window as Harvey blew through Houston, it seemed to Maria Thymes that she was living in a coffee mug. Inside her home on McGowen at Highway 288, a foot of water ruined the whole first floor. She knew that staying wasn’t an option.
“I lost my furniture, clothes, everything,” Thymes said. “I thought, how can I live in something like this?” So she and her fiancé walked, all the way to the George R. Brown Convention Center, wading through the knee-deep, dark brown water.
Since then, she has had nowhere else to go, moving to the Houston Community College warehouse-turned-shelter on Fannin Street, south of NRG Stadium, once the GRB shelter shut down. She has slept on cots every night for the past month, wearing hand-me-down clothes and eating food she doesn’t seem to have the appetite for anymore.
Thymes is among approximately 800 people in Houston displaced by Harvey who are still awaiting housing assistance, living for now in shelters. Some are waiting for help from FEMA, which has received more than 371,000 applications for assistance, with more than 245,000 being referred for rental assistance. Many have applied for the $400 Band-Aid relief from the Red Cross. Most, however, are waiting on a hand-up from the city, which has been seeking out vacant units across town to reserve for those with nowhere to go.
“That’s the population we’re really focusing our housing efforts on,” said Tom McCasland, director of the Houston Housing and Community Development Department. “Because if you are able to find another option — if temporary housing assistance from FEMA is an option for you, people are leaving to go to hotels; if friends are an option, you went there; if going back home was an option, you went there. The people who are left, those are the folks that don’t have other options. Long-term shelters are a very poor place for people to be housed, and we’ve got to get better options for them.”
McCasland said that the city has room in its budget to reserve 700 units across Houston and financially assist families settling into them, with backing from FEMA. Most of the landlords who have agreed to take in the flood victims won’t forgo background checks, passing over those with evictions or criminal records, McCasland said.
For those who have difficulty getting approved, the city has also set up dormitory-style living at an old Star of Hope homeless shelter on Emancipation Avenue, which McCasland said the city envisions keeping open for the next six months or until the residents can get back on their feet.
The housing market is only expected to tighten, McCasland said, as more people seek permanent housing. According to Apartment Data Services, more than 14,800 units were damaged during Harvey. The occupancy rate, excluding damaged units, is about 90 percent across the area.
Andy Teas, vice president of public affairs for the Houston Apartment Association, said that with all the apartment properties trying to repair units at once, it’s been difficult to find enough workers. Some property owners, he said, have struggled with deciding whether to terminate leases because of extensive damage in the units — an option that is legal only if the units are “totally uninhabitable.”
The Houston Housing Authority took this route for a senior-living facility at 2100 Memorial, which had damage to the electrical and fire systems. But residents, who still have water and power and didn’t experience flooding in their units, responded with a lawsuit. — Meagan Flynn
Restaurants: Who's Going Out?
For the 12,000 or so restaurants in Houston, which employ somewhere around 350,000 people, the challenges in the past month have been vastly different from week to week.
Chain eateries alone saw a 15 percent dip overall in same-store sales in Texas during the final week of August when Harvey rolled through. Restaurants that made it out of the flooding unscathed opened back up with limited staff, menus, fairly dead business, horrendous traffic on the roads and highways, and the added bonus of a citywide curfew, prompting most eateries to close hours earlier than normal.
Many eateries helped feed the victims of Harvey’s devastating flooding. Numerous restaurants, such as Reef and Les Ba’get, transformed their kitchens into emergency relief hubs, or cooked and donated food or vehicles or labor. Chef Richard Knight and former Houston Press food editor Phaedra Cook helped organize the community to get hot meals where they were needed most, and they did this over the course of weeks, the effort eventually ending up in a space called the Midtown Kitchen Collective, which was finally handed off to nonprofit Second Servings to oversee. It was an effort never seen before in any city in America during a crisis, and has been extensively covered by both and , which reported that the Houston restaurant industry “rewrote the playbook on disaster relief.” On top of this, many restaurants were also opening solely to feed first responders for free or offering free meals to neighborhood residents as well.
Two weeks after Harvey, many local restaurants had resumed normal hours, but business remained slow. Some restaurants extended Houston Restaurant Weeks to both drive business and support the Houston Food Bank’s Harvey relief efforts, but eateries and bars the Press talked to were reporting dips in sales, anywhere from 30 to 70 percent.
The coming months could prove a deal breaker. There are still restaurants that are gutting their spaces or are just now reopening. One such place, the beloved Three Brothers Bakery, is operating, but not at full capacity after taking on well over two feet of water at its main Braeswood location. The bakery has flooded twice before, including being completely devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008. Many other restaurants are feeling this same impact right now.
“They say that 40 percent of small businesses that go through an event like this don’t reopen,” owner Bobby Jucker tells the Press. “We don’t want to be that 40 percent.” — Gwendolyn Knapp
A Gigantic Blues Song
The weekend after Harvey swamped greater Houston, Atomic Love set up their instruments in the driveway of one member’s home. With piles of ruined furniture lining the curb from one end of the street to the other, the four students at Cypress Creek High School tore through songs by a laundry list of classic-rock greats — AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix — for a solid hour, to an audience of some three dozen neighbors. Even with their families facing a difficult recovery that could last months or even longer, these young men recognized that one of their primary duties as musicians is to lift people’s spirits in times of need.
“I had this fear that no one would show up,” drummer Logan Allison told the Press the day after Atomic Love’s driveway concert. “But it was nice to see people come together in hard times.”
Houston’s major live-music venues were largely spared the kind of catastrophic damage suffered by the Wortham; its neighbor, Revention Music Center, temporarily shut down after water got into its basement but was up and running again two weeks later. Others, including the Heights Theater, The Secret Group and Warehouse Live, temporarily became rally points and distribution hubs for relief supplies and volunteers. Heights owner Edwin Cabaniss handed out “spot grants,” in cash, to local musicians the weekend the storm blew through. The owners of White Oak Music Hall said they plan to turn their existing 501(c)(3) organization, the Friends of White Oak Music Hall, into a relief fund for music-industry workers affected by the storm. Historic SugarHill Studios opened its mixing boards to engineers and producers whose existing studios had been flooded out.
“We have also had several projects coming in to record songs inspired by the storm, or songs to be used as a part of fundraising,” adds SugarHill president Dan Workman.
Millions of dollars have poured in thanks to last month’s Hand In Hand telethon, partially organized by Bun B, and the “Harvey Can’t Mess With Texas” fundraising concert, headlined by Willie Nelson and Paul Simon. Although several other concerts were also canceled or postponed, including the Index and Houston Open Air festivals, many artists who have played the area since Harvey — including Colin Hay, Ben Folds and the Zac Brown Band — donated all or part of their takes to relief efforts, a number that will only grow in the weeks and months ahead. Bun and fellow Houston rapper Trae Tha Truth, though, went even further.
“Those cats are out there working their butts off, and have been since day freakin’ one,” says Mark C. Austin, who spent a couple of days ferrying evacuees and supplies to and from the George R. Brown Convention Center himself — in the Tontons’ tour van. “I can tell you because I’ve helped stock their trucks and vehicles. They come in hot and heavy. They’re not there to bullshit around; they’re there to fill that truck full of diapers and cleaning supplies and go help people.”
Austin, owner of Houston-based talent/booking agency The Convoy Group, also helped to set up an email address, email@example.com, which he hopes will turn into a means of distributing funds once the vetting process becomes a little more “official.” Thus far he’s heard from a couple of dozen musicians, but he suspects many others may be reluctant to come forward because, he says, “I don’t know that everybody wants everyone to know their business.”
But after witnessing thousands of people come out for Bun and Trae at Karbach Brewing Company’s Karbachtoberfest or Paul Wall and Lil Keke at Screwed Up Sundays, or even a few hundred for the Tontons at Market Square Park, Austin is convinced Houstonians’ appetite for live music remains undiminished no matter how dire their circumstances may be.
“Every time we had a [situation] like ‘Should we cancel something?’ I’m like, ‘We can’t,’” adds Austin. ‘The musicians need to pay their rents and the fans need to come out of their houses and relieve their minds for a few hours.” — Chris Gray
All We Need Is the Air That We Breathe
When it became clear Houston was going to be in Hurricane Harvey’s path, operators of refineries and chemical plants all along the Houston Ship Channel went into shutdown mode. Even in the midst of the storm, it soon became apparent that a significant amount of air pollution came wheezing out along the storm’s path.
On Saturday, August 26, residents of Manchester and other neighborhoods on the east side of Houston noticed a strange odor. Juan Parras, the founder of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, went to Manchester on Sunday morning and the air was laced so heavily with fumes that Parras said he was afraid to light a match.
Both the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency had turned off area air quality monitors in advance of the storm, so there was even less regulatory oversight than usual.
The Houston Health Department and the Environmental Defense Fund set up air quality monitors in Manchester shortly after the storm and began collecting data. The monitors detected streams of benzene, a component of crude oil and gas, and a known carcinogen, and other air pollutants in the fence-line community.
Unsurprisingly, the reports filed with TCEQ by various companies and chemical plants in the area have indicated where the pollutants most likely came from. Companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron and Valero all submitted reports acknowledging various spills and accidental releases at their facilities before, during and after the storm.
Overall, more than four million pounds of pollutants were released into the air during Harvey, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. (Valero has since gotten an increased amount of EPA scrutiny after the EPA enforcement division recently demanded company officials hand over records and maintenance histories and let it be known that agency officials believe Valero “significantly underestimated” the amount of benzene and other chemicals released during the storm.)
EPA officials took more than a week to access many of the federal Superfund sites in Harris County, including the San Jacinto Waste Pits, perched on the lip of the San Jacinto River and packed with dioxin and other pollutants — that have been known to spill out in past storms.
EPA officials revealed on September 29 that the armored cap on the waste pits was breached during the storm and samples show dioxin at 70,000 ng/kg in areas near the pits. The EPA recommends cleanup for any dioxin levels above 30 ng/kg. Waste Management and International Paper, the business charged with dealing with any subsequent issues with the waste pits, has acknowledged that a few areas on the armored cap — which is supposed to contain the toxic sludge in the waste pits for the next 100 years — are thinner than required and need restoration work, but that’s it.
The U.S. Oil Recovery site on Richey in Pasadena also flooded and at least three spills were reported there. Since then, PRP Group, the organization formed to oversee the site, which is also packed with cancer-causing chemicals, has pulled out more than 300,000 gallons of contaminated storm water, but the EPA continues to maintain that there’s no evidence any of the chemicals there spilled into nearby Vince Bayou. —Dianna Wray
Post-Traumatic Harvey Syndrome
Like most of the health risks associated with Harvey — from bacteria-infested floodwaters and stress-inducing trauma to a sudden bevy of disease-carrying mosquitoes — the full scope of the damages will not be understood until months after the storm, though future risk factors are already popping up.
Dr. Umair A. Shah, the director of the county’s public health department, said the agency received reports about slight increases in gastrointestinal diseases, respiratory diseases and skin rashes. Mustapha Debboun, director of the Harris County Public Health Department’s mosquito and vector control division, and his mosquito team discovered the first pocket of West Nile virus in southwest Houston. In water safety, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University released data showing dangerous levels of E. coli in the Barker Reservoir and Brays Bayou. And Harris County’s second case of necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating infection caused by bacteria, resulted in the death of a 77-year-old Kingwood woman who fell into floodwaters.
Debboun and his team have been combing about 280 sites in Houston, looking for high populations of mosquitoes. A technician will stand in a spot for about a minute and track the number of mosquitoes that reach him or her. Fewer than ten is considered okay. Anything above 20 indicates an area should be sprayed.
In some spots, after Harvey, technicians were counting as many as 120, according to Debboun.
The department’s ground-spraying efforts are working, according to Debboun. In a neighborhood near Spring that had reports of 120 mosquitoes per minute, technicians reported just one mosquito the day after aerial sprays.
There has been some concern about the use of Dibrom, a pesticide better known as Naled that can be dangerous if ingested in high dosages, in aerial sprays. But epidemiologists at Texas A&M were confident that the amount being sprayed — between one or two teaspoons per acre — was not enough to be considered harmful. Those with sensitivity to chemicals could expect some minor side effects for a few days, but nothing to be considered threatening.
Mosquitoes are just one of a litany of health risks that are possible in the aftermath of Harvey. In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the mortality rate rose by 47 percent over the next year and assessments by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression in residents, police officers and first responders. Those at risk of mental illness are more prone to developing symptoms again after an event like Harvey, and the Stress, Trauma and Recovery Services clinic at the University of Texas-Health Science Center at Houston has seen an increase in people reporting problems in the weeks since Harvey ended. — Joseph Fanelli
Accessing Relief Funds
For a city caught in an unprecedented deluge, public agencies, private organizations and individuals acted quickly (for the most part) to raise funds for victims washed out of their homes.
Almost immediately — on August 27 — Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett established the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation. People could donate online with credit cards; send cash via wire transfer; or (even though there was no mail service for a while) send a check or money order.
As of October 2, the fund had raised $67.4 million. The easy-to-use website allowed people to register for FEMA assistance, and to connect with organizations helping with food, shelter and medical needs.
It’s just one example of the outpouring of donations and fast action, and it worked better than the American Red Cross’s website. For an organization synonymous with disaster relief, the Red Cross took a lot of flak, including harsh words from Houston City Councilman Dave Martin, who took to calling the organization “the Red Loss.”
Things got off to a bad start when a reporter for NPR asked Red Cross CEO Brad Kieserman, shortly after Harvey hit, how much of every dollar would actually go to victims. Kieserman’s response? “I don’t know the answer to that.”
But Councilman Martin’s words were best illustrated when the Red Cross’s website, where people could apply for $400 payments, crashed shortly after going online. The kinks weren’t worked out until a week later, and, as of now, the site remains live.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Small Business Administration initiated a “three-step” application process for disaster loans, which allowed businesses to “borrow up to $2 million for physical damage.” There’s actually more than three steps, but still, the website seems easy to navigate and the SBA’s plan is to disburse initial installments of $25,000 as quickly as possible.
Arguably, no fundraising effort made as much of a splash as Houston Texan J.J. Watt’s YouCaring page, which shattered its $200,000 goal with a mind-blowing $37 million. However, as of the time of this writing, it’s unclear how the money will be spent, or whether individuals can apply for assistance: Houston Texans spokeswoman Amy Palcic told the Press on September 13, “A thorough plan is being put in place as we speak.” — Craig Malisow
Big Hat, Some Cattle
While the state hasn’t released any hard data on the impact that Harvey has had on Texas livestock, recently reported that “the 54 counties that bore the storm’s brunt are home to about 1.2 million cattle, a quarter of the state’s total,” thousands of which likely didn’t make it out of the floodwaters. When Hurricane Ike ripped across the Texas coast in 2008, the cattle industry suffered about $13 million in livestock losses and another $23 million in farm infrastructure damage.
Currently, ranchers are also dealing with a frustrating, if not unique, problem.
“Because animals were stranded in water or forced to higher ground,” Jeremy Fuchs of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association says, “with fences torn down in the storm and whatnot, it made it easy for cattle to get mixed together with other ranches.”
That’s where Fuchs’s association comes into play. The TSCRA has 30 special rangers who work between Oklahoma and Texas handling emergencies, including cattle and equipment theft. “We have and will continue to have ranchers in those affected areas, identifying brands on cattle and other characteristics — helping them get their cattle back to rightful owners,” Fuchs said. From there, the state can start to learn exactly how many cattle were lost to Harvey.
While the early outlook on what will happen with beef prices is anyone’s guess, Fuchs says there is no hard data to indicate a shortage of beef will result from Harvey’s devastating flooding, but that Texas ranchers do face a long road to recovery.
“One thing that we have undertaken is the Cattle Raisers Relief Fund,” Fuchs says. “One hundred percent of those donations will go to cattle raisers. Across the state and country, cow men and women have donated so much — hay, feed, fencing materials, their services. That’s been tremendously beneficial, but we’re going to continue to need assistance in order to get back to where they were.” —Gwendolyn Knapp
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