System Failure

Glenda Caldwell doesn't have a lot of faith in the system. It didn't crash all at once the way her foundation did after Tropical Storm Allison chewed away the earth beneath the west end of her Windsor Village home in June 2001. It withered slowly in six-month installments as one charitable agency after another began and then quit repairs to her home, even as the black mold crept from her drains and affected her already failing lungs.

Though only 51, Caldwell suffers a variety of maladies and is confined at most times to a wheelchair. She has lived on a fixed income since 1991, when she was laid out by a ruptured disc and the surgical complications that left her with nerve damage and metal rods in her back. She can speak only when a ringed finger closes over the tracheal tube at the base of her throat, the result of a breathing disorder and partial vocal-cord paralysis. Then there are two voices. One is the voice of the woman, carried softly over inflamed tissue, bearing the heat of her feelings, her failings and frustrations. The other is twined to the first, a tuneless rising and lowering like weary bellows passing through a broken pitch pipe. It is the dry wind leaking through her neck and the hiss of saliva bubbling behind the plastic tube.

With Allison's wrath came broken pipes and beams. Raw sewage backed up into Caldwell's shower and bathtub. Her oxygen concentrator, suction machine and backup generator were damaged by the water. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave her $2,600 for new sinks and a tub, a new central A/C unit, bleach cleaning and $33.60 for minor masonry work at a corner of her house. No one linked the sewage in her drains to subterranean pipes at the time. She protested her home had suffered far more damage than that and that it had become an unhealthy place to live. She needed housing assistance and major repairs, she said. She needed medical supplies. The response was "Get an estimate."


Tropical Storm Allison

At last, a rep from a nearby commercial and residential construction company, All-U-Need Services, showed up. He tallied the damages at $34,000. All of the drywall four feet up from the floor and the cabinetry had to be replaced, showers and stalls had to be replaced, mold had to be removed. But still the septic problem went undiagnosed.

With the second inspector on the way in November 2001, Caldwell, a self-confessed clean freak ("If you're gonna clean my floors, you better use a whole lot of water and a squeegee"), couldn't resist wheeling about the three-bedroom home gunning for the roaches and lizards that had invaded her home through the numerous gaps left by the flood. As they scurried into the dark recesses, Caldwell leveled her can of Raid at them, taking aim into closets and dresser drawers where the mice trails led, extending the gathering insecticide fog. Then she collapsed into her chair.

"I went to spray the roaches and knocked my own self out," Caldwell says, her smile widening as she relates the freshly exposed humor of past horrors.

As significant as her suffering is, Caldwell is not alone among those overlooked or mistreated by the disaster relief system now coping with the mass of evacuees who have overloaded Houston's charitable networks. Bureaucratic ineptitude and unscrupulous contractors following Allison left other victims stranded. Four years in the making, their stories are already lost in the current rush of Katrina and Rita victims. They live quietly on the charity of family and friends or drift into homelessness. Or -- like Caldwell -- they cling to the remains, lingering in conditions that may yet prove to be their final undoing.

It was two years ago that Catholic Charities of Houston closed the files on 20 families who had experienced so much property damage that the nonprofit couldn't muster the resources to help them. FEMA had released about a billion dollars to the Houston area, but damages here were estimated as high as $5 billion by the end of 2001. Other groups performing cleanup and repairs, such as the Houston Area Urban League, ran out of funds.

According to Greg Patin, local Catholic Charities' chief development officer, there was only one agency with the resources to do the remaining heavy lifting: the City of Houston's Emergency Home Repair Program. Unfortunately, in 2003 this program had its assets frozen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for severe mismanagement under Mayor Lee P. Brown's administration.

Back in 1996 the program had outsourced all of its key services to four nonprofits and later reduced its inspection staff from eight employees to one. Organizations such as Sheltering Arms, the National Association of Minority Contractors, the Urban League and the nonprofit Private Sector Initiatives took over, hiring contractors to do the repairs and then billing the city for reimbursement. Caldwell says she witnessed numerous instances of contractors entering with good materials but later installing used and rusted equipment and making off with the superior supplies.

Though reactivated last year under strict HUD oversight, the Home Repair Program was severely criticized in a performance review by the auditing firm of Jefferson Wells earlier this year. While Private Sector Initiatives did the bulk of the work, no inspections were made on those jobs, according to the March review. In fact, no findings of "substandard, incomplete, overcharged, or non-emergency work" were reported by the city. The auditors, however, found "numerous instances" of such poor performance issues in their review of department field reports.

Steve Skeete, assistant director of housing, offered a brief interview two weeks after first being contacted by the Houston Press. He said that past practices of the department have seriously hurt its ability to respond to the needs of Houston families. Poor record-keeping by department employees paired with poor nonprofit performance has made locating homeowners promised assistance before the November '03 shutdown extremely difficult, Skeete said.

"I can't say that all of them have been contacted at this point, because each day there's a new name that comes up and that has been one of the most frustrating things we have encountered," Skeete said. In its renewed dependence on HUD, the city draws exclusively from a list of certified contractors that are cross-referenced against those blacklisted by HUD. The program operates with only five employees and must rely on city funds to do its work. HUD inspectors check the majority -- though not all -- of the city's jobs, he added. Only after a HUD or city inspector clears a job can the city then seek reimbursement from the agency. Those at the top of the housing department's repair list are those who were previously promised help that never arrived.

"What we're looking for is some kind of documentation that they entered into an agreement for services and one of those four services failed to honor that commitment in a timely fashion. Those who have received prior assistance, we're going to take a look at them as well, but those that were committed to receiving assistance and did not receive any -- those are our target population that we're looking to try to service first," Skeete said.

As things stand, it is hard for the department to even take on two jobs at a time. Each new case goes directly to the bottom of the list, which now stands at 250, unless a property owner can prove that he should be higher up.

After more than a year, Caldwell's case is still under investigation, he said, and has not yet been added to the list.

FEMA deemed Caldwell's house livable after performing more minor repairs through its Disaster Recovery program in 2002. Over the next three years she dealt with United Way, Catholic Charities, the Urban League and the city's Emergency Home Repair Program. In a seven-page certified letter sent to Mayor Bill White seven months ago, Caldwell said that her insistence on volunteers obtaining proper city permits was a big part of what led to several pulling off the job prematurely. "What I'm realizing is this is a pattern. It's against the elderly that can't speak up for themselves. The more things started happening to me, I realized there are big agencies involved."

The former law firm secretary needs a spinal cord surgery. Her decision to stay in her home, to keep fighting the city for repairs, has pushed that back for more than two years. Her doctor won't operate until she is living in a mold-free environment and the risk of infection is reduced. So Caldwell relies on pain medication and frequent batteries of antibiotics. Since her hospital bed was tossed out with the rest of her moldy furniture, she can't prop up her head properly at night and her throat is bleeding more often. That has meant more regular infections.

When the Houston Area Urban League inspector Dale Brown, who is no longer with the organization and could not be reached for comment, made his initial assessment of her home in February 2003 -- two years after Allison -- he wrote that flood repairs had been left incomplete. Foundational, plumbing and electrical problems needed to be resolved. Topping the list was the broken sewer line under the house that was still bubbling up along the driveway where the foundation had dropped. But Brown washed his hands of Caldwell after numerous disagreements regarding repairs. He kept warning her of a gas leak -- a nascent threat in a home where several oxygen tanks were located -- but admonished her not to call the gas company to check it because they would "take away her meter," she says. Nevertheless, her sister called the company and reps couldn't find a leak anywhere, she says. She refused to sign the change order, inspiring the Urban League to pull out, leaving her without heat that winter. Brown and his contractor claimed a carbon monoxide leak, which they refused to fix, according to Caldwell, made lighting the pilot unadvisable.

Sylvia Brooks, president of the Houston Area Urban League, says Brown told her the work had been completed and that Caldwell had moved out of the house. She says she only later found out that wasn't the case. The correction came in a stream of scalding letters accusing the agency of performing shoddy work, digging unnecessary trenches in her backyard that led to a termite infestation, illegally placing forged permits on her front door, leaving raw sewage draining from the yard into the street and breaking her attic ladder.

The project was later red-tagged by the city because of the sewage issue.

"I'm not a contractor or anything, and this is not my area of expertise, but it sounds like it's just been -- I don't know whether I'd say just a lot of errors -- but…I don't know if it's been diagnosed correctly nor was the money invested to do it right," Brooks says. "It certainly doesn't sound like the contractor -- or our inspector -- nobody was pleased with what anybody was doing."

Houston city leaders recently reallocated $1 million of federal funds earmarked for survivors of Katrina and Rita to instead serve local families living in poverty before the recent exodus to Houston. Numerous charitable agencies protested the move, effectively stalling it for weeks, arguing it is not only impractical but also unethical to differentiate between native Houstonians and the evacuees who have set up in local apartments and begun to swell the lines at area shelters, employment agencies and soup kitchens. After all, says Carol Little of Northwest Assistance Ministries, "even if they were living in New Orleans when they came -- they're Houstonians now…So, what are you going to do?"

According to a study conducted by the Coalition for the Homeless, 4.3 percent of the 2,294 homeless surveyed blamed "flooding" for their current situation. "We took that to mean Allison," says Anthony Love, director of the Coalition for the Homeless. That supposition was supported by the time period covered by the survey and limited interviews with core focus groups. "There's no telling who was on the edge and this kind of pushed them over."

But for her three daughters, Maxine Jackson easily could have slipped into that number. She wasn't at home that second week of June in 2001, when more than two feet of rain fell, sending floodwaters washing down Oak Knoll Lane, battering her already leaky roof. She had just been discharged from the hospital after three months of on-again, off-again tuberculosis treatment that left a hole in her back and hip. At first she tried to handle her business herself, with FEMA and the northeast neighborhood's fix-it man. However, every time she saw the man, he was after a paycheck. "He kept hollering he needed money for supplies or he needed something to pay his men," Jackson says. In the end, she says, she had written over her entire FEMA check of $12,000 to the guy.

The contractor quickly put up a new roof, gutted the house, knocking several holes through the exterior walls, and disappeared. The Sheetrock that was replaced went up in pieces no bigger than one-foot squares, obvious remnants salvaged from other jobs, she says.

Bishop Marcellus Bolden of Abiding Love Church on East Houston Road met frequently with the city housing staff to try to get help for Jackson and five of his other elderly parishioners. He says that well before HUD stepped in, the city's housing program directors were unresponsive to their needs.

"Actually, they started shuffling her around even before that time," Bolden says. "What it boiled down to, all the people I referred didn't receive any help, and she didn't get any help at all. She got promises. I got promises. I called to follow up…It was real frustrating."

That left Jackson in the care of her three daughters and their families, who have each taken a year's shift caring for the 63-year-old. Each place she goes she dislodges at least one child from a bedroom. Each move strains family ties all the more. One granddaughter has recently taken to asking her to leave.

"She'll come get in my bed and I'll tell her, 'You can't sleep with me,' " she says of nine-year-old Cassie. "I know what she wants…They say they want their room back. They want their bed back. They want they stuff on they walls. You can't blame them. If I was a kid, I'd want the same thing too."

She never filed a complaint against the contractor, choosing instead to rely on Divine Justice to eventually catch up with the man. She feared what she might do if she caught hold of him. "It was God that stopped me from going after this man, because I'd be sittin' there sure enough crying in someone's prison somewhere."

Bolden went back to the city a year ago to see what was happening. He says he was told "they were working on it and that she was in the system and they were going to get to her, and I'm like, 'Well, okay. You guys haven't gotten to her yet.' "

All Skeete could offer was that his staff had found documentation that Jackson had been referred to the National Association of Minority Contractors, who have since rolled up shop, sealing all their records in an as-yet-undiscovered warehouse space. It is unclear if she will now be added to the city's rolls.

"Tropical Storm Allison created a quagmire, if you will," Skeete said. "It is also a tracking nightmare. We don't know necessarily what work was done and previously paid for because we don't have the particular details for each of the homes."

After being abandoned for several years, Jackson's home finally succumbed to thieves. Though she kept a padlock on the front door, the entry was wide open when she and a daughter checked on it while securing supplies ahead of Hurricane Katrina. After the storm passed, she went out again and noticed someone had nailed boards over the holes in the walls. She found a mattress on the living room floor. "I started to put it outside and I said, 'No, I'm going to let 'em go on with their work.' "

However, not only were the antique dresser drawers taken from the garage, and the chinaware and 100-plus piece Vietnamese silverware set swiped from the main house, but Jackson discovered that the property itself has been subjected to an apparently fraudulent sale. Jackson got the shock when she went downtown to get her tax statement and was told another name was now listed as owner of the property. After inquiring at the appraisal district, she was told that the person on her property's tax statement had been investigated recently by the Harris County district attorney's office.

Assistant District Attorney Mike Door says he has just begun looking into Jackson's situation but confirmed the name now listed on Jackson's property tax statement is the same as one he investigated in relation to another fraudulent sale. He told Jackson it was likely an alias and that he hadn't been able to track down the culprit. Yet Jackson's gospel enthusiasm hasn't been dampened. "The good thing about it is when I get my house back it's going to be fixed. I'll have my pastor go bless it and get those demons out so I can go in."

There were few complaints of contractor fraud immediately after Allison. However, the virtual flood of FEMA dollars that followed proved too great a temptation for circling opportunists, according to Russel Turbeville, chief of the consumer fraud division at the D.A.'s office. After a year of deceptive calm, contractor fraud cases exploded.

While only one or two contractor-related fraud investigations were launched annually before Allison, these days the D.A.'s office gets as many as five such complaints per week, Turbeville says. As many as 700 different contractor-related "situations" are handled every year. One case currently under investigation involves 8,000 homeowners, he says. Many involve mold remediation and testing companies.

"I think a lot of people got in the contracting business here when we were awash in FEMA money and they stayed. We're just covered up with bad contractors," Turbeville says.

One of those rare Allison cases involved Delta Thomas, who is retiring this month after 26 years with the city's Parks and Recreation Department. At 48, she's become too sick to work. Her failing kidneys were brought on by years of elevated blood pressure. That was exacerbated, according to Thomas and her doctor, after post-Allison financial strains made it difficult for her to buy her medicine, and conflict with a League City mold remediation firm played havoc with her stress level.

At Thomas's home, Allison's waters tapped the door but never entered. She counted herself among the lucky ones at first as her half-acre reduced itself over several weeks from swampy to soggy to its typical sun-baked state. As weeks turned to months, everyone in the house -- Thomas and her daughter, her niece and her niece's four children -- began to experience headaches, nosebleeds and, some days, vomiting. They discovered a home didn't have to flood to turn toxic. Black mold had invaded from the ground up, with the fungus spreading silently across the backsides of the living room floorboards.

"We were just amazed at the mold," Thomas says. "So the guy wanted to see how far the mold went. He ended up taking up the whole floor." Black mold also was discovered beneath the ceiling tiles around the house.

The group immediately left for a nearby apartment and worked out a deal with the insurance company and A-1 Global Services to clean the items left behind.

Thomas was Queen of the Southwestern Trail Riders Association when Allison struck. Some of her most prized possessions were her leather goods, including four saddles and horse tack and various expensive riding outfits. She requested these items back first.

"They called me and told me they had some bad news for me, and the bad news was that one of the saddles was going to be totaled out -- and guess which saddle it was? The brand-new one. The one I had just bought. And it wasn't the one that had the mold on it. That's when I started getting really suspicious. That's when I knew something was wrong."

Then, she says, those items the company left at her home -- a dining room set, a large television, a stereo -- were stolen out of the back of the house.

Thomas took her complaints to the company. They agreed to treat the saddles again when she insisted they were still moldy, but she had a hard time getting access to the warehouse where the rest of her property was supposedly being held. She needed her children's winter clothes, she said. Though she'd already paid over what the insurance company had sent for the work, A-1 refused to release her property, including the clothing. When she finally argued her way into the warehouse to view her things, she discovered that many items just weren't there, including her Western and trail-riding clothes. "I didn't get any of it back, any of it. I ended up with not a jacket at all, and I still don't have a jacket to this day."

She soon learned she wasn't the only one having problems with the company and joined a suit being led by the state attorney general's office.

The suit alleged A-1 was guilty of overbilling clients, failing to fulfill the terms of service and withholding or losing much of the property it was supposed to clean. In a settlement last year, the company agreed to pay 45 former Houston-area customers close to $75,000 in restitution for damaged or missing items and poor service. The company further reimbursed the state $52,000 for legal expenses and agreed to more than 25 conditions to future service, according to court records.

While A-1 officials refused to comment on the settlement, complaints appear to be on the downturn. In the last three years, the Houston Better Business Bureau has processed 21 complaints against A-1 Global. That number has dwindled to three over the past 12 months.

Eventually, Thomas and her niece parted ways. Today, settled in a two-bedroom apartment in South Houston, Thomas won't let her ten-year-old daughter leave the four- by six-foot balcony area unsupervised. They rarely have time to ride. Her daughter wants to know when they're "going home," but Thomas hasn't the heart to admit to her youngster that this is it. She sold the old place for a fraction of its value after years of keeping up the note while paying monthly apartment bills. The financial strain of those years has put her back despite years of working to get ahead.

"Me and my friends, we thought about going down there and picketing. We really did," Thomas says. "I've cried on many a night."

Of all those bounced around, shuffled and ripped off, Caldwell received perhaps the most thorough experience. After a disastrous dance through the nonprofit world left her bereft of heat and furniture and stranded in a house of mold, files began appearing in numerous city departments expressing how dire her situation was. While the letters rode the bureaucratic wind for a time, they all seemed to settle in a chasm of institutional amnesia.

Mayor Bill White wrote Caldwell personally in April '04 after receiving a detailed letter from her about her problems. He said he was assigning someone to investigate her claims. He could have simply rung up the Urban League or the health department or even the housing department. By that time all of them had information on file confirming Caldwell was indeed living in an extremely hazardous environment.

Former housing director Daisy Stiner wrote Caldwell three months before White's letter that the broken sewer line was causing the mold growth in and around the house and that they were asking the Urban League to get a plumber to fix the lines. Urban League officials, however, said they had already spent their allotted amount on the repairs and would not hire a plumber.

Randy Oates, environmental specialist with the Harris County Bureau of Occupational Health and Radiation Control, checked out the situation and wrote Caldwell on March 9, 2004, that because of the mold-generating sewage that was still surfacing on her property and from her drains, her home was "not a safe place to live."

He continued, "It is also my opinion the property should be vacated and remain vacant until your sewer pipes are properly repaired, the moisture problem inside and outside the home is properly corrected, and mold growth inside the home is abated."

Ten days later he wrote to confirm lab samples had come back positive for black mold. Not exactly revolutionary information, since mold was first identified by the All-U-Need serviceman in the winter of '01. Still, no one had moved to get her out of the house or make the needed repairs, Caldwell says.

As she worked herself up the chain, she eventually got in touch with the office of U.S. Representative Al Green. Green seemed to take an interest. She says he promised to take care of her, to get her out of her home until repairs could be made (Lucinda Daniels, district director for Green's office in Houston, says the pledge was more broadly stated: simply to do whatever they could to help). After Green had all her moldy furniture tossed out, appearing briefly to have his picture taken alongside her outside the house for a press release, he never returned. To add insult to injury, the charity was noted in the Final Call, the Nation of Islam's official paper. Caldwell complains that she didn't know a reporter was present and that she was wrongly quoted as saying that a contractor ran off with her money. Press coverage and refuse service wasn't all Green offered. He proceeded to report Caldwell to Adult Protective Services.

Daniels says that Green went to APS looking for help for Caldwell, not, as Caldwell feared, to find a place to put her. Green also began a round of talks with Mayor White and the housing department about ways to assist Caldwell and others in her condition. But when police came around recently banging on her doors and windows, shouting, "Police officers! Open up!" Caldwell was sure they were there to take her away and dump her in some nursing home. She hid silently inside until they went away. The banging was so loud her sister heard it over the phone. She was surprised to discover it was White who had asked the police to investigate.

Caldwell had appeared before City Council in early October to find out what was going to be done about her case and to try to spark White's memory. The mayor didn't seem to recall the case. Following the meeting, he asked a Houston Police Department officer to investigate, stating in a faxed service request, "Can an inspector check this out? I cannot tell whether there is a legitimate complaint or not."

Frank Michel, spokesperson for Mayor White, says the mayor's office has tried to find ways to assist Caldwell but is at an impasse. Since $27,000 in community block grants has already been spent on Caldwell's house, HUD won't allow it to be torn down and rebuilt, as she has requested. "Once you spend money on refurbishing, the rules say you can't tear down," Michel says.

Caldwell has since quit talking to politicians. Neither does she talk with nonprofit directors or city department heads. In fact, she has written to every office she has had dealings with and requested copies of her files. She also asked that all future communications be done by mail. No more phone calls. "I've been lied to so much," she says in a voice full of exhaustion. "I don't have the money to get caught in a loophole. My family doesn't have the money to support me with all my health issues…Until I get justice, I'm not stopping."

Urban League President Brooks says it's "really unfortunate" that all of the agencies and departments involved never managed to come together and resolve Caldwell's case. Too many minor repairs were being approved after Allison, she says, when more money for major rebuilding projects was needed. "It's something I don't think was addressed, the whole cost -- particularly after Allison. Those houses need to come down. You really need to make a major investment in getting it done right."

That these "contractors from hell" were allowed to operate without discretion on Caldwell's house probably represented "everyone's bad," according to Councilmember Ada Edwards, who wrote several letters to the housing department on Caldwell's behalf. "FEMA is crazy. And if you're not too adroit at working crazy systems, you can get messed up. I feel for Ms. Caldwell…There are a lot of people who have fallen through the cracks from Allison."

Though her doctor seems to have decided her spine can wait, she is scheduled for another throat surgery this month because of the increase in infections, Caldwell says. She's supposed to use a whirlpool system in her tub twice a day to aid circulation in her legs but has gone without for years. Because of her severely depressed immune system, Caldwell says, she can bathe with only bottled water. But to date, only one agency has responded to that request -- and that was a onetime delivery. Still, the mold persists in the corners of her home and under the clear plastic she has placed over her tub and shower stall. Still, she fights, she says, on behalf of all those who can't do it for themselves.

Bishop Bolden says people are quick to lend aid when it is called for but too quick to believe a problem is solved. "People think, 'Okay, I've done something for the people of the storm and that's it.' But I don't think there's enough follow-up to know for sure, 'Have I really helped this person, or are they really going to get the help they need to have life at least as it was before the storm?' "

Those hounded to Houston by Rita and Katrina will soon learn the lesson of Allison's rejects, he says. "Just in a few more months Katrina people are going to be forgotten altogether. We've been through it, so I know."

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