Houstonians Find Sense of Community Amid Hurricane-Smashed Homes

Houston resident Bill Cook turned his home into a workshop as he rebuilt it after Hurricane Harvey. (Courthouse News photos by James Palmer.)

HOUSTON (CN) — Forced to flee their homes on boats a year ago as Hurricane Harvey parked over Houston, residents left behind family heirlooms, housefuls of furniture and countless possessions. But the real work came after the flood receded, leaving ruined homes packed with mud and debris.

Many homes remain abandoned today, with shattered windows, visible mud and water lines and gutted interiors. Other residents were able to rebuild and make their damaged houses into homes once again, a Herculean task.

Norma Sierra, 64, lives in the Northside District, 8 miles north of downtown. Street runoff and overflow from a bayou converged on her modest three-bedroom home during the storm, flooded it with 14 inches of water and soaked the ground underneath it, damaging its foundation so badly a fault line appeared in its floor tiles.

“My house is cracking in half, but we’ve got to be here. Where else are we going to go?” she said with a laugh shortly after the storm.

A year later, she’s still punctuating her words with laughter, perhaps as a way to cope. Her living room floor is bare because the man she paid $3,000 to fix the place stripped the floor tiles and sheetrock, then disappeared, leaving her all the debris to haul away.

The wall behind the fireplace was one of the few left standing in this
abandoned house in Bear Creek Village.

She has advice for flood victims: “Be very careful. And don’t give money if they want it. Don’t give it, no matter what they say. Find you another contractor if they want the money upfront. Don’t trust.”

Sierra said her son found the contractor, who talked a good game. “He said he was a Marine and a churchgoing person and he was starting his business and to give him a chance.”

She said the crook “made a bad name for the Marines. Even when I texted him I go, ‘You’re not a man of honor. So don’t be using the Marines.’”

Sierra said she did not file a police report because the man’s wife was pregnant.

“I was giving him the option to have a conscience.”

Sierra and her husband are diabetics on a fixed income, so the loss had delayed their renovations.

“I put everything on hold right now. It’s too stressful to be moving stuff and doing stuff,” she said.

Homes in Bear Creek Village, like this one, were hit particularly hard.

Tinette Faith Yoder lives in Bear Creek Village, a subdivision that was hit particularly hard due to overflowing reservoirs in surrounding areas in west Houston. Just days before the storm hit, she and her husband, John, had just finished remodeling their home. Though they expected to see a few inches of water inside their home, Yoder said her husband was confident the house would not suffer too greatly.

“We entered and we saw mud, slime and all that kind of stuff,” Yoder said.

Unsure where to start, Yoder began by preserving items that had not been damaged. The next day, she and her neighbors started receiving help from volunteers.

The Yoders had no flood insurance, so they were not sure at first if they could stay. They wanted to remain close to John’s mother, but did not know if they could afford to rebuild. They managed to find a contractor to repair their home within a specified budget.

During the project, the Yoders slept in tents in their back yard for nearly five months. They managed to stay relatively comfortable through the winter months with heavy quilts and a heater.

Pony Peterson, Yoder’s sister-in-law, also lives in Bear Creek Village, with her husband and an array of cats and dogs. Peterson intended to stay in her home and wait out the flood, but had to flee to stay with her aunt. However, the pet situation became untenable and she had to leave because other relatives, including Yoder and her mother and father, were also flooded out of their homes.

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The Petersons borrowed a camping trailer from friends until they could buy one of their own while they continued to rebuild their home, without the help of a contractor.

“This is what I told people: ‘We’re going to rebuild it knowing that it’s going to flood again, so we’re making those decisions. It’s not going to be shabby-chic’ it’s just going to be shabby,’” Peterson said.

The Petersons reclaimed discarded furniture and construction supplies and found some items at estate sales. Instead of using drywall, they rebuilt some walls with thin sheets of wood. They rebuilt the kitchen cabinets and counters with reclaimed wooden tables.

Ultimately, Peterson said, she viewed the flood not as a hardship, but as God’s blessing. She said that after the difficult rebuild, she loves the house in its “shabby” form more than she did before the flood.

Linda Litt, another Bear Creek Village resident, moved what she could onto the second floor of her home and stayed in an apartment while she waited out the flood. When she returned, little of her furniture was salvageable, except for a wrought iron bookshelf and a dining table base. Most of the furniture had to be replaced, and the house itself required renovations.

Litt said she was overwhelmed by the task. “You kind of have to run around helter-skelter,” she said. But flood insurance made it possible to rebuild her house.

“I’m not sure what I would have done (without it),” Litt said.

As the downstairs began to take shape again, Litt moved her personal items down from the second floor, including family photographs. “Each step that I took really kind of bolstered my spirits to do a little more,” she said.

Litt said her religious faith helped her keep going for the past year.

“I’m the one that gives myself hope,” she said. “I’m not a quitter.”

She said she appreciated the camaraderie the community showed after the storm hit, bringing neighbors together in a time of need, creating closer relationships among them all.

Despite the thousands of ruined homes and billions of dollars in damage, Houstonians have come together in the past year to rebuild not just their homes, but their sense of community.

“We meet out on the curb a lot more often,” Litt said. “You know, checking on each other.”

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