Tammy Gunnels Flooding Story: Ten Times in Ten Years

If they kept world records for flooding, surely Tammy Gunnels would have the gold medal. Her home flooded 10 times in 10 years, once due to Hurricane Harvey and the other times due to inadequate or damaged storm drains on her street. The lady, who works as a maid and has scrubbed toilets for 33 years, has sought help from Montgomery County, the State of Texas, and FEMA – all to no avail. But rather than walk away from her mortgage, she and her husband have spent a quarter of a million dollars on flood mitigation for an $80,000 house. This family not only slipped between the cracks, it got swallowed by them. Learn how two people’s lives changed forever when they bought a house from an unscrupulous seller who hid past flooding problems. I interviewed Tammy in her modest home in a modest neighborhood called River Club Estates. The neighborhood is between Sorters Road and the West Fork of the San Jacinto in Montgomery County.

Tammy Gunnels baking Christmas cookies in her kitchen with her son Justin Davis and husband Ronnie Gunnels.

Rehak: When did you buy this house?

Gunnels: In December of ’08, exactly ten years ago.

A low lot and inadequate drainage: a bad combination for the Gunnels family.

Rehak: When did you first flood?

Gunnels: Four months later, in April, ’09. We’ve flooded nine more times since. If the forecast calls for 2 to 5 inches, we have to prep for flooding. Before we built a concrete berm that runs 8 inches below and 8 inches above ground around the house, a heavy rain would flood us in half an hour. Now, it takes about two hours of heavy rain. It all depends on how fast it comes down.

Rehak: How do you prep for a flood?

Gunnels: We put all of our furniture up on wooden blocks that we store out in the garage. The only carpets we have now are area rugs, so we roll those up and put them up on couches or tables. 

Extensive Flood Mitigation Efforts

Rehak: What else have you tried to mitigate flooding?

Gunnels: Everything anyone has ever suggested. The first thing to go was carpets. For a while, we tried indoor/outdoor carpets. A contractor told us we could just suck up the water after a flood with a shop vac and then dry it out with fans. But that theory only lasted until the septic backed up. So we ripped everything out and then painted the concrete. But floods make the paint bubble up. We repainted a couple times and spot painted for four years. Then after Harvey, we realized “NO MORE.” I wanted something that I never had to mess with again. So, we went to stained concrete.

Rehak: It’s beautiful. How do you like it? 

Gunnels: When we get water, my husband shop-vacs it up and we’re good.

Rehak: What else have you done?

Gunnels: We have three-inch plastic baseboards instead of wood. They never rot. They are clipped into place so we can remove them before water starts coming in.

Removable kick plate conceals flood space under elevated cabinets.

We raised all the cabinets and sinks up off the floor, like in a motel. Some of those have removable plastic kick plates, too.

Because we usually only get a couple inches in the house, our sheetrock no longer goes all the way to the floor. It stops 2 inches short. We’ve installed pre-treated studs everywhere, even on the inside of the house. We use green board, which is made out of cement, instead of normal wall board which soaks up water. We’ve installed gutters and downspouts to carry the water away from the house. And we’ve put in French drains for the same reason. We’ve even elevated appliances like the water heater.

Wallboard stops above floor. All studs made from pre-treated timber, even in interior of house.

Rehak: How much water did you have in the house during Harvey.

Gunnels: Over 4 feet. That was from the river, not the street.

Source of Problems

Rehak: Do other people in the neighborhood have the same problems?

Gunnels: Since we’ve been here, aside from Harvey and the Tax Day Flood, no one else has flooded except for us and the house next door. When it starts to rain, water is supposed to drain out through the neighborhood. But there’s not enough slope or capacity to carry it away. We’re at a low point, in a little bowl.

First time we flooded was from a flash flood. We got 4 or 5 inches. Nobody in the whole, entire neighborhood flooded but us.

Insurance approved repairs up to two feet. Once we cut into the walls, we saw water marks three feet up on the studs. The people we bought the house from only disclosed two floods, neither more than a couple inches, and said it was because of the lack of maintenance from the county. We found evidence of other floods that were much worse when we started to investigate.

From Misrepresentation to Mitigation

Rehak: How did that affect your insurance?

Gunnels: When we bought the house, we were in the 500-year flood zone. So, our insurance was only $285.

After our very first flood, State Farm said you’ll have to go direct to FEMA; you’re high risk. That’s when we learned how bad the problem was. FEMA told us the house had flooded FIVE times. The sellers only disclosed two and said water had never gotten over the baseboards. That was an outright lie from the water marks under the wall board.

Once we found out all that, our contractor recommended that we build a concrete berm 8 inches below and 8 inches above ground around the house. So, we sunk money into that. We were good for a couple years. We later realized that our “good luck” was the drought. The following year, we flooded three times in a seven-week period. As soon as we got sheet rock cut, it would flood again. It just would not stop!

Don’t forget to step up when you leave through the front door!

When State Farm sent us to FEMA, FEMA wanted $2,000 per year. After constructing the berm, gutters, French drains, and more, my husband and I felt we would be OK without the insurance.

Hit Five Times in One Year Without Insurance

Then we got hit five times in one year. When I tried to get insurance, they now wanted $3,000 a year. But we hadn’t made any claims except for that one in ’09.

Not even a concrete wall around the exterior of the house was enough to stop the flooding. 
Gunnels tries to sop up the leakage with extra sheets
.

We had done everything anyone had told us to do. Except for elevating the house. We got three different estimates for that. Not including electrical, plumbing or anything else, the lowest was over $100,000. That just wasn’t feasible for us.

Not Enough Claims Means No Buyout

At this point we were up to six or seven floods. Then the Tax Day flood happened. That’s when Montgomery County stepped in. They said, “We’re going to start offering buyouts. We asked for one, but they said, “You don’t qualify because you haven’t maintained insurance.”

I said, “Because I didn’t file claims, you won’t offer a buyout?”  He said, “Unfortunately, that’s the way the system works.

So, we bit the bullet and got insurance in 2015. In our bathrooms, our vanities and everything are elevated. There’s nothing touching the floor.

Example of elevating cabinets to reduce flood damage.

I had my kitchen cabinets specially built. The kick plates are removable. They’re made out of plastic and clipped on. In a flood, I can pull off those kickplates and let the water go under. Usually, we only get a couple inches.

Rehak: But in Harvey the whole neighborhood flooded?

Gunnels: Pretty much. Just a few homes that sit up higher did not flood.

Advice For Others

Rehak: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give homebuyers to avoid the situation you’re in?

Gunnels: Buy flood insurance and file a claim every time it floods.

Also, I didn’t know you could get a history. Of course, sellers should disclose. But sometimes they conceal things. Don’t take the seller’s word for it. Get a print out from FEMA. They’ll give you a history on any property that’s had a flood claim on it. Also, talk to neighbors. It’s very important to talk to the neighbors because we flooded without insurance, so it’s not on record. But our neighbors know.

FEMA had paid out a total of a quarter million dollars on this property BEFORE our claims. We’ve now made three. 

Rehak: FEMA paid $250K. You put another $250K into it. So you have half a million dollars into a house that cost $80K. 

Gunnels: (Laughs.) Yeah, pretty much. In a home built in 1967. It makes absolutely no sense.

Search for Help from Officials

I clean homes for a living. One of my clients is a lawyer. After Harvey, she sent some letters for me, trying to get a buyout. But the answer we got was, “No funds available, Montgomery County is no longer doing buyouts.” 

I don’t know who to contact at this point. I contacted county commissioners Jim Clark and Ed Rinehart. I’ve contacted Cecil Bell, our state representative. I have already made plans to call the new county commissioner James Metz. He starts in January. We’ve talked to FEMA numerous times.

The county engineers came out and explained how the drainage works.

They said we need a wide drain that goes from Sorters Road to Lana Lane.  We said, “Well, build it.” They said, “We can’t. It’s on private property.”

When the property owners gave them permission, they said, “Oh no, we can’t. It’s too much of a liability. We can’t do that.”

My neighbor uncovered some emails saying they were going to do it, and then somehow, the money wasn’t there for them anymore.

Emotional Losses Compound Financial Losses

Rehak: Financially, the floods have been devastating for you. How have you survived emotionally?

Gunnels: In every flood, I’ve lost something. I inherited things from my great grandmother, grandmother and mother. Slowly but surely, over nine or ten floods, I have lost everything they gave me. After each flood, I told myself that “It’s just stuff.” But at a certain point, I said, “It’s my stuff.”  

The hundred-year-old family bible Gunnels inherited from her mother: an irreplaceable loss to flooding.

Everything that you look at in this house is brand new. Everything. From the lamps to the tables. To the throw rugs. I have lost everything. But with Harvey. This was lost. (She plops a swollen book on the table; at first I don’t recognize what it is.) This is my mother’s family bible from 1918. I can’t turn the pages because they are stuck together. (She breaks down crying.)  That is what it does to me. 

Gunnels’ husband and son return from an errand.

No Way Out

Rehak: What would you like to do now if you could do anything?

Gunnels: Get bought out. Give me anything. A FEMA trailer and a piece of land. I’ll be happy. 

My grandkids who visit every two weeks religiously have their own room here and they have lost everything, too. They can’t keep toys or a doll house or anything here. In EVERY flood, we lose something..

The first thing people say when they hear about our situation is, “Well, just move.” “Really? Where are we going to move to?” We’ve even looked into walking away from this house and letting it go into foreclosure. But that ruins our credit. We wouldn’t even qualify to rent a plastic shed from Home Depot.”

“We also looked into buying another house while we still owned this one. But the bank wanted to see a year of payments made on two places before loaning the money.” There’s just nothing that anyone can suggest that we haven’t looked into.

Fighting a Tax Increase

Rehak: So, I’m guessing that if you’re running Tammy’s Maid Service and you’ve sunk a quarter million dollars into this place, you’re not a shirker.”

Gunnels: Right! (Laughs.) I’m not high educated, but I’ve scrubbed toilets for 33 years. We’ve worked for what we have.

The Montgomery County Appraisal District wanted to raise our taxes one year.  “Oh ho ho,” I said. “You want to raise my taxes on thisplace? They tried to come at me with, “The home over here is worth this and the home over there is worth that.”

I said, “Look at the pictures. You got raw sewage in the ditch. I flooded this many times.” They dropped our valuation down to $60-something thousand dollars. At first, they tried to argue with us. But the board voted unanimously to lower our appraisal.

Montgomery County wanted to increase the appraisal on Gunnels’ flood-prone property, but ultimately backed down.

If this house didn’t flood, it would be worth about $160,000 with all the improvements we made. We upgraded everything. We even replaced all the wiring in the house. Replaced aluminum with copper. Put in smoke detectors. A new breaker box. The works.

I’m not asking for anything more than what I have. I’ll even take smaller. As long as it doesn’t flood.

Gunnel’s Husband: My family all lives near here. So it’s important to us that we stay in the neighborhood.

Impact on Retirement and Savings

Rehak: What next for the Gunnels family?

Gunnels: Every single time a claim is paid out on this house now, it’s taxpayer money. We waste taxes on this. 

Rehak: How much have you received in flood insurance claim reimbursements?

Gunnels: About $180,000.

Home Wet Home! No way to live with it and no way to leave it.

Rehak: What has happened to your savings?

Gunnels: We’ve burned through his 401K and every bit of savings we had. DONE! He is 53. I will be 49 next month. To our name, we have about four grand in savings.

Gunnels’ Husband: I didn’t know we had that much!

All: (Belly laughs.)

Gunnels: He’s got a little bit left in his 401K. Maybe 20 grand.

Rehak: That’s not going to last very long in retirement. 

Gunnels:  One year. Maybe. Everybody I talked to has empathy, but apparently there is no sympathy … because “Here we are.”

This was going to be our retirement home. When we moved here, we still had two kids left in school between us. Now they’ve moved on and we have grandkids. This was going to be our last home ever. We were fixing to die in this home. And we probably WILL. 

Everyone: (More belly laughs.)

Posted by Bob Rehak on December 28, 2018

486 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The Great Escape: Rebecca Johansen’s Hurricane Harvey Experience

Rebecca Johansen is a Kingwood-based CPA, specializing in taxes. Before Hurricane Harvey, using technology and remote capabilities, she was able to work primarily from her home in the Enclave. Almost 15 months later, she’s finally back in her home, but “scared to death” of the possibility of another flood. Her journey since Harvey has been a remarkable blend of heroism and humility. The only constants in her life have been stress, Lysol and sleep deprivation. Now, at age 62, her main goals in life are simply to enjoy the holidays with her family and not see a waterline on her walls. This is the sixth in a series of interviews with Harvey survivors.

Rebecca Johansen today in her kitchen, remodeled for the second time in two years. Her elderly neighbor, Jean, perched on the granite countertop during Harvey, waiting for rescuers.

Rehak: Tell me about the night of the flood.

Johansen: I owned a small generator. I remembered being without electricity during Ike for two weeks and didn’t want to go through that again. I didn’t think we would flood, but I was certain we would lose power.

Helping Elderly Neighbor

After I got my generator started, I went over to my neighbor’s house. She was 85 at the time. Her name is Jean. I said, “Come on. You’re spending the night at my house.” She refused at first, but I didn’t want her to be there by herself in the dark, especially if we flooded. She had almost drowned as a young girl and was deathly afraid of water, so we packed her medications and a change of clothes. I set her up in a spare room with a little lamp and a TV. About 10 p.m., Jean went to sleep.

Shortly after that, things started to go downhill. We started getting water in the garage, so I had to turn off the generator. Then, it was pitch black. I thought we would just get an inch or two, so I started putting stuff up on tables.

Calls for Help Go Unanswered

It was kind of hard to do in the dark. Then about 2 o’clock in the morning, water started coming in the house, too. After a while, I figured I had to get Jean someplace safer, so I put her on my kitchen counter. I told her that as soon as daybreak came, I would try to get us help. But the water was coming up pretty fast. I called 911, but I couldn’t get through.

Desperate Attempts to Attract Rescuers

When daybreak finally came, the water was coming up and up and up. I went out into the street because I could hear helicopters. But we have so many trees. They couldn’t see me. Eventually the water in the street was up to here (gesturing to her chest).

I tried crawling up on the brick wall between our houses, anything to be seen. No luck. I kept going out to find help and back in to check Jean. This went on for a while.

Eventually I made my way down the street, waving a white shirt. Finally, a helicopter saw me. They looped around and lowered a man down on a cable.

I was so worried about Jean. At one point, I went back in to check on her and she saw one of my shoes float by. She said, “Rebecca, I always did like those shoes.” We both laughed.

Rehak: You were rescued by helicopter?

Evacuation and Search for Remaining Residents

Johansen: No, he called for a boat. I can’t say enough about how professional everyone was. He was so kind. Jean was stressed. He reassured her. He said, “Everything’s going to be OK.” Then he took her up in his arms. By that time, a Coast Guard woman had come in and the two of them got her in the boat. They were just stellar.

They asked me if I knew who else on the street needed to be rescued. Then I told them about another neighbor. They went to her house and banged on the front door, but no one answered. They came back and said, “No one’s home, so we’re moving on.” I said, “I can’t believe that she isn’t there. She wouldn’t just leave the two of us here if rescuers came.”

Rescuing More Neighbors

We were about to leave. They had called another boat in to help a lady across the street. Our boat just idled for a minute to make sure they didn’t need assistance when I saw my other neighbor waving in the front window. I said “She’s there! We gotta go back.” So they went back and came out with this large suitcase. Presumably, she had been in the back of her house packing some things when they first knocked and didn’t hear them. She followed them out with another bag and a cat in one of those cat things. Then we left by boat.

“Wearing” Debris on Long, Wet Boat Ride

I had debris all in my hair and clothes. The debris that came through there was just unbelievable.

Rehak: Give me some examples.  Woody?

Johansen: That kind of stuff, plus trash. I didn’t even realize at the time that the floating debris had injured me. You’re just in “fight or flight” mode. This whole arm was black and blue. It looked like someone had just beat me.

Chemical storage tank that washed up in Rebecca Johansen’s yard during Harvey.Note mud line on wall relative to the height of the people on the right.

So, they get her in the boat. We pull out. We’re on our way across Kingwood Drive, through the H-E-B parking lot, It’s pouring rain. They dropped us off by the Park ‘n Ride. We had to walk a fair distance to where you could get a ride.

Volunteers Help Transfer to Creekwood Middle School

Finally, a very nice man with his wife and daughter took us over to Creekwood Middle School in their pickup.

Rehak: Did Creekwood stay dry throughout the ordeal?

Johansen: Yes, but there was no power. Jean has compromised lungs, so I was very worried about her. She got soaked.

I said, “Jean, we have to get you into some dry clothes.” So, we go in the ladies’ room. I had a little flash light. It took her about 20 minutes to change into dry clothes, then I changed. My clothes weren’t dry, but at least they didn’t have twigs in them.

At Creekwood, the community response was overwhelming. Drinks. Water. Snacks. Clothing. Shoes. People brought food and everything you could imagine. It was amazing how quickly people responded. Just amazing.

So Bruised, Doctor Suspected “I was Battered Wife”

The next day I got an infection. Of course, I’d lost my car, so I got a ride to a clinic. I told the doctor I was there for an infection and he looked at me like I was crazy. I think he thought I was a battered wife.  He said, “What in the wide world happened to you?” It was from all the flood debris bumping into me.

Rehak: How long were you in Creekwood?

Johansen: Not long. Jean’s son-in-law and daughter live in Kingwood Lakes. She has another daughter who lives in Atascocita. They were frantic, just beside themselves, worried about Jean. I let them know that she was OK and that I had her at Creekwood. They had flooded too, but had some friends pick us up. Thank God, we didn’t have to worry about that, too!

Sheltered by Strangers

For the first few days, we all stayed with the friends. I didn’t know them, but Jean said, “Stay with me.” She wanted us to be together, so I stayed four or five days, then found somewhere else.

(Johansen chokes up at this point.)

Rehak: How long did it take you to get back to your house after the flood?

Johansen: The water came up fast and went down fast. We got rescued sometime during the morning. Then a couple of days went by. I guess it was on the third day that I got to my house.

The water had drained out. It was just mud, gunk, and a couple of dead fish. It’s amazing how 40 inches of water can move things around your house. The refrigerator turned over. Furniture scattered everywhere. The garage doors buckled from water pushing against them. It was the worst sight you can imagine.

No Warnings to Evacuate

Rehak: Did you get any warnings to evacuate?

Johansen: No.

Rehak: Did you know that they were releasing water from the dam?

Johansen: No. I figured they would have to release something, but nothing like what they released. I was more worried about the power outage than the flood.

Rehak: When you first sensed that water was coming in the house, was it already too late to get your car and evacuate?

Johansen: Yes. No one could get out. Before nightfall, Kingwood Drive was already blocked off.

To not start the dam release earlier and issue proper warnings…someone really dropped the ball. That’s my personal feeling. A week before, we all knew that this storm was going to move slowly and drop a lot of rain, so I’m at a loss as to why there wasn’t an earlier release.

Battling Inexperienced Insurance Adjuster

Rehak: Did you have flood insurance?

Any place can flood. The drain on your street could get plugged with debris and you would flood. I never thought I’d need it, but yes, I had it. Thank God.

Rehak: Did you battle with adjusters and contractors?

Johansen: I think my first adjuster had never done any adjusting before. She was terrible. I ended up being a squeaky wheel. I couldn’t even get her out to the property. Eventually I got through to somebody. My insurance agent, called me. He said, “Rebecca, I don’t know whose cage you rattled, but they are going to call you and offer another adjuster. I got a call within the hour. He showed up at 8 a.m. the next morning.

At that point, I was still pretty sleep deprived. I forgot to discuss some things. So I called him back the next morning. He said, he would proceed quickly and not to worry. After three and a half weeks of hell with the first adjuster, this guy got it done in two days. I guess my perseverance paid off.

Everything was a battle at that time. You have to get a contractor. File insurance claims. Buy a new car. Find a place to live. Fight for attention with millions of other people! All at once.

Lucking Out with Great Contractor

Luckily, I had a great contractor, Randy White, owner of Superior Home Renovations. He had done my kitchen the year before. Unfortunately! (We chuckle at her joke, i.e., how she got to replace her kitchen twice in one year.)

Randy is a very good man. He’s local. He does excellent work. He’s honest. And right after the flood, he showed up to check on me to see if I was OK. Randy White was a godsend. I like him personally and I would recommend him to anyone. He’s been there for me through this whole thing.

Rehak: How long did it take him to get all the work done?

Johansen: Until mid-June. They’re still working on some things. Like I just got the exterior painted last week. But the house is basically complete. They’re just finishing punch-list items. I’m so grateful that I have Randy.

Jean Gets Back in Her Home

Rehak: What happened to Jean?

Johansen: Jean wanted to get back in her house. Kyle and Charlie Campbell, her daughter and son-in-law found a contractor for her. They hadn’t even started on their own house by the time they got Jean back in hers. Right after the flood, she was very ill with pneumonia and was hospitalized. She had a rough time, so she was everyone’s focus.

Kyle and Charlie are now working on their house in Kingwood Lakes while living with Jean.

Enclave Still the Place to Be

Rehak: Tell me about the Enclave.

Johansen: You know before the flood, people were clamoring to get into that neighborhood. Location. Location. Location. Houses were selling quickly … especially if they had updates. Everybody wanted to live in the Enclave. It skewed to retired people because it’s one story, small yards, that kind of thing. But there’s a mixture of people. The location is wonderful; there’s so much that’s walkable. You could live your life and not go much more than a mile in any direction.

I love it; I intend to live the rest of my life there as long as I’m healthy enough. But if I go through another flood again, I won’t rebuild.

Single and Senior: How She Did It

Rehak: You’re single?

Johansen: Yes.

Rehak: That makes it harder.

Johansen: Yep. No back up. Everything is on your shoulders. My livelihood. Everything.

Rehak: How did you do it?

Johansen: “One hour at a time. Also, I ended up staying with a friend who was also a client. Her husband passed away about four years ago. She travels a lot. She doesn’t have any children. And she’s super nice. She said to me, “Rebecca, I’m gone quite a bit. Why don’t you stay at my house? It’s quiet.” She lives in Sand Creek. So I stayed there and am grateful for all that she did for me. I was working seven days a week. You don’t ever do it all by yourself. People help. I was lucky to have my son, daughter, family, and so many friends and colleagues who reached out to help me. I can’t thank them enough.

Best Way to Help: “Just Show Up”

Rehak: Tell me about the help you got.

Johansen: This whole thing taught me something. If something really bad happens, and I am in a position to help, I’m not going to call and say, “What can I do to help?” I’m just going to show up. That’s what you do. You just show up. You look around and you start doing things. The people that did that for me were so special. I will be forever grateful.

Rehak: Before the flood, you worked primarily at home. Did you lose a lot of records?

Johansen: Yes. A lot of equipment was destroyed along with most of my physical files. Luckily, my main computer, laptop and backup hard drive survived.

Ensuring Flooded Files Were Destroyed Properly

Rehak: What did you do with all the files that flooded?

Johansen: That was one of the most stressful parts of the flood. I had fourteen 4-drawer file cabinets locked up in my garage and several inside. Each flooded except for the top drawer. I had to figure out how to destroy all the flooded records. No one would take them wet and you can’t just have somebody haul off records like that. I had to find a safe way to dispose of them.

I pulled all the drawers out and ServePro built a tent over them in the garage. Dehumidifiers and fans ran under the tent for four and a half weeks. When I took the tent off, I found the paper had expanded so much, it buckled the drawers. I couldn’t get anything out!

So one Sunday, we loaded all the drawers up in trucks and drove them a hundred miles north of Houston to some private property. With a hammer, I beat all those file drawers apart and got the files out.

Then we poured diesel fuel over them. It was hard to get them to burn at first. But eventually, they did. It took all day. I got back very late that night.

Late-Night Resurrection of Crucial Files

Once I got that off my plate, there were some files we had to resurrect. They went back under the tent for another week. They came out gnarly looking, let me tell you. Mud and gunk everywhere. When they were all dry, I sprayed them with Lysol and once that dried, I boxed them. Every day, I was up at my new office location till all hours peeling papers, making copies, shredding and reconstructing. A friend called me in December and said, “OK, what letter of the alphabet are you up to now?”

I was working at that seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, just trying to get back to where I could function.

Rehak: Will you ever go back to working at home?

Johansen: The thought of going through that again just scares me to death. I can’t do it.

“I Know This Has Changed Me”

Rehak: What do you want your future to be? (I catch her off guard. There’s a LOOOOOONG pause.)

Johansen: You know I’ve been in recovery mode so long, I’ve just started to think about that.

I want to have a little family reunion with my son and daughter up near Seattle. We’ve arranged a trip to a little Bavarian town in the Cascades called Leavenworth. I just want to be with my kids. (Choking up again.) It’s kind of hard to talk about. I know this has changed me.

Rehak: How so?

Johansen: Well, it’s definitely taken a physical toll. I’ve started to think about what I want to do with the rest of my life and how I want to live it, because all you have is today.  Things can change just like that (snapping fingers).

I’d also like to have a little bit of peaceful time back in my house and not see the water line on the wall.

Rehak: (Joking) Gee, you want it all!

Johansen: (Laughs)

 

Posted by Bob Rehak on November 15, 2018

443 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Harvey Experiences of Robert Westover and Pat Klemz at Kingwood Village Estates  

Harvey’s floodwaters at Kingwood Village Estates in the heart of Kingwood, 1.4 miles from the San Jacinto River

Interviewed by Bob Rehak:

In 50 years of professional writing, this is the hardest story I have ever written. Twelve people died. Seniors. People like me. Had they evacuated sooner, many might still be alive. But there was no warning until water started creeping under the doors of Kingwood Village Estates at 3 a.m., on August 29th, 2017.

Kingwood Village Estates is a gorgeous retirement community in the heart of Kingwood. It contains 120 condominiums and a clubhouse nestled around tranquil, tree-lined streets.

Today, a casual observer would never know Kingwood Village Estates flooded. 

Residents range in age from 65 to 95. Some have lived there 20 years. That’s remarkable given the age of residents. Many are widowed. Many have impairments. But all still live independently … with help from each other. It’s a tight-knit community.

Robert Westover is the property manager. Pat Klemz, at 65, is the youngest resident and president of the condo association. This is the story of how they got more than 75 people out alive during Harvey. Sadly, it’s also the story of how twelve later died of injuries sustained during the surprise evacuation or the stress that followed.

The Day Before the Flood

Rehak: “Tell me about the day before the evacuation.”

Westover: “We had never flooded before. The day before they opened the gates at the Lake Conroe Dam, we felt like we could manage. The drains were clear. The streets were clear. There were no evacuation warnings. However, we did encourage people to move to higher ground just to be safe and some left to stay with their families. Then at 3 a.m. the next morning, water began crawling up the staircases. The fire department came in and said, ‘You have to leave.’”

Rehak: “What was their concern?”

Westover: “Electricity. Fear of electrocution. We started waking people up and they carried them out mostly by airboats brought in by the Cajun navy. We evacuated 75 to 80 people who were still here. Every first-floor unit flooded.”

“Water Rising Right Before Our Eyes”

Klemz: “I got a phone call early in the morning of August 29th while I was still sleeping. One of our buildings already had four or five inches of water. It just kept coming. You could see it rising right in front of your eyes; it was that fast. I got another person and we went door to door waking people up. Some people didn’t want to leave. All we had to do was ask them to look out of the window. When they did, everybody cooperated. We sent them upstairs first.”

Lobby of Windsor House at Kingwood Village Estates today after flood repairs. Residents waited at the top of these stairs to be rescued by boats the night of the flood.

Westover: “The elevators had been knocked out by then. No electricity. Everything was dark. Some people couldn’t get upstairs by themselves, so we had to help them.”

Rescue Boats Came Through Front Doors

Klemz: “It took two or three hours for first responders to get here. They literally had to break down doors to float their boats into our lobbies.”

In the dark, early hours of August 29, 2017, rescuers broke down these doors to rescue people with airboats.

“I did triage at the top of the stairs, while Kay Lake, another resident (age 68), went around with first responders to make sure everyone was out. They also had to break down the doors of some units. Some people simply refused to open their doors. They were scared and didn’t want to leave.”

“Most left only with the clothes on their backs. Many people had pets. Some forgot their identification. Some forgot their medicines. And some had to be carried down the stairs in wheelchairs. It was frantic. But when it came to loading boats, everybody cooperated fantastically. We had to balance the boats to make sure they didn’t tip.”

Evacuating In Darkness

Westover: “All this happened in darkness. It was a couple hours before the sun came up. It only took four or five hours for the water to go from the gate to the highest building. The flooding started at 3 a.m. By 5 a.m., we already had four or five inches of water everywhere. The water didn’t stop rising until it reached Wendy’s about three quarters of a mile up the road. Ultimately, we had to rip out sheetrock to the top of door frames.”

“No One Died that Night, but…”

Klemz: “No one died that night, thank God.”

Westover: “However, by the end of the year, 12 of our residents died. The flood and the stress were just too much for them to go through.”

Rehak: “What was the most poignant story from that night?”

Klemz: One man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s was also afraid of heights. His wife came up to me and said, “I don’t know if he’ll make it down the stairs.” So I sat with him for about ten minutes and just talked with him. When first responders came to pick up his wheelchair, I walked down the stairs next to him.”

Westover: “His wife said, ‘He wouldn’t have made it out of the building had it not been for Pat.” He was diabetic. Had lots of problems. He went into the hospital. Came out. Went back in.”

Klemz: “Sadly, he passed two months later. There are so many memories like that from that night. I had one woman who came up to me after we moved back in. She said, ‘You saved my life.’”

At this point, Klemz’ eyes turn bleary and she chokes back tears. “She said if I hadn’t been there to talk her down the stairs, she wouldn’t have been able to get down. She told me, ‘You saved my life.’”

Memory Loss, Short Tempers, Symptoms of PTSD

Klemz: “This was extremely stressful for anyone, but especially for older people. Many didn’t even know whether their families were safe; cell phones weren’t working. They were shuffled from shelter to shelter or taken in by strangers.”

“Later, many would come up and tell me, “I’m having a terrible time with my memory; I’m short tempered; things like that. I saw the same symptoms after Katrina. Most in their seventies and eighties never expected to go through something like this.”

Rehak: “What kind of symptoms?”

Klemz: “People are distracted. They can’t concentrate. They anger easily. They can’t sleep. They become agitated every time it rains. The stress is overwhelming. People in their eighties lost homes and all their belongings. Some people were so traumatized they couldn’t remember their names.”

Rehak: “What triggers the PTSD?”

Klemz: “Rainstorms set people off. Also, if you feel like you’re not in control, you more easily lose your temper. People lost that sense of control; they couldn’t stay. Even when the water went down, there was nothing around us. Toilets would not work. Everything was backed up. There were: no alarm systems, no doors on the first floor, no elevators, spotty electricity. We didn’t get electricity back completely till the third week of December!”

12 Deaths Attributed to Injuries and Stress

Rehak: “Tell me about the people who died? How was their health before the evacuation?”

Westover: “They were generally in good health, but fragile in the sense of hips, knees and that kind of thing. Six died within 30 days. They were on the staircase being handed down into a boat. Of the six, one was male; the rest were female. All were in their eighties.”

“Six more died within six months – we think from the stress of not being able to come back to their homes. We lost 12 altogether from injuries directly related to the event or from the stress that resulted from it.”

Rehak: “How does that compare to the normal mortality rate for people in this age group?”

Westover: “Normally, we might lose one or two folks a year. Twelve in six months is highly unusual.”

Lack of Warning

Rehak: What was the most terrifying part of the experience?”

Klemz: “When my phone rang at 5 a.m.”

Westover: “Monday everything was fine. We were totally unprepared for Tuesday. There was no warning whatsoever of what would happen when Lake Conroe opened its gates.”

Klemz: “Harvey was diminishing at that point. There was no indication so much water was going to come down the West Fork. That’s why most people didn’t evacuate. If they had said Monday night that so much water was coming, people would have been out of here.”

Rehak: “What was the best part of the experience?”

Both: “Getting everybody out alive.”

A Second Miracle

Westover: “The repairs were our second miracle.”

Rehak: “How so?”

Westover: “Because of the ownership structure, no banks would loan us money. They were concerned about our ability to pull everyone together and rehab the place. Residents own their own units. They also own a percentage of the common areas proportional to the size of their units. We had to rehab 64,000 square feet at a cost of $3.5 million. Every penny of that came from the owners.

Less than 5% had flood insurance and most are widows. People had to come up with $20,000 to $50,000 depending on the size of their condo. It was amazing how folks came together. They found a way to finance repairs and wrote a check. If that hadn’t happened, it would have affected all of Kingwood.”

Kingwood Village Estates today. 

“Ninety percent of the owners are back in their units now. The rest should be back in their units soon. They like it here. They miss it.”

Rehak: “How did you manage? Your personal home was flooded, too!”

Westover (choking up): “One day at a time.”

Pat Klemz, left, president of Kingwood Village Estates Condo Association and Robert Westover, the property manager.

Posted by Bob Rehak on October 13, 2018

410 Days after Hurricane Harvey

A River Ran Through It: Dr. Katherine Persson’s Harvey Experience

This is our war room,” said Dr. Katherine Persson, President of Lone Star College/Kingwood, without a hint of emotion in her voice. She speaks in clipped tones, not wasting a word or a second. That’s my first clue about the ordeal she and her management team have been through … and the miracle they managed to pull off after the West Fork of the San Jacinto River ran through two-thirds of the campus.

Dr. Katherine Persson, President of Lone Star College, Kingwood

During Hurricane Harvey, the college lost six of nine buildings to floodwater. The floodwater was contaminated with sewage forced up through floor drains when a nearby City of Houston wastewater treatment plant upstream also flooded. Decontamination took months. Restoration won’t finish until mid-January of 2019. Even before the floodwaters had fully receded, she and her team were busy developing a completely new business plan. They had to launch it in less than three weeks.

“Altogether,” Persson says, “Lone Star College District serves almost 90,000 students. We are the largest in the state and one of the largest in the country. The average size of a community college is 5,500.”

Persson oversees one sixth of the District. Her responsibilities extend from Humble to Tarkington (near Cleveland). She is responsible for:

  • 13,000 students
  • 150 full-time faculty
  • 400 part-time faculty
  • 400 full-time support staff

“We are a major economic engine in the community,” she says. “Despite the flood, we never closed down. We never laid anybody off. We made sure everybody got a paycheck.”

This is the story of how she and her team did it.

The Storm that Just Wouldn’t End

Persson’s story begins with a series of cascading delays. “On Friday, August 25th of 2017, we closed the college in anticipation of Hurricane Harvey. By Sunday, it became apparent that the storm was headed toward Houston, so we delayed the opening of school from the 28th to the 30th. But by Monday, the 28th, we determined that that wouldn’t work either, so we announced that classes would start on September 5th.

Harvey flooded 6 of 9 buildings at Lone Star College/Kingwood and cost an estimated total of $60 million.

“On Monday night, we were a shelter and a staging place for Centerpoint. We had 20 people already staying in the gym. I got a call from Dave Martin, our city councilmember. He asked if we could become a Red Cross Shelter because Kingwood High School was flooding. I said, ‘yes,’ of course. We were a shelter for all of three or four hours. At 10:30 Monday night, we had to close down.”

Persson continued, “At 2:30 the next morning, our facilities director called and said we had water in at least five of our buildings. That was Tuesday, the 29th. Unless you had a boat, nobody could get here until the 30th. Once the roads cleared out we could see that we had massive damage to six buildings because of the SJRA release.”

“I Tried Not to Get Emotional”

“Our deans started gathering that Wednesday, August 30, at homes that weren’t flooded, trying to figure out what we would do. We drafted a preliminary plan that had us coming back by converting 16-week classes to 12-week classes  with extensive reliance on online courses. We did the first campus assessment at 4 pm that day. I wasn’t devastated emotionally at that point, I was just impressed with the power of water and what it can do.”

Classroom building at Lone Star College/Kingwood flooded during Harvey after the release of water from the Lake Conroe Dam by the San Jacinto River Authority.

“The depressing part was coming back Thursday and Friday. Everything kept smelling worse and worse. By Saturday, our facilities director got hold of a landscape crew that started cleaning the campus from one end to the other. When 250 Blackmon Mooring remediation workers started showing up, that became Good Day #1.”

“When I thanked the Lafayette volunteer group that was bringing 250 hot meals to campus for the workers, I think I freaked them out. They thought I was from the health department when I showed up in a white suit.”

“I work with miracle workers.”

By Tuesday, September 5th, classes started at all Lone Star colleges except Kingwood. Kingwood started on Monday, September 25th.

Rehak: “How did you manage that?”

Persson: “I work with miracle workers. All deans started working together in one upstairs room of the East Montgomery County Improvement District. The first thing we had to figure out was how to hold classes when we had just lost 113 classrooms. We postponed the opening again from September 5 to 25. Student services contacted everyone to tell them their schedules were going to change.”

“We told them, ‘You may have to move to a new location or go online, but just stick with us. We’ll try to make things work for you.’”

Most of the contents in six buildings had to be replaced at a cost of $19 million.

Enrollment Increases After Flood

“We actually gained students. But I think that’s because the devastation was so great in other parts of Houston. Many students couldn’t start school right away; they needed a couple extra weeks to get their lives in order. Our delay worked to their advantage and ours.”

Cataloging the Damage

“All of central receiving flooded, plus all of the trucks and everything we do to maintain the grounds. We temporarily redistributed janitorial and maintenance staff to our other colleges to keep them productive and avoid layoffs. We had no power on the campus for two weeks after Harvey; it wasn’t even safe to be in the buildings without personal protective equipment.”

“We lost six classroom buildings. The lower level of the health center was totally destroyed. So was the main central plant with our boilers, generators, and communication system. All those things that you need to fully function were flooded and contaminated. Our library was totaled and had to be gutted; water came up halfway on the monitors. You could even see the effects of current in the building.”

“Our field house was totally under water; we had tennis balls stuck in the rafters. And I’m not sure why the nature walk is still there. It had to be under 20 feet of water,” said Persson.

Tennis and soccer balls stuck in the rafters of the field house show just how high the flood got during Harvey.

First Steps on the Long Road Back

“Our first meeting was in the Presbyterian church. It was important for folks to come together to make sure that everybody was ok and to hear about our preliminary plan.”

“I told the deans to do anything they could to help the students as long as it wasn’t illegal, immoral or unethical. And they did.”

“Basically, to get classes going, we took every nook and cranny to accommodate whole departments. Our big conference center was carved up into six rooms. We made classrooms out of the women’s center. Where the students used to shoot pool, that became the geology lab.”

Makeshift classroom after Hurricane Harvey at Lone Star College/Kingwood

The Search for Classroom Space

“We also found alternative spaces throughout the community. Some classes moved to our Atascocita Center. Biology, Chemistry and Art moved to LSC/North Harris. Nursing moved to Red Oak. Occupational therapy moved to Kindred Rehab. English for speakers of other languages moved to First Presbyterian. Cosmetology moved to Farouk, Inc. And we even borrowed some space from Harris County Fire Academy.”

“The most expensive program we have is dental hygiene. It’s one of the few programs in the entire Gulf Coast area, therefore it was difficult to find alternative space for that. We wound up leasing space off of FM1314 and front-loaded all the lectures in the fall until we could build out the space for dental hygiene.”

“We still have five buildings that are not fully open. We have partial use of the Library upstairs, so we have three and a half buildings out of nine at the moment.”

“We have been delayed by interior brick walls. There was mold behind them. Everything had to be dried out and kept at over 90 degrees for 3 months after it was cleaned and disinfected.”

Massive Temporary Shift to Online Learning

Rehak: “Tell me about the shift to online education.”

Persson: “We were 23% online before Harvey. After Harvey, it jumped to 62% online. It almost tripled. Face-to-face went from 70% to 21%. And hybrid education went from 7% to 16%.”

Rehak: “Did you have to certify faculty to train online that never trained online before?”

Persson: “Yes. We had a mere three weeks to certify them. We developed an emergency certification course and doubled the number of teachers we had who were certified to teach online from 41% to 82%. Now it’s even higher – 95%.”

“None of the full-time faculty complained; they still had jobs. But we lost two or three part-time faculty; they didn’t want to learn how to teach online.”

“We also had to train some students to learn online with a mobile unit. We tutored upstairs in the conference center and at Atascocita. We really had to scramble.”

Success Rate Takes Slight Dip

“Our success rate went from 72% to 67%. That’s not bad considering the huge shift to online where the success rate is never as good.”

Rehak: “How do you define “success”?

Persson: “Success is making a grade of C or better in a class.”

Accommodating Veterans and International Students

Rehak: “Were there any other adaptations you had to make?”

Persson: “Oh yes! We didn’t know before all this that veterans could only take one online class per semester, so we had to get special permission, or they had to go elsewhere to get more face-to-face learning time.”

“Also, since 9/11, Homeland Security has to approve all sites for international students. Some of the alternatives, such as Atascocita, were not formally approved sites. So we lost some of our international and veteran students to other colleges.”

Still Under (Re)Construction

Rehak: “Where do you plan to take it from here?

Persson: “We will be fully functional and looking all new by January of 2019. On the plus side, we have had an opportunity to update things that haven’t been updated since 1984.

“Our new process technology building opened in January 2018 and our new health care teaching facility will open in fall of 2020.”

Lone Star College Kingwood is BACK!

“All of the deans are next door sharing a conference room. They could not have done what they did in such a short order if they weren’t all in the same room working together. They said that they didn’t want to go back into their silos. So in our build-back, we’re building a collaborative work center that 30 people will office out of,” said Persson.

Flood Cost $60 Million

Rehak: “How much did all of this cost?”

Persson: “We were the worst stage of contamination: Category 3 – or “black water” – meaning we had sewage in buildings. Clean-up was $11 million. Replacing contents will cost $19 million. And build-back will bring the total to an estimated $60 million.”

Rehak: “What is the most dramatic story to come out of this?”

Persson: “There was no loss of life. Not one student that we know of who planned to come here lost his or her life.”

“Harvey was a game changer; it reset expectations. There was none of the petty stuff you always get from students or employees. That totally disappeared. You have to keep a sense of humor through all this, even if it’s black humor.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on August 22, 2018

357 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Milan and Lori Saunders’ Harvey Experience: “You can’t outsmart nature. Nature always wins.”

Interview by Bob Rehak

In June, I interviewed Milan Saunders, Chairman/CEO of Plains State Bank, and his daughter Lori Saunders, the bank’s COO. Both live in Kingwood Lakes with their respective families several blocks apart. I asked for this interview to learn how Harvey affected them personally and professionally, and to see whether the flood had a domino effect on other businesses beyond Houston. Spoiler alert: It did.

As we sit in a quiet corner of Amadeus, awaiting our meals, I ask Milan and Lori to start at the beginning. Both have photographic memories and brains that process information faster than computers. They begin with an almost hour-by-hour narrative of the storm’s approach. Clearly, almost a year later, the images remain vivid and painful.

Milan Saunders

It’s time to abandon ship. The Saunders household is swamped by Harvey.

Water and Plumbing Back Up

Milan: “Harvey approached the Houston area on Friday, August 25, and started dumping buckets of rain. Going into the weekend, we were tracking weather reports. On Saturday, things lightened up. Then the rains came back again. Sunday … a lot of rain. Monday … a lot of rain. By that afternoon, water was out of Lake Houston and it began to look pretty ominous. By Tuesday, water was also out of Lake Kingwood. We had only 18 inches between it and our threshold.”

Lori: “My plumbing was starting to back up on Sunday. That’s why I went over to Dad’s house.”

Milan: “Overnight, early Tuesday morning, water began to rise substantially. About 1 a.m., we wrapped the legs of our baby grand piano. In ‘94, we were spared, so I was thinking that, at worst, we would get a foot of water in the house.”

Reliving the Story While Retelling It

Milan continues the story in a series of rapid-fire images that seem to fade to black between each. “I went back to sleep. I was woken up at 6:30 in the morning. Came downstairs. At that point, I am standing in water up past my knees. I open the door and go outside. I am standing in water up to my belt. I see this rubber boat pulling in. First responders called out, ‘It’s a mandatory evacuation.’”

“I ask who they are. They say, ‘We’re firemen from Memphis, Tennessee.’ I say to myself, ‘Wait a minute!’ How did they know about it in time to get here from Memphis when I didn’t even know about it?”

Milan Saunders

Milan makes his great escape with wife and dog on a Wave Runner down Kingwood Drive

“Somehow, we managed to get our dog, a giant German Shepherd, balanced on my lap. They took us up the next street, and we got out there.”

As we delve deeper, Milan increasingly uses present tense, as though he is re-living Harvey in real time. His jaw clenches. The gets that 1000-yard stare. He is in another place and another time now.

“The next challenge is finding a place to shelter for me, my wife, my daughter, my granddaughter and grandson…which we do that afternoon.”

“I’m also worrying about the bank. We had been closed for four days already. The law says banks can’t be closed for more than three days in a row. We had already contacted our regulators to let them know that we were experiencing some really harsh difficulties.”

Never in 50 Years of Banking

“All of our employees are basically stranded. 59 is shut down. The force of water running over the highway has moved the concrete barriers on it.”

“Plains State does business far beyond Houston. We are keeping in touch with our West Texas people to help our clients out there, but our headquarters is in Humble and no one can get to it.”

“If I had had any idea this was going to happen, we would have gotten hotel rooms on the other side of the river for our employees.”

Milan Saunders

Rising tide of discontent sweeps across Kingwood

One image intrudes on another as Milan talks of his experience. He jumps from subject to subject as we nosh on our linguine.

“I lost my telephone while rescuing my granddaughter’s cat,” he says. “I lost both cars.” He begins talking in a staccato shorthand almost like he’s running down a mental checklist, a pilot evaluating options for an emergency landing. “No cars. No phone. Can’t get across the river.”

“It really made it very difficult for us to run the bank. None of our offices experienced flooding; we just couldn’t get people to the offices to move electronic files. That’s where our connections to the Fed and our core processor are.”

Lori: “A few days later, as flood waters started to subside, some folks in law enforcement told us about a way to get across the river. It was a very long way without the 59 bridge, but it worked. Some of our managers were able to get into the bank and start taking care of customers.”

Milan: “We were down five days. I’ve never experienced that in 50 years of banking.”

Bob: “Were there any repercussions for being closed five days?”

Milan: “Overall, our clients down here were very understanding. The West Texas folks didn’t understand as well. One client is a school district. They had end of month payroll to make.”

“Luckily, the superintendent’s wife worked with first responders and knew what we were up against. We were able to explain those problems and I think we have that behind us now, but it was painful for everyone, including us. We built our reputation on service and reliability. Both were beyond our control at that point.”

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch House…

Milan: It was just an unbelievable experience getting into that house. Water up to mid chest.  Probably a foolish thing to do. All kinds of things can happen. The water wasn’t moving that fast, but it was touching the breaker boxes. Water and electricity! Not a good combination!”

“We finally got the cat out of there, but my phone went in the drink, so I lost all communication.”

“The next day, my wife and Lori had to get to the house, so we borrowed a canoe. We saw our brother in law struggling in the water. When we tried to get him into the canoe, he flipped it over. Now Lori’s phone is under water, too.”

Milan Saunders

That’s all she played.

“The hardest part for my wife was the piano. We had bought it for our girls in 1977. It was a baby grand. The force of the water had flipped it over and ripped off two of the legs.”

Nightmare Followed by a Miracle

“We had 3.5 feet of nasty water and sewage in the house. It finally subsided on Thursday afternoon. Then another part in the story began. It was just as unbelievable how folks came out to help.”

“The outpouring of help from the people of Kingwood, led by the churches, was amazing. With the help from strangers, we got everything torn out and the dehumidifiers going.”

Secrets of Dealing with Contractors

“Then I had to find some contractors who could get the rest done. Luckily, we deal with contractors all the time; I knew some very good ones. I hired one who builds hotels and high-end townhomes. I cut a cost-plus deal with him.”

Milan Saunders

Starting over. 

“I saw that a real shortage of qualified contractors was coming, so I did everything I could to sweeten the deal, but built in safeguards for us. I gave him two houses – mine and Lori’s. I guaranteed him payment every Friday night. We made up our minds about what we wanted and didn’t change anything. All he had to do was show every day and carry on the work continuously. As a result, we had two or three subs on the job site every day and avoided a lot of the problems that others have had getting contractors to show. If guys are working, you want to pay them every Friday so that they’re back on Monday.”

Milan Saunders

Kicked to the curb by Mother Nature.

“My wife is fluent in Spanish, so we could converse with subcontractors. That was another advantage.”

Repairs Completed in Record Time, But Now…

“We got the house all done by the first of December. Right now, I’m just wrestling with the insurance guys. They think I should have been able to get it done for half. But it’s unreasonable to look back and say that.”

“The IRS says you should be able to take $104 per square foot, no questions asked. Shopping for the best price in town is probably not the best idea at a time like this.”

Bob: “How long did it take the bank to get back to normal?”

Lori: “Other banks were having trouble getting personnel in. But after Labor Day, most of our staff was able to get into the bank. I remember coming to work Tuesday and seeing all the cars in the parking lot, and thinking, ‘Wow!’  We’d just been through a war zone…the craziest worst week of our lives. And there all of our people were!”

Milan: “We were also very fortunate that only three of our employees had flooded houses and two of those are sitting here with you.”

“The Craziest, Worst Week of Our Lives” Turns into a 3-Year Project

Bob: “How did you manage to cope with the business being down and your homes being destroyed at the same time?”

Lori: “You go into survival mode. You rely on others. I have really good managers. They just stepped up, personally and professionally. They knew what we were going through.”

“We lost everything. Now looking back…I wonder how we did get through it. It was just one day at a time.”

Milan Saunders

More net worth at the curb

“We knew good contractors and had great relationships with them. Not everyone had that luxury. When I drive down my street now, it breaks my heart. I still see dumpsters in the driveways and portacans…all of it. They’re still far away from getting their houses back together again.”

Bob: “What percentage of your street is finished remodeling?”

Lori: Maybe 20%. At least 80% are still not back in.”

Milan: “We have 42 houses in our part of Kingwood Lakes; only one escaped flooding. There aren’t ten that are completely finished restoring. You see lots of travel trailers. I’ve said all along that this is a three-year project and my opinion hasn’t changed.”

Fighting the Adjusters

Bob: “What’s the most common problem people have?”

Milan: “They’re all struggling with the insurance adjusters. Each adjuster sees things differently.”

“One friend’s adjuster told him that $70/sf was a starting point and that if you have cabinetry involved, you’re up to $100/sf. That matches up to what the IRS said. But some of these adjusting companies are trying to be too safe, in my opinion. They split everything up into a unit-pricing process that takes waaaay too long.”

Milan Saunders

Counter to counter, but not express

“When a cost-plus contractor shows up, he’s going to give you a quote for labor and all the receipts for materials. He’s not going to break out trim costs or caulking per square inch! Our first adjuster’s report was 40 PAGES!”

“By comparison, when our bank makes loans on a $700K house, the builder gives us pro formacosts on ONE sheet of paper. You can NOT analyze a house on a per-square-inch basis. These guys just don’t get it.”

“The other thing that has happened is that prices have all escalated by 30%.”

The Value of a Banker Who Knows Your Business

Bob: “Do you have any customers that were forced out of business by Harvey?”

Milan: “No. But many were affected.”

“We had a Holiday Inn Express in Rockport that was severely damaged. But the regulators were very proactive and encouraged banks to give people time, suspend payments, look for ways to assist them.”

“We had a dozen clients in different places that were badly affected, and we’ve worked with them.”

The Hardest Hit Clients Didn’t Have Flood Insurance

Lori: “The hardest hit were clients without flood insurance. They weren’t required to have it.
Not in a flood plain, you know!”

Milan: “We’re one of the top ten SBA lenders in this district. We’re up there with Chase and Wells. SBA requires flood insurance if you are in the 100-year flood plain. But the people that were the most affected were not in the 100-year flood plain and so consequently, they didn’t have any insurance.”

“I’ve had flood insurance for 50 years because my first house was in Bellaire. My second house was in Pearland. One time they had 35 inches in Alvin and there was no way out. We had to be rescued by helicopters down there, so when I moved to Kingwood, I insisted on flood insurance.”

Recommendations for Improving the System

Bob: “What would you change politically to help prevent another flood like Harvey?”

Milan: “Oversight needs to be regional. I think the SJRA worried too much about Lake Conroe and not enough about what would happen downstream. They need to communicate better, too. It’s incredible that guys in Memphis got the news before we did. Regional coordination and prompt notification. Those will be big parts of the answer.”

Milan Saunders

Heavy hearts and high piles: belongings on the curb, waiting for pickup

Nature Always Wins

Bob: “You work with a lot of developers. Do you have any observations about development near rivers?”

Milan: “You can’t outsmart nature. Nature always wins. We need to give Mother Nature her room.”

 

Posted By Bob Rehak on July 24, 2018

330 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Amy Slaughter’s Hurricane Harvey Experience

Amy Slaughter, her husband, two kids, a dog and a rabbit lived in a picturesque one-story house…until Hurricane Harvey. For the last eight months, she has lived with her husband and daughter in a trailer in their driveway while they struggle to rebuild their house. Their college-age son now lives with in-laws; it saves space in the trailer.

Home, Home on the Driveway! The Slaughter family has been living in a trailer for almost 9 months as they try to restore their home.

As I interview Amy in a local restaurant, she orders a root beer. She needs it, she says, to settle her stomach. She’s just come from court and is trying to squeeze me in before a conference call. As we talk, she constantly checks her phone for messages from contractors, architects and engineers. Such is the life of a professional mother in the Post-Harvey Reconstruction Era.

Matching shoes! Life is good!

As I listen to her tell me her story, I marvel at how energetic and positive she sounds. No doubt, this is a by-product of finally having found matching shoes and a working toaster oven.

“During the first days of the storm, we really weren’t worried,” says Slaughter. “Lake Conroe was beginning to release water, but there was no visible impact.”

“Ironically, relatives on Lake Conroe called us and said, ‘They’re releasing water from the dam up here and you have no idea how much!’ It was much more than the SJRA’s web site was showing. Evidently, the updates were way behind. But we still weren’t worried because we didn’t flood in 1994.”

“By noon, we began to think differently. We took three of our cars to Kingwood Park High School, just to be safe. My family talked me out of loading our computers into the cars because they thought someone would steal them. Big mistake. Everything I do is filed electronically with the courts. All the files on my laptop, memory cards, my home server … everything … was lost!”

“Our neighbors across the street are about a foot lower than we are. The creek behind them started to rise during the morning of the 28th. We went over to help them move their furniture upstairs. By 6 p.m., we had moved everything we could and water started to creep into their house.”

“On the news, they kept saying they were expecting the river to crest, but it didn’t; it kept rising. So we were caught off guard.”

“Then around midnight of the 28th, water began to creep into our house.” She looks whimsically inward at herself and giggles.

The Great Solo Cup Caper

“What?” I ask.

“We thought we might get only a couple inches, so we put solo cups under the legs of our wooden tables to protect them!” She smiles; You have to admire a woman who can laugh at disaster. Eventually, her home took on four feet of water.

The Slaughter’s gutted interior.

“We put chairs, computers, photo albums, and other junk up on tables and chests without realizing that everything we put up high would float and flip.”

The Pink Flamingo Flotilla

She laughs again as she flits from memory to random memory. “We evacuated as soon as the water started coming in the house. We brought our dog with us. But we left the rabbit in a cage up on the dining room table. When the water kept rising, I told my husband, ‘You have to get the rabbit.’”

“He and the dear friend who rescued us took an umbrella and waded back to the house through chest-deep water. Our rabbit was floating high above the table in her cage. They floated her cage right out.  Other belongings were rescued on a giant pink flamingo. Most people used john boats; we used a pink flamingo from our pool.”

Amy Slaughter shows how high the water reached in her entry way.

Then her mood turns somber again. “Once we rescued the rabbit, we realized we had at least four feet of water in our house. We were pretty much in shock.”

“What did you lose?” I ask.

“Furniture-wise and computer-wise, we lost everything. Wedding pictures, family albums, even the digital stuff on thumb drives. It’s all gone. But everybody is safe, nobody got hurt.”

“We were able to save most of our clothing with Pine Sol and Clorox. We saved most of the dishes. Ironically goblets levitated out of my grandmother’s china cabinet and floated all over the house. We found them down the hall, in different rooms. Everywhere.  Standing upright.”

“I’ll never leave this place.”

“Some friends suggested that we go to their home on Lake Livingston. It took three times longer than normal, but when we got there, we could get on the phone with our insurance company and FEMA. Watching all the news coverage from Livingston was terrifying. It was hard to see that and not be here.”

“When the river receded, we came back. We wanted to get into the house as quickly as we could. We lived with nearby relatives while we started gutting our house.”

“I didn’t cry for two weeks. I felt strongly that I couldn’t tell my children, ‘It’s just stuff,’ and not live by the motto myself.”

“When I got in there, I went from an attitude of looking at ‘what was lost’ to ‘what we could save.’ That really helped me get through the experience of gutting the house.”

“Everything in our home was sentimental. We had a lot of antiques we inherited. My grandmother grew up destitute. It killed me to put her sewing machine out at the curb, knowing how many dresses she had made for us growing up. To watch it rot there for three weeks was heart wrenching.”

“It was unbelievable, though, to be surrounded by people who came out of the woodwork to help. In Livingston, I was thinking, ‘Where can we live?’ But during the gutting of our house, people just came up and offered to help. Everyone pitched in. Strangers. Friends. Relatives. Customers. Clients. They brought food. They brought tools. And they didn’t ask for anything. After that, I thought to myself,  ‘I’ll never leave Kingwood.’”

A Court Appearance Reminiscent of “My Cousin Vinny”

“Then the exhaustion hit. My husband and I were both still trying to work. I had court dates. My clothing was all over Kingwood. At cleaners. With me. With my mother in law. It was pretty funny. The first time I went to court, I showed up in a denim skirt.  I approached the bailiff and said, I apologize ahead of time to the court. We got flooded and I don’t know where any of my clothes are.” Luckily, Slaughter had a judge who was more understanding than the one in the movie.

“Home, Home on the Driveway”

“Currently, we live in a travel trailer. We had looked for homes, apartments and hotels to rent, but everything was booked up. Friends opened their homes to us, but we wanted to stay near the house to deal with repairs. The trailer is not big enough for all of us; my son has to live with my sister in law.”

“The trailer is not like living in a drum; it’s like living in a drum SET,” Slaughter jokes. “When it rains, you hear all kinds of sounds. The rain makes one sound. The pine needles brushing up against the trailer make another. And then there’s the occasional cymbal crash when a pine cone hits the roof.”

“We store our clothes in the garage. It’s the mother of all walk-in closets right now.”

The mother of all walk in closets…Amy Slaughter’s garage.

“How do you cook?” I ask.

“The trailer does have a microwave. We have a grill with a burner on it. And we have a hot plate and a toaster oven. But mostly we don’t cook.”

Shrinking an Inch a Day

I shake my head, thinking back to college. I could handle life in a trailer then. Now, I’m not so sure. Amy Slaughter seems only slightly troubled, though.

“It’s not bad if you’re on vacation, but after eight months, it’s kind of getting old. At first you’re so grateful to have it that you overlook the inconveniences. Then after about a month, your thoughts start to go in the opposite direction. It feels like it’s shrinking an inch a day.” I nod; I have a pair of jeans like that.

Camp Chairs and an Air Mattress for Watching TV

“Now that the house is dried out, I’m starting to use it as a workshop to restore my grandmother’s furniture,” says Amy Slaughter. “We have a back porch. We put a TV out there. We have camp chairs and an air mattress for watching the TV. That’s really our living room. But it’s getting hot now. So we may be spending more time in the trailer.”

Third-World Living

“The shower in the trailer is about the size of a bucket. It’s functional and would work. But it’s tiny, so we shower in the house. One of the bathrooms had a shower where we only tore out the glass and the backside of two walls. We put tarps along the wood studs to hold the water in and propped up the one wall with a wire shelving unit and bungee cords. It’s definitely Third-World living.”

The Slaughter shower. Makeshift, but still bigger than their trailer’s shower.

I think to myself, “This lady wins awards for creativity, but I doubt she will pass the plumbing inspection.”

“Purchasing the House We Almost Paid Off.”

I ask how Harvey affected Amy Slaughter’s family financially. Without missing a beat, she says, “We get the privilege of purchasing the house we had almost paid off.” I ask for an explanation. “Our options were: sell and move; put it right back together again; or build up. We didn’t want to move. And we didn’t want to flood … ever again. So we decided to build up. But contractors told us it would be less expensive to wipe the slab and start over than build on top of what we had.”

“How much longer will it take?” I ask.

“Finding a contractor to do the whole thing is difficult. Everybody is booked. We’re in a financial quandary. Flood insurance will only go so far. It will replace what we had, but not what we feel we need to build to be safe. Before this, we had a house that never flooded and we want to get back to that.”

“What are your biggest concerns at the moment?” I ask.

Concerns Looking Forward

“There’s a concern that we won’t be able to sell the house. How many people want a one-story house where you have to climb the stairs to get in?”

“I’m also afraid that Kingwood will be considered a lost cause at some point by politicians. You’ve seen it happen with Forest Cove. ‘Oh, that area floods now, so we should just buy out the owners and wipe it all out.’”

“Meanwhile, you have developers who are buying golf courses, like Forest Cove’s. I’ve heard it was bought and is about to be turned into homesites. That scares me. They’re going to build up higher and that’s just going to send water toward the rest of us. If the politicians don’t start limiting development like that, it will turn the rest of us into a financial sink hole.”

“If you could say one thing to the mayor, what would it be?”

Amy Slaughter pauses a long time, then…

“Come try to sleep through a rain storm in my travel trailer!”

“I worry whether I should put pontoons it,” she says doing her best Sarah Silverman imitation. Then seriously, “It won’t take a Harvey at this point to flood Kingwood again. I know they are committed to dredging the river, but the reality is they haven’t solidified any workable plan yet.”

And with that, Amy Slaughter excuses herself and sprints off to her conference call.

Interview by Bob Rehak

Posted May 15, 2018

259 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Jennifer Trimble’s Hurricane Harvey Experience

Jennifer Trimble in front of her nearly restored home

Seven months after Hurricane Harvey flooded her home in the middle of the night, Jennifer Trimble still cannot hear the sound of a helicopter or rain beating on her windows without choking back tears.

Trimble, a single mother of an 11 year old son, lost her job before Hurricane Harvey dumped 40 inches of rain on the Lake Houston area. Like most of her neighbors, she had no flood insurance. “Everyone said that it never flooded here, that we were safe.” Trimble lives more than a mile from the San Jacinto River, two blocks north of Kingwood Drive in an area that had escaped previous “500 year” rains in 1994, 2001, 2015, and 2016. But her luck ran out with Harvey.

“With some warning…I could have saved myself from most of this terrible experience.”

Now, while picking at some enchiladas in a TexMex restaurant (that had also flooded), she tells the story of the night when she stepped out of bed at 4:30 a.m. into muddy water and reached for a light switch. Reliving those moments of panic, her story careens from desperate attempts to escape to the kindness of strangers, her faith in God, contractor woes, the search for a new job, and the politics of flood mitigation.

Flying Into the Eye of the Storm

The week before Harvey, Trimble had gone to Illinois to visit her mother who had been hospitalized. She recalls reading about Harvey, then a tropical storm, while flying back to Houston on August 23rd.

“By the time we got back, the forecast had changed to a hurricane,” she said. When the storm made landfall on Friday, August 25, she still wasn’t very worried. After all, she had lived and worked through Katrina in Louisiana more than decade earlier.

Back then, she worked in personnel for an oil company and helped hundreds of employees who had lost their homes. “But I didn’t think anything like that could ever happen here,” she continued. “We are too far inland. I went to the grocery store and stocked up on food and batteries just in case, but I wasn’t worried.”

Worries Rise with the Water

“Each night through the hurricane, I woke up from the rain. By the 28th, water was coming up everywhere. The drainage ditch was overflowing onto Kingwood Drive. Water was coming up from the greenbelt. That night, we made plans to evacuate in the morning even though I still didn’t think we would flood,” said Trimble.

The street in front of Trimble’s home as she and her son were being rescued by boat.

“I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and stepped out of bed into floodwater. I was kind of groggy and didn’t realize what was happening at first. I turned on a lamp that was plugged into a power strip on the floor. The power was still on. I was lucky we weren’t electrocuted.”

“I froze. For a full minute. Then I called the next door neighbor to let them know that their house would be flooding, too. I posted on the NextDoor app that I was flooding.”

Neighbors and Social Media to the Rescue

Trimble continued. “Two people I didn’t even know offered to come to my house and help. One person made it to the house, but couldn’t get in because of water already chest deep in the street. My car in the garage had water over the tires. We were trapped.”

“My neighbor and another person from social media came at 5:00 a.m. They helped move small items like electronics, an end table – anything we could salvage – upstairs. Through all of this, I’ll never forget seeing my cat in the office, sitting on top of my desk as the water was rising.”

Temporary Escape to Neighbor’s House

“We finally escaped out of the front door to my neighbor’s house in hip-deep water. While moving things upstairs, I was in ‘go mode.’

It wasn’t until I was in my neighbor’s house looking back at my house that it hit me. There was so much water. My whole house was sitting in the middle of a lake – and I didn’t have flood insurance.”

Jennifer Trimble’s home as seen from neighbor’s second story.

“Then my neighbor’s house started to take on water, too. At 9 a.m., another Kingwood resident rescued us by boat. I was so grateful.”

Search for Safety and Stability

As word of Trimble’s plight spread to friends, offers of help started coming in. Several offered her places to stay until she could recover. She and her son stayed with a friend in Mills Branch through the middle of October. “Then, we moved on to another friend.

“Because of my son’s allergies, we couldn’t move back in until all the drywall repairs were finished.”

My son has asthma and allergies, so we couldn’t get back into our house right away. We had to get rid of all the mold and mildew. The house had to dry out thoroughly and be disinfected. We also had to make sure the walls were up and textured. It took a long time. Sometimes I can talk about it, but other times I get emotional,” she said as tears welled up in her eyes.

Rebuilding a Home and her Life

“After the water receded, I had many people helping with demo work,” said Trimble. “Friends, friends of friends, strangers, people from my church. By Saturday noon, we were done. In two and a half days, everything was knocked out and gone.”

Flood debris ready for removal in front of Trimble home.

“When the San Antonio crews came to haul the trash away, I was happy, but cried my heart out. It’s so emotional to see your life being carried away. Our house is close to livable again. The master bath is the last major piece, though there are still lots of little details. Some things will just have to wait. Like the deck on the back of the house. We lost it altogether.“

“The hardest part for me is dealing with my contractors. Sometimes, I want to scream. I’m so frustrated. It seems like we always get up-charged. The cost never goes down if we substitute something cheaper. And then there are mistakes. For instance, we ordered a new door, but they trimmed excess height off the bottom instead of the top. So we had to order another. Seven months after the flood, we’re still waiting on the replacement. I’m tired of dealing with it,” said Trimble.

Making Do Until Making More

In rebuilding her home, Trimble received help from many unexpected sources.

“A Facebook page, Flooding Kingwood with Kindness, has been my source of sanity,” she says. There, people who have items to donate find people who need donations.

“My sister also started a ‘Go-Fund-Me’ page where friends and family could make donations to my recovery effort.”

“FEMA was very good to me. They gave me the maximum amount. My family and friends also kicked in. And I created an Amazon wish list to help offset expenses.”

“Still, I’m glad that I was a diligent saver. Without a job and without savings, we would have been sunk.”

“I’m frugal. With the exception of new bedroom furniture, I bought used things to replace furniture we lost. I just won’t buy everything for a while, until I build savings back up.”

Trimble recently started a new job. “It was a blessing that I wasn’t working during the recovery. There were so many things that went wrong. If I wasn’t there to address them right away, it would have been a disaster. As it was, I got my son off to school at 8 a.m. then worked all day on the house until 8, 9, or 10 at night for a long stretch.”

Trimble has been a single mother for nine years. “Rebuilding was overwhelming at times,” she said. “I lived through Katrina, Gustav and two surgeries, but this is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. I look back now and think everything that came before was God’s way of preparing me.”

Natural disasters bring out the best in people

Much of Trimble’s interview focuses on the generosity of people around her. “Total strangers rescued us. Friends opened their hearts and homes. Neighbors washed laundry that had been flooded. Others helped tear out sheet rock and tile. My church started a support group. FEMA gave us help. Ted Poe broke through red tape. It’s all been amazing.”

Still, the trauma of Harvey makes sleeping difficult. How does she cope? “My experience as a single parent helped me get through this…and my faith in God. I don’t know how I would have made it without my faith!”

“I can’t do this again.”

Said Trimble, “I want to do what I can so that this never happens again.”

Trimble has participated in the Lake Houston Chamber’s Plea for 3 and Plea to See initiatives. She has also participated in the Lake Houston Area Grass Roots Flood Prevention Initiative and demonstrated outside the community center when Governor Abbott visited the area.

“When we got those flood warnings in February and March,” she said, “I felt horrible. I’m scared. I have angst about what will happen every time it rains.”

“We need to dredge. We need better communication. Clearly, we got no warnings. With some warning, I could have moved everything upstairs. I could have moved my car. My son and I could have gotten out. I could have saved myself from having most of this terrible experience,” she says, choking back tears.

“Clearly, there needs to be a better plan with permitting. They need to get to a place where they can lower the lake level. They’re fumbling right now; figuring everything out as they go. We need more coordinated flood control; all these entities don’t work well together.”

“Everybody underestimated the impact that this was going to have and how long it would last. The emotional and mental toll is draining. A disaster like this impacts daily life, the ability of people to hold a job, to parent their children, and to navigate through life in general.”

Interviewed by Bob Rehak,
Posted April 26, 240 Days After Hurricane Harvey