Residents trying to escape as Harvey's floodwaters rose

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