Her home flooded 40 inches above the slab.

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