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.
Rehak: When did you buy this house?
Gunnels: In December of ’08, exactly ten years ago.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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