In 1969, the rock group Three Dog Night released a hit recording called “One is the Loneliest Number.” As I listened to Elaine Phillips tell me her story about the May 7th flood, I couldn’t get the song out of my head. Elaine, still fighting off the effects of chemo, found herself alone at home with floodwaters rising around her for the fifth time since 1997. With her husband in New York on business, and her grown children in Austin and Houston’s Midtown area, this CPA is now trying to fight cancer, contractors, and “government logic” – by herself. As this Kings Forest resident reaches for the Xanax, she’s still reaching out to help other “flood virgins,” as she calls them. Below are portions of my interview with a woman “at the end of her tether.”
Rehak: You bought this home in…
Phillips: July of 1997.
Rehak: And you’ve flooded how many times since?
Flooded Five Times in 22 years
Phillips: This is my fifth, I think. And it had flooded two times before we moved in.
Rehak: I took a picture of you earlier pointing to the water level from Harvey on your house. It looked like at least six feet.
Rehak: You were reaching well above your head. Did it get that high previously?
Phillips: Just enough to require three feet of your wall to be ripped down.
Rehak: Earlier today, you and I walked around your property. You showed me a berm that your landscaper built to help divert water from your house to the drainage ditch. Erosion from that water was starting to crack your driveway and expose a drain pipe from your pool. So you’ve lost soil back there. And the water isn’t draining fully to the corner where it should. The city inspector who came out and talked to you about it said it was…?
Phillips: “Performing as designed. No action needed.”
Rehak: Your response to that was?
Phillips: It was designed to flood my home? Then success! (She throws up her hands and laughs.)
Rehak: Do you think that eroded sediment may have altered the gradient in the ditch and be backing water up?
Phillips: Absolutely. Sometimes it flows backward in the ditch…away from the drain. I’ve lived here since ‘97 and we’ve never had the ditches worked on. Logic tells you that the sediment that gets left behind on all of these heavy rains is going to change the landscape and create more problems.
Just Finished Harvey Repairs and Then…
Rehak: What happened on May 7th?
Phillips: The first thing we always notice is the backyard filling up.
Rehak: And then?
Phillips: Within a heartbeat, it’s over the pool. And once it’s over the pool, it’s up to the back door.
Phillips: Then I noticed it coming in. I ran to the front door and then it starts coming in there, too. But it starts at the back first. Then I watch the pool and once the pool has overflowed I know it’s a matter of minutes.
Rehak: You said on May 7th that the first water came from the back.
Phillips: The laundry room right there is where I noticed it first. I always start by putting a bunch of towels in front. Isn’t that adorable? Thinking that it’s just a little bit. And so I had towels in all the doors. I even sandbagged for Harvey. That was adorable, too.
Rehak: On May 7th, how long after the start of the rain did it take for the water to get in your house?
Phillips: It started around 10:30 a.m. and was in by 12:44 p.m. That’s when I shot this photo. There were never any breaks in it for the drains to catch up.
Rehak: Your husband was working in New York?
Phillips: In the Empire State Building. I texted him that we were flooding and asked whether he was going to come home? He said, “Only if you need me.”
Rehak: He wins the sensitivity award.
Phillips: I’m glad you see the humor in that. I did what I could. I had already started taking some stuff upstairs. Then the next morning I just got in my car with my dogs and drove to Austin, where I stayed for five days.
Begging for a Buyout
Rehak: Would you accept a buyout?
Phillips: We’ve begged for one. FEMA has paid us around a million dollars over these five floods. It just makes common sense. As a CPA, I ask, “When do you cut your losses?” You buy this home and quit paying these people two to three hundred thousand every time they flood. But unfortunately FEMA’s not really here. We need to appeal to Harris County. I did speak to the county guy and he said they don’t buy out homes that aren’t adjacent to Flood Control property. So they continue to pay out. Hundreds of thousands each time it floods.
Rehak: You paid how much for your house?
Phillips: $180,000 back in 1997.
Repetitive Losses Add Up to 4-5X Value of House
Rehak: So they’ve already paid out the value of the house about five times!
Phillips: I don’t know what one hundred and eighty thousand dollars in 1997 would equal in 2019. But yes, they’ve paid four to five times – at least. Thankfully, we’ve always had flood insurance from the day we bought it. I don’t think it was in a flood zone back then, but I think it’s deemed a 100-year flood zone now. We barely got done with the repairs from Harvey when May 7th hit. Our appliances were less than a year old!
One Problem on Top of Another
Rehak: You’re in chemo. Life’s been ganging up on you lately.
Phillips: I was diagnosed with cancer last November. It was a reoccurrence. I had cancer in 2009. I was in chemo from December to April and then two weeks after my last chemo, we flooded. And now I get to do this (gesturing to the construction work all around us). And I will say if there’s anything positive that came from it is that it has forced me to get up and start moving. I couldn’t just lay around convalescing.
Rehak: Your kids are grown and gone. Your son is in…
Rehak: Your daughter is in…
Phillips: Austin and the youngest son is down in Midtown in Houston.
Rehak: And your husband is working in New York. You’re in a floating home. On chemo. Can it possibly get any worse?
Phillips: You know what? The sad thing is I know it can. And so I always feel blessed as long as my children are safe and healthy. The fact is this house is paid for. Yes, I can continue to live in it. I’ll just live upstairs and come down to cook or whatever.
Ideally, I would like to sell it. Or be bought out and then move to a house on a hill. A small house on a hill.
Feelings Toward Governmental Entities
Rehak: How has the government handled your case? You’ve dealt with them on the buyout issue…the drainage issue. What are you feeling at this point?
Phillips: Believe or not, I actually have nothing but positive feelings about FEMA other than the fact that they need an accountant that says, “Hey let’s quit paying this Phillips family. Let’s just buy their house.” Other than that, they pay quickly. Which makes it easy to get a contractor because if they know you have FEMA, they know they will get paid. In that respect, I have no problems with FEMA.
The City? I’ve talked to well-meaning people; the man that came today couldn’t have been more polite. But nothing gets done. And there’s no rhyme or reason to what they do. They’re grading ditches two streets over. but not here.
Rehak: So they’re grading ditches where people didn’t flood and not grading them where people did flood?
Phillips: Yes. They said, “Your area is at a lower elevation.” So basically, they’re saying, “You can’t be helped.” But I said, “So the people that need it most don’t get help?” The idiocy of it all! (She practically growls at this point.)
Getting to a Happy Place
Rehak: What would you like to see happen now?
Phillips: In the short term as in now, tomorrow, next week? I would love the ditches to be regraded. From my house to the corner at the proper slope.
Rehak: That would cost less than fixing up the house again. (Then…noticing that she seems almost happy.) You don’t seem very stressed, despite all of this.
Phillips: I’ve been stressed since this entire thing started. The City, the County, the contractor, the workers, the adjuster…who has been a complete jerk this time…they all pushed me to the edge. And then health issues, I’ve been so stressed out.
But then yesterday, something came over me. I just thought “I don’t even care anymore” and it was such a freeing feeling. When I was diagnosed six months ago, my doctor prescribed me some some Xanax (an anti-anxiety medication). I’m not sure where the Xanax is now, but I think I need to find it and just go to my happy place. (She laughs.)
I will just walk my dogs. WHISTLING a tune and I do not even care. I will say this. Purging your home was an oddly good feeling to it. Nothing purges your home like a flood.
Putting Albums 4′ Up and Getting 6′ of Water
The worst part was, stupidly, things that belonged to my mom who is no longer with me. I lost all of that. It was on the first floor. My photo albums of my children. I put them on shelves four feet high. Then we got six feet of water. So, I’ve lost all of the things that can’t be replaced. That breaks my heart. I still kept those photo albums, but they’ve swollen like this big (she spreads her arms wide). And every time I open them I just want to cry, so I just don’t anymore. But as far as things, you know…clothes, shoes…I lost everything I owned. I don’t care.
Rehak: Where do you go from here?
Phillips: Ideally…SELL IT. My husband has wanted to downsize forever. I just need to have a bit of a yard for the dogs…and on a hill. I don’t need a six bedroom, four-and-a-half bath house. I don’t regret living here one bit because my kids growing up here had an awesome time. I couldn’t have wished for a better neighborhood.
Rehak: What else would you like to tell people?
Looking for Results
Phillips: Everybody I talk to has been great. But I just haven’t seen any results. Even getting the debris picked up took a long time. It took four work requests. You put in a work request on 3-1-1. And then they say, “OK we’ll be out on such and such a day.” But then they didn’t come.
When I called to see what happened, they said, “Well, that work order is closed. It’s complete.” I say. “No, it’s not. The trash is still there.” So they rescheduled it and told me, “They’re coming tomorrow.” And guess what. They didn’t come again. It took four requests before they finally came!
I think what put me over the edge before I arrived at my Xanax Happy Place was knowing that they graded the ditches over on Valley Manor. And that’s all I wanted here all along.
Rehak: I feel for you.
Phillips: I’d already been through chemo twice. It was hell. But never in my wildest dreams did I think a day of heavy rain would flood me.
The people in Elm Grove. It broke my heart watching them being interviewed on TV, because I believe the majority of them did not have flood insurance. They had no reason to think they needed it when they were interviewing them on TV. They were just crying and sobbing. Grown men were crying! And it really broke my heart even though I was in the same boat, but I jokingly referred to them as “flood virgins” because they had no idea what it’s like. The heartbreak and the lack of control. There’s nothing you can do.
Tips for Dealing with Contractors
A lot of them had questions. Who do I call? What do I do? Can anyone recommend a contractor? They didn’t know where to go. I know it so well I don’t even need a contractor anymore. Maybe I should become their contractor.
Rehak: Any tips for dealing with contractors?
Phillips: Except for $10,000 to $15,000 to get them started upfront, pay after the work is done. Only dole out money for work that’s completed. And don’t feel like you’re being bitchy if you say, “Well, I’ve already given you five thousand or ten thousand and you’ve only done this.” No. You dig in your heels. The contractor and I have a love/hate relationship. He loves it because we pay him. We pay him on time. And we pay him the full amount. But he also knows he has to work hard.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/21/2019
661 Days since Hurricane Harvey