The Long, Hard Road from Vietnam to Elm Grove for John Hulon

This is the story of a Vietnam veteran and former police officer who has lived in Elm Grove for more than 25 years. John Hulon’s troubles started when he was laid off from his job after brain surgery. Then he had a stroke. Followed by a heart attack. After being forced into retirement, he discontinued his flood insurance to save money. Then he flooded. Twice. John spent his life savings to restore his home and replace two vehicles. Now, a planned mitigation project that could protect his home from future flooding has become a political football. Regardless, he focuses fondly on his neighbors and the 12 volunteers from Second Baptist Church who helped him in his darkest hours. 

Interview with John Hulon

Rehak: How badly did the 2019 floods affect you?

Hulon: We lost everything.

Gutting the Hulon Residence after May Flood

Rehak: Why did you buy your house in this neighborhood?

Hulon: We always wanted to buy a house. So, we started looking around. A real-estate lady, who was an ex-Marine, took good care of us and showed us some homes.

You can tell immediately as you walk in a house if you like it. My wife fell in love with this one instantly. And then the real estate agent opened the curtains and we saw the home had a swimming pool. That was the icing on the cake. So, we bought it. And we’re still in love with it.

No Flood Insurance

Rehak: Did you pay off the mortgage before it flooded? 

Hulon: Yes. 

Rehak: Is that why you didn’t have flood insurance? 

Hulon: Flood insurance was a condition of the mortgage. But after paying the mortgage off, I dropped the insurance because, in the history of Elm Grove, it had never flooded here. And at that point, all we had was Social Security and military retirement. I couldn’t afford the insurance anymore.

Swollen doors and waterlogged studs.

High School Graduation Trip…to Vietnam

Rehak: What branch of the military were you in? 

Hulon: Air Force. In security.

Rehak: Was that back during Vietnam?

Hulon: Yeah, for my high school graduation trip, I went to Vietnam. 

You could say I grew up over there. I went when I was eighteen. In 1967.

Rehak: How long were you in the Air Force?

Hulon: Twenty years. I retired in 1987.  

Preserving the Uniform. The Army uniform belonged to Hulon’s father. He died of Agent Orange after serving in WWII, Korea and VietNam where he was also wounded.

Rehak: Were you in combat?

Hulon: Minor. Mostly I guarded airplanes. 

Switch to Law Enforcement

Rehak: What did you do when you came back?

Hulon: I was stationed at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California. And then I got out of the Air Force for a while after initially serving four years and went back to Louisiana, where my parents lived. I got a job as a city policeman in Leesville, Louisiana. And while there, I met an Air Force recruiter. He persuaded me to rejoin the Air Force. I told him I’d rejoin if he could get me changed from security to law enforcement, which he did. Then after I got out of the Air Force the second time, I started working in retail as a loss prevention manager. And later in IT.

Loss Prevention Manager Who Lost Everything

Rehak: Loss prevention! That makes a good transition to Elm Grove. You lived there for decades. Did you flood in May or just in September of 2019?

Hulon: I flooded in both. In the first flood, we only had to tear out half the walls. But we also had to buy all new furniture, new beds, new everything. We’d just finished that when it flooded again in September.

Rehak: How much of the house did you have restored before it flooded again?

Heirlooms lost to sediment-laden floodwater

Hulon: Walls and floors. We were in the process of repairing the cabinets. We had brand new cabinets before the first flood and they’re still here. They were still usable after the first flood. But after the second flood, they wouldn’t close. They still need to be redone, but we haven’t redone them yet.

Rehak: Will you tell me a little bit about your medical history. 

“I Died in the Back of That Ambulance”

Hulon: I was sitting at my desk working and I started feeling really funny and I knew something was wrong. My co-workers wanted to call an ambulance. But instead I drove my truck home. My wife and daughter were going to take me to the hospital. But we only got to the end of the street before they had to turn around. They called 911. By the time the ambulance came, I was pretty much out of it. They put me on the stretcher. 

In my mind, I died in the back of that ambulance.

John Hulon

Rehak: Why do you say that?

Hulon: I had an out-of-body experience. I was actually looking down at myself from above somewhere while they worked on me. When I got to the hospital, they did a brain scan and thought I had cancer. Turned out it was an abscess. The surgeon told me, “I just barely touched it and it popped.” So, I’m very lucky. They did the surgery and I stayed in the hospital for about two months.

Stroke and Heart Attack

Rehak: And then?

Hulon: Then I had a stroke.

Rehak: When did you have your heart attack, John?

Hulon: About two years ago. After Harvey.

Rehak: What triggered that? 

Hulon: I don’t really know. I was just sitting watching TV when I started feeling funny and had a lot of pain in my back. It wasn’t normal. I was injured pretty bad in Vietnam. So, I’m used to back pain, but not like this. I laid down on the couch and I knew something was wrong. I called 911. They came and said I was having a heart attack.

Rehak: Did you need a bypass or a stent?

Hulon: No, they just put me on a blood thinner and some blood pressure medication. 

Floods Used up Entire Life Savings

Rehak: Rebuilding your house twice must have cut into your life savings. 

Hulon: Used up every penny of it. Everything had to be redone. Everything. In the first flood, they only had to go up about four feet on the sheetrock. But in the second flood, they had to replace everything up to the ceiling, all rooms. 

Rehak: How far are you from the Perry site?

Hulon: About three blocks.

Rehak: Did the water come from that direction?

Hulon: Yes, through yards and down the street.

Rehak: Was it clear or a muddy?

Hulon: Very muddy. 

Dog encounters glove

Rehak: Was there a current going down the street?

Hulon: The water was flowing like a river.

“This is What I Could Do in My Life”

Rehak: What went through your mind as the water came up?

Hulon: I said to myself, “Look at everything we’ve built 40 years of marriage on!” Believe it or not, I was very calm at the time. I just said, “This is what I could do in my life.” 

Paid Contractor Up Front for Work Not Completed

Rehak: Were you able to find a good contractor?

Hulon: We found one that wanted $5000 upfront. They did 90 percent of the work and never showed up again.

Rehak: So sad.

Thinks About Volunteers from Second Baptist All the Time

Hulon: Yeah, but, you know, before that, volunteers from the Second Baptist Church came over. They’re great people there. They sent 12 people to our house when my daughter called. They stripped the walls for us. Wow. They were in and out in like a couple of hours, men and women. And I was so impressed.

Rehak: Incredible.

Hulon: And they kept coming back for a month after that. Every day. They brought us hot meals!

Rehak: That’s amazing.

I think about their kindness all of the time. 

John Hulon

Rehak: This was such a beautiful neighborhood before it flooded.

“These Were All Nice Houses Out Here”

Hulon: It still is, considering all the devastation. People on the internet talk about how this area is so poorly maintained. That’s a bunch of crap. These were all nice houses out here.

“We lost everything.”

Rehak: What do you hope will happen at this point?

Hulon: I hope we can recover some of our life savings and complete the work that we still need to do. I’m not getting any younger. We just need a little cash. I don’t want to leave my wife with nothing. 

“It Would Probably Kill Me”

Rehak: How do you feel about having invested your life savings in restoring a house that may flood again?

Hulon: (Choking up) I don’t know. If we flood again, I’ll probably move to Louisiana and live with my sister. Jesus, I can’t live through that again, I’ve got flood insurance now, but I don’t, I don’t, I don’t know. I’ll probably move to Louisiana. I don’t want to. But I don’t think I could take another flood. I mean, it would probably kill me.

Everybody Helping Everybody

Rehak: Is there anything else you want to tell me, John?

Hulon: How our little neighborhood came together. I mean, it was just amazing. Everybody on the street was just like family. Everybody was helping everybody. But of course, all of Kingwood is that way. That’s what makes this such a great community.

Posted by Bob Rehak on August 07, 2020

1074 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 323 Since Imelda