Amy Slaughter’s Hurricane Harvey Experience

Amy Slaughter, her husband, two kids, a dog and a rabbit lived in a picturesque one-story house…until Hurricane Harvey. For the last eight months, she has lived with her husband and daughter in a trailer in their driveway while they struggle to rebuild their house. Their college-age son now lives with in-laws; it saves space in the trailer.

Home, Home on the Driveway! The Slaughter family has been living in a trailer for almost 9 months as they try to restore their home.

As I interview Amy in a local restaurant, she orders a root beer. She needs it, she says, to settle her stomach. She’s just come from court and is trying to squeeze me in before a conference call. As we talk, she constantly checks her phone for messages from contractors, architects and engineers. Such is the life of a professional mother in the Post-Harvey Reconstruction Era.

Matching shoes! Life is good!

As I listen to her tell me her story, I marvel at how energetic and positive she sounds. No doubt, this is a by-product of finally having found matching shoes and a working toaster oven.

“During the first days of the storm, we really weren’t worried,” says Slaughter. “Lake Conroe was beginning to release water, but there was no visible impact.”

“Ironically, relatives on Lake Conroe called us and said, ‘They’re releasing water from the dam up here and you have no idea how much!’ It was much more than the SJRA’s web site was showing. Evidently, the updates were way behind. But we still weren’t worried because we didn’t flood in 1994.”

“By noon, we began to think differently. We took three of our cars to Kingwood Park High School, just to be safe. My family talked me out of loading our computers into the cars because they thought someone would steal them. Big mistake. Everything I do is filed electronically with the courts. All the files on my laptop, memory cards, my home server … everything … was lost!”

“Our neighbors across the street are about a foot lower than we are. The creek behind them started to rise during the morning of the 28th. We went over to help them move their furniture upstairs. By 6 p.m., we had moved everything we could and water started to creep into their house.”

“On the news, they kept saying they were expecting the river to crest, but it didn’t; it kept rising. So we were caught off guard.”

“Then around midnight of the 28th, water began to creep into our house.” She looks whimsically inward at herself and giggles.

The Great Solo Cup Caper

“What?” I ask.

“We thought we might get only a couple inches, so we put solo cups under the legs of our wooden tables to protect them!” She smiles; You have to admire a woman who can laugh at disaster. Eventually, her home took on four feet of water.

The Slaughter’s gutted interior.

“We put chairs, computers, photo albums, and other junk up on tables and chests without realizing that everything we put up high would float and flip.”

The Pink Flamingo Flotilla

She laughs again as she flits from memory to random memory. “We evacuated as soon as the water started coming in the house. We brought our dog with us. But we left the rabbit in a cage up on the dining room table. When the water kept rising, I told my husband, ‘You have to get the rabbit.’”

“He and the dear friend who rescued us took an umbrella and waded back to the house through chest-deep water. Our rabbit was floating high above the table in her cage. They floated her cage right out.  Other belongings were rescued on a giant pink flamingo. Most people used john boats; we used a pink flamingo from our pool.”

Amy Slaughter shows how high the water reached in her entry way.

Then her mood turns somber again. “Once we rescued the rabbit, we realized we had at least four feet of water in our house. We were pretty much in shock.”

“What did you lose?” I ask.

“Furniture-wise and computer-wise, we lost everything. Wedding pictures, family albums, even the digital stuff on thumb drives. It’s all gone. But everybody is safe, nobody got hurt.”

“We were able to save most of our clothing with Pine Sol and Clorox. We saved most of the dishes. Ironically goblets levitated out of my grandmother’s china cabinet and floated all over the house. We found them down the hall, in different rooms. Everywhere.  Standing upright.”

“I’ll never leave this place.”

“Some friends suggested that we go to their home on Lake Livingston. It took three times longer than normal, but when we got there, we could get on the phone with our insurance company and FEMA. Watching all the news coverage from Livingston was terrifying. It was hard to see that and not be here.”

“When the river receded, we came back. We wanted to get into the house as quickly as we could. We lived with nearby relatives while we started gutting our house.”

“I didn’t cry for two weeks. I felt strongly that I couldn’t tell my children, ‘It’s just stuff,’ and not live by the motto myself.”

“When I got in there, I went from an attitude of looking at ‘what was lost’ to ‘what we could save.’ That really helped me get through the experience of gutting the house.”

“Everything in our home was sentimental. We had a lot of antiques we inherited. My grandmother grew up destitute. It killed me to put her sewing machine out at the curb, knowing how many dresses she had made for us growing up. To watch it rot there for three weeks was heart wrenching.”

“It was unbelievable, though, to be surrounded by people who came out of the woodwork to help. In Livingston, I was thinking, ‘Where can we live?’ But during the gutting of our house, people just came up and offered to help. Everyone pitched in. Strangers. Friends. Relatives. Customers. Clients. They brought food. They brought tools. And they didn’t ask for anything. After that, I thought to myself,  ‘I’ll never leave Kingwood.’”

A Court Appearance Reminiscent of “My Cousin Vinny”

“Then the exhaustion hit. My husband and I were both still trying to work. I had court dates. My clothing was all over Kingwood. At cleaners. With me. With my mother in law. It was pretty funny. The first time I went to court, I showed up in a denim skirt.  I approached the bailiff and said, I apologize ahead of time to the court. We got flooded and I don’t know where any of my clothes are.” Luckily, Slaughter had a judge who was more understanding than the one in the movie.

“Home, Home on the Driveway”

“Currently, we live in a travel trailer. We had looked for homes, apartments and hotels to rent, but everything was booked up. Friends opened their homes to us, but we wanted to stay near the house to deal with repairs. The trailer is not big enough for all of us; my son has to live with my sister in law.”

“The trailer is not like living in a drum; it’s like living in a drum SET,” Slaughter jokes. “When it rains, you hear all kinds of sounds. The rain makes one sound. The pine needles brushing up against the trailer make another. And then there’s the occasional cymbal crash when a pine cone hits the roof.”

“We store our clothes in the garage. It’s the mother of all walk-in closets right now.”

The mother of all walk in closets…Amy Slaughter’s garage.

“How do you cook?” I ask.

“The trailer does have a microwave. We have a grill with a burner on it. And we have a hot plate and a toaster oven. But mostly we don’t cook.”

Shrinking an Inch a Day

I shake my head, thinking back to college. I could handle life in a trailer then. Now, I’m not so sure. Amy Slaughter seems only slightly troubled, though.

“It’s not bad if you’re on vacation, but after eight months, it’s kind of getting old. At first you’re so grateful to have it that you overlook the inconveniences. Then after about a month, your thoughts start to go in the opposite direction. It feels like it’s shrinking an inch a day.” I nod; I have a pair of jeans like that.

Camp Chairs and an Air Mattress for Watching TV

“Now that the house is dried out, I’m starting to use it as a workshop to restore my grandmother’s furniture,” says Amy Slaughter. “We have a back porch. We put a TV out there. We have camp chairs and an air mattress for watching the TV. That’s really our living room. But it’s getting hot now. So we may be spending more time in the trailer.”

Third-World Living

“The shower in the trailer is about the size of a bucket. It’s functional and would work. But it’s tiny, so we shower in the house. One of the bathrooms had a shower where we only tore out the glass and the backside of two walls. We put tarps along the wood studs to hold the water in and propped up the one wall with a wire shelving unit and bungee cords. It’s definitely Third-World living.”

The Slaughter shower. Makeshift, but still bigger than their trailer’s shower.

I think to myself, “This lady wins awards for creativity, but I doubt she will pass the plumbing inspection.”

“Purchasing the House We Almost Paid Off.”

I ask how Harvey affected Amy Slaughter’s family financially. Without missing a beat, she says, “We get the privilege of purchasing the house we had almost paid off.” I ask for an explanation. “Our options were: sell and move; put it right back together again; or build up. We didn’t want to move. And we didn’t want to flood … ever again. So we decided to build up. But contractors told us it would be less expensive to wipe the slab and start over than build on top of what we had.”

“How much longer will it take?” I ask.

“Finding a contractor to do the whole thing is difficult. Everybody is booked. We’re in a financial quandary. Flood insurance will only go so far. It will replace what we had, but not what we feel we need to build to be safe. Before this, we had a house that never flooded and we want to get back to that.”

“What are your biggest concerns at the moment?” I ask.

Concerns Looking Forward

“There’s a concern that we won’t be able to sell the house. How many people want a one-story house where you have to climb the stairs to get in?”

“I’m also afraid that Kingwood will be considered a lost cause at some point by politicians. You’ve seen it happen with Forest Cove. ‘Oh, that area floods now, so we should just buy out the owners and wipe it all out.’”

“Meanwhile, you have developers who are buying golf courses, like Forest Cove’s. I’ve heard it was bought and is about to be turned into homesites. That scares me. They’re going to build up higher and that’s just going to send water toward the rest of us. If the politicians don’t start limiting development like that, it will turn the rest of us into a financial sink hole.”

“If you could say one thing to the mayor, what would it be?”

Amy Slaughter pauses a long time, then…

“Come try to sleep through a rain storm in my travel trailer!”

“I worry whether I should put pontoons it,” she says doing her best Sarah Silverman imitation. Then seriously, “It won’t take a Harvey at this point to flood Kingwood again. I know they are committed to dredging the river, but the reality is they haven’t solidified any workable plan yet.”

And with that, Amy Slaughter excuses herself and sprints off to her conference call.

Interview by Bob Rehak

Posted May 15, 2018

259 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Jennifer Trimble’s Hurricane Harvey Experience

Jennifer Trimble in front of her nearly restored home

Seven months after Hurricane Harvey flooded her home in the middle of the night, Jennifer Trimble still cannot hear the sound of a helicopter or rain beating on her windows without choking back tears.

Trimble, a single mother of an 11 year old son, lost her job before Hurricane Harvey dumped 40 inches of rain on the Lake Houston area. Like most of her neighbors, she had no flood insurance. “Everyone said that it never flooded here, that we were safe.” Trimble lives more than a mile from the San Jacinto River, two blocks north of Kingwood Drive in an area that had escaped previous “500 year” rains in 1994, 2001, 2015, and 2016. But her luck ran out with Harvey.

“With some warning…I could have saved myself from most of this terrible experience.”

Now, while picking at some enchiladas in a TexMex restaurant (that had also flooded), she tells the story of the night when she stepped out of bed at 4:30 a.m. into muddy water and reached for a light switch. Reliving those moments of panic, her story careens from desperate attempts to escape to the kindness of strangers, her faith in God, contractor woes, the search for a new job, and the politics of flood mitigation.

Flying Into the Eye of the Storm

The week before Harvey, Trimble had gone to Illinois to visit her mother who had been hospitalized. She recalls reading about Harvey, then a tropical storm, while flying back to Houston on August 23rd.

“By the time we got back, the forecast had changed to a hurricane,” she said. When the storm made landfall on Friday, August 25, she still wasn’t very worried. After all, she had lived and worked through Katrina in Louisiana more than decade earlier.

Back then, she worked in personnel for an oil company and helped hundreds of employees who had lost their homes. “But I didn’t think anything like that could ever happen here,” she continued. “We are too far inland. I went to the grocery store and stocked up on food and batteries just in case, but I wasn’t worried.”

Worries Rise with the Water

“Each night through the hurricane, I woke up from the rain. By the 28th, water was coming up everywhere. The drainage ditch was overflowing onto Kingwood Drive. Water was coming up from the greenbelt. That night, we made plans to evacuate in the morning even though I still didn’t think we would flood,” said Trimble.

The street in front of Trimble’s home as she and her son were being rescued by boat.

“I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and stepped out of bed into floodwater. I was kind of groggy and didn’t realize what was happening at first. I turned on a lamp that was plugged into a power strip on the floor. The power was still on. I was lucky we weren’t electrocuted.”

“I froze. For a full minute. Then I called the next door neighbor to let them know that their house would be flooding, too. I posted on the NextDoor app that I was flooding.”

Neighbors and Social Media to the Rescue

Trimble continued. “Two people I didn’t even know offered to come to my house and help. One person made it to the house, but couldn’t get in because of water already chest deep in the street. My car in the garage had water over the tires. We were trapped.”

“My neighbor and another person from social media came at 5:00 a.m. They helped move small items like electronics, an end table – anything we could salvage – upstairs. Through all of this, I’ll never forget seeing my cat in the office, sitting on top of my desk as the water was rising.”

Temporary Escape to Neighbor’s House

“We finally escaped out of the front door to my neighbor’s house in hip-deep water. While moving things upstairs, I was in ‘go mode.’

It wasn’t until I was in my neighbor’s house looking back at my house that it hit me. There was so much water. My whole house was sitting in the middle of a lake – and I didn’t have flood insurance.”

Jennifer Trimble’s home as seen from neighbor’s second story.

“Then my neighbor’s house started to take on water, too. At 9 a.m., another Kingwood resident rescued us by boat. I was so grateful.”

Search for Safety and Stability

As word of Trimble’s plight spread to friends, offers of help started coming in. Several offered her places to stay until she could recover. She and her son stayed with a friend in Mills Branch through the middle of October. “Then, we moved on to another friend.

“Because of my son’s allergies, we couldn’t move back in until all the drywall repairs were finished.”

My son has asthma and allergies, so we couldn’t get back into our house right away. We had to get rid of all the mold and mildew. The house had to dry out thoroughly and be disinfected. We also had to make sure the walls were up and textured. It took a long time. Sometimes I can talk about it, but other times I get emotional,” she said as tears welled up in her eyes.

Rebuilding a Home and her Life

“After the water receded, I had many people helping with demo work,” said Trimble. “Friends, friends of friends, strangers, people from my church. By Saturday noon, we were done. In two and a half days, everything was knocked out and gone.”

Flood debris ready for removal in front of Trimble home.

“When the San Antonio crews came to haul the trash away, I was happy, but cried my heart out. It’s so emotional to see your life being carried away. Our house is close to livable again. The master bath is the last major piece, though there are still lots of little details. Some things will just have to wait. Like the deck on the back of the house. We lost it altogether.“

“The hardest part for me is dealing with my contractors. Sometimes, I want to scream. I’m so frustrated. It seems like we always get up-charged. The cost never goes down if we substitute something cheaper. And then there are mistakes. For instance, we ordered a new door, but they trimmed excess height off the bottom instead of the top. So we had to order another. Seven months after the flood, we’re still waiting on the replacement. I’m tired of dealing with it,” said Trimble.

Making Do Until Making More

In rebuilding her home, Trimble received help from many unexpected sources.

“A Facebook page, Flooding Kingwood with Kindness, has been my source of sanity,” she says. There, people who have items to donate find people who need donations.

“My sister also started a ‘Go-Fund-Me’ page where friends and family could make donations to my recovery effort.”

“FEMA was very good to me. They gave me the maximum amount. My family and friends also kicked in. And I created an Amazon wish list to help offset expenses.”

“Still, I’m glad that I was a diligent saver. Without a job and without savings, we would have been sunk.”

“I’m frugal. With the exception of new bedroom furniture, I bought used things to replace furniture we lost. I just won’t buy everything for a while, until I build savings back up.”

Trimble recently started a new job. “It was a blessing that I wasn’t working during the recovery. There were so many things that went wrong. If I wasn’t there to address them right away, it would have been a disaster. As it was, I got my son off to school at 8 a.m. then worked all day on the house until 8, 9, or 10 at night for a long stretch.”

Trimble has been a single mother for nine years. “Rebuilding was overwhelming at times,” she said. “I lived through Katrina, Gustav and two surgeries, but this is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. I look back now and think everything that came before was God’s way of preparing me.”

Natural disasters bring out the best in people

Much of Trimble’s interview focuses on the generosity of people around her. “Total strangers rescued us. Friends opened their hearts and homes. Neighbors washed laundry that had been flooded. Others helped tear out sheet rock and tile. My church started a support group. FEMA gave us help. Ted Poe broke through red tape. It’s all been amazing.”

Still, the trauma of Harvey makes sleeping difficult. How does she cope? “My experience as a single parent helped me get through this…and my faith in God. I don’t know how I would have made it without my faith!”

“I can’t do this again.”

Said Trimble, “I want to do what I can so that this never happens again.”

Trimble has participated in the Lake Houston Chamber’s Plea for 3 and Plea to See initiatives. She has also participated in the Lake Houston Area Grass Roots Flood Prevention Initiative and demonstrated outside the community center when Governor Abbott visited the area.

“When we got those flood warnings in February and March,” she said, “I felt horrible. I’m scared. I have angst about what will happen every time it rains.”

“We need to dredge. We need better communication. Clearly, we got no warnings. With some warning, I could have moved everything upstairs. I could have moved my car. My son and I could have gotten out. I could have saved myself from having most of this terrible experience,” she says, choking back tears.

“Clearly, there needs to be a better plan with permitting. They need to get to a place where they can lower the lake level. They’re fumbling right now; figuring everything out as they go. We need more coordinated flood control; all these entities don’t work well together.”

“Everybody underestimated the impact that this was going to have and how long it would last. The emotional and mental toll is draining. A disaster like this impacts daily life, the ability of people to hold a job, to parent their children, and to navigate through life in general.”

Interviewed by Bob Rehak,
Posted April 26, 240 Days After Hurricane Harvey