Coulter

Harvey Victim Denied Aid for Not Communicating After Contacting City 17 Times

Bureaucracies never make mistakes; they just defend them.

A Harvey flood victim was denied aid because, the city says, she didn’t respond to the Houston Housing and Community Development Department’s (HCDD) invitation to submit an application on May 14, 2020. However, the invitation got lost in the victim’s email and she didn’t learn of it until September 7, 2021, when the City first mentioned it in a denial of her second appeal.

Between those two dates, Jennifer Coulter, the victim, contacted the City 17 times to ask if she could file an application.

In every call, no HCDD employee ever told her that she was eligible to apply. In fact, they told her the opposite – that they hadn’t gotten to her “Priority Group” yet. After misleading her, when New Year’s Eve came and went last year, the Harvey Reimbursement Program expired, and Coulter was out. Despite multiple requests to clarify her status and two appeals , HCDD denied aid to Coulter for not communicating with them.

Meticulous Records Read Like Horror Movie Script

Fortunately, Coulter kept meticulous records of her calls, emails and attempts to contact HCDD. Reading her log is like a horror movie.

Many others, who were denied aid, experienced variations of her problems. For instance, after two years of being kept in the dark about whether he could submit an application, HCDD notified one man that he could apply just hours before the program expired on New Year’s Eve. HCDD told him that he needed to submit his application by 5PM or lose eligibility. Unfortunately, he was visiting out-of-town relatives and didn’t have access to required documents.

Chronic bad planning, mismanagement, disorganization, understaffing, miscommunication and poor record-keeping at HCDD created a malignant and crippled aid-distribution system after Harvey.

In Coulter’s case and many others, HCDD problems victimized flood victims a second time.

Coulter
Coulter home after Harvey. The family lived in a travel trailer in their driveway for a year with two adults, two kids, two cats and one dog, while they made repairs with money in their 401Ks and kids’ college funds.

Organizational Travesty Compounded Natural Tragedy

I would say Coulter’s case is one of the saddest stories to come out of Harvey…if so many others hadn’t been denied aid for similar reasons.

A 2019 HUD audit of HCDD found in part that “Staff members worked independently and did not communicate with each other re: applications.” Coulter’s call log vividly brings to life the chaos that flood victims were forced to deal with as they struggled to find assistance from the City.

Of the tens of thousands of homes damaged in Harvey, Houston managed to reimburse only 120 families a mere $2,024,000 out of the $164 million allocated by HUD – just 1.2% of available funds. Those figures were as of December 31, 2020. The City’s 10/31/2021 pipeline report shows that HCDD has manage to reimburse another 22 families that managed to squeeze in under the Reimbursement Program deadline.

Audits 2 Years Apart Show Similar Organizational Problems

After Harvey, the City of Houston lobbied the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for approximately $1.3 billion to aid Harvey victims, such as Coulter. But a subsequent 2019 HUD audit showed HCDD was unprepared to manage the money, the caseload or the approval process.

Despite assistance and training by the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which manages disaster relief for HUD in Texas, Houston never got its disaster relief programs in gear. A second audit by GLO released last Wednesday arrived at conclusions similar to HUD’s.

While interference by the Mayor in HCDD operations has drawn headlines, Coulter’s case and thousands of others remain footnotes in this tragedy.

City’s Needlessly Complex Two-Step Application Dooms Program

Among the problems: HCDD set up a needlessly complex application process involving two steps. Victims had to “apply to apply” by filling out an online survey. Based on survey answers, HCDD placed victims in one of six “priority groups.” Group 1 represented highest priority flood victims and 6 the lowest.

HUD and the GLO warned Houston about the two-step application process even before it started. They told Houston it was too complex and would cause delays. They recommended that the City have everyone submit full applications and then sort through them to find enough qualified applicants to match the amount of aid available.

That way, everyone would have had a fair chance to meet the deadlines involved. Delays and miscommunication would not have been a factor. HCDD’s repair program expired last December 31st at 5PM with only a small fraction of the aid distributed.

HCDD initially told Coulter that she was in Group 6, the lowest priority. But on May 14, 2020, HCDD sent her an invitation to submit a full application. The invitation got lost in her email. And Coulter continued to call the City for the remainder of the year. Each time she would ask if she could submit an application and each time she was told, “Not yet,” despite already having been invited.

GLO Help Rebuffed by City

GLO attempted to help HCDD, but was rebuffed and actually barred from HCDD offices at one point. When HCDD continued to miss interim deadlines for the dispersal of aid, GLO even attempted to take over the repair program. But Houston sued GLO to retain it. Ultimately, the repair program expired with only a tiny fraction of the funds dispersed and with thousands of flood victims left empty handed.

Even though Coulter called HCDD dozens of times to clarify her status, in 15 months, nobody at HCDD ever told her over the phone to check her email or that she could apply. That’s how bad HCDD’s record-keeping, database systems, and internal communications were!

Sadly, we’ve come to expect and accept stories like this from the City of Houston. HUD and GLO audits repeatedly showed problems in HCDD.

After Reimbursement Program Expired, Mayor Claims Commitment to Improvement

The mayor’s response, after the latest audit and after the program expired, was in essence, “We’ll look into it and fix it if we find problems.” His press release about the latest audit concluded, “The City is committed, as it always has been, to transparency and improving its Housing processes.”

Admittedly, the Reimbursement Program that Coulter applied to is just one of many HCDD programs.

But for the Jennifer Coulters of the world, it’s too late. The HUD money will likely go unused and return to Washington for future grants that may give other victims false hope.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/27/2021

1551 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

MoCo Couple That Flooded 13 Times in 11 Years Finally Gets a Buyout

I first interviewed Tammy Gunnels and her husband Ronnie almost three years ago. They had flooded ten times at that point even though they weren’t in a flood zone. The Gunnels are devout people and prayed for a buyout. Friday, their prayers were answered. Here is the story of how their faith and persistence paid off in the long run. This interview also included Morgan Lumbley, the Disaster Recovery Manager for Montgomery County who guided the Gunnels through the application process. Ironically, the skies unleashed torrential rains just before the closing. But this time, everyone was smiling instead of worrying.

Ronnie Gunnels (left), Morgan Lumbley (middle), Tammy Gunnels (right) at Chicago Title in Montgomery for closing.

Early Frustration

Bob: You flooded 13 times in 11 years. Tell me how you finally got the buyout offer. 

Tammy: After Harvey, one of my cleaning clients who’s an attorney vowed to find a way to get us a buyout. She put me in touch with the Office of Emergency Management for Montgomery County. Initially, they told me there were no open programs available.

Tammy: That was in 2017. Then in May of 2019, we flooded twice – on May 3rd and again on May 7th. Once more, I contacted their office and went to commissioners meetings, begging for a buyout. But nothing happened. After we flooded a third time that year during Imelda, I called their office just to scream and holler and cry into the phone. But this time, Morgan answered. I told her our story and by the end of the conversation, she was crying and promising that she was going to do everything she could.

Patience Finally Pays Off

Bob: And she wrote a beautiful note.

Tammy: She put it on her computer where it stayed until today. It says, “No one before Miss Tammy. Number one priority.” Later, she called back and said, “Look, I’ve found a couple programs. Which do you want to go with?” I said, “I don’t care. The quickest. Just get us out of this house.” 

When Morgan Lumbley came to the Gunnels’ closing today, she brought the note she wrote during her first phone call with them.

Initially, we thought the buyout was going to be done in early 2020. But it kept dragging out. Red tape. Then COVID hit. That changed everything. I would email Morgan nights, weekends, whenever it rained, asking “When?” But never once did she get irritated or say, “I’m doing the best I can.” 

All throughout biblical scripture, it says we do not understand His ways or His timing or His plans. If we had been bought out before now, no way would we have gotten the offer we got. 

We got full current market value. We hoped the county would pay off the mortgage, which was about $60,000 but FEMA covered full market value…$250,000.

Bob: How did you find these programs, Morgan?

FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Program

Morgan: There are a couple funding programs for buyouts. The one we got the Gunnels in is FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Program. It is a “cycle funding” opportunity – available every year. But it’s a competitive grant. So, we have to fill out an application that names the homes you want to buy out – and their values – on the front end. The county collected data for “severe repetitive loss” homes. And when we won the grant, those were the people who got offers.

But buyouts are probably the slowest of all the mitigation processes. So, sometimes  people drop out before deals close. And when they do, that opens up room for others. 

Bob: Is that how Tammy and Ronnie got in?

Morgan: Yes. Tammy and Ronnie could also have qualified through a HUD program, but we focused on FEMA’s, because they had a current National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) policy. It was also based on their flood losses. They were considered a “severe repetitive loss.”

Active Flood Insurance Key to Buyout

Not counting our own personal funds, NFIP spent three quarters of a million on that property. They could have bought us out five times. 

Tammy Gunnels

Tammy: People said we should just walk away. But we literally had no place to go. When you flood, yeah, you get insurance. But the lien holder on your home gets the money. The lien holder releases it in increments so that you make the repairs. And they inspect the repairs before releasing the next payment. There IS no walking away. Most people don’t understand that. You don’t have money to go anywhere.

We had already drained Ronnie’s 401K and every bit of savings we had. We’re at the age that we’re supposed to be looking forward to retirement. But we don’t. I have nothing left from my kids from when they were growing up. The childhood memories – all those silly little pictures they make for you in birthday cards – I have none of that left. The floods took everything. This has aged us physically and mentally by years.

Ronnie and Tammy as they sign the last of the closing papers.

Ronnie: When we first got insurance, it was fairly cheap and then once we flooded, it skyrocketed. We were just going to handle the losses ourselves. But our neighbor said, “If you’re not insured, you can’t be on any buyout list. That woke us up. We said, “We’ve got to get back on insurance.”

The 13th Time is the Charm

Bob: So Morgan, put this in perspective for me. Flooding 13 times. Where does that rank?

Morgan: 13 is a lot.

Bob: Is it a record?

Morgan: Of those that have come across my desk, it definitely is! Five or six is pretty common, maybe even seven. But 13 is a lot. I think that’s what got me the most. To hear that someone has flooded that many times! 

Tammy: Morgan says she’s the low person on the totem pole, but she’s on a throne in my heart forever.

Home Will Be Demolished and Lot Turned to Green Space

Bob: What will Montgomery County do with the home you just bought?

Morgan: Demolish it. The land will be regraded and then it becomes green space to restore the natural flood function. Nothing else. Another residential structure cannot be built on that land. 

“I just want to be a normal person again!”

Bob: Tammy, where do you go with your life from here? 

Tammy: I don’t think we’ve even thought about it. For the last 13 years, we haven’t been able to plan anything.

Ronnie: We’re just hoping we don’t freak out every time it rains.

Tammy: I just want to go to sleep at night without pacing the floor, wondering when the next flood will hit, and whether the water will come in through the front door, the back door or the patio. I just want to be a normal person again.

Advice for Home Buyers: Research, Ask Right Questions

Bob: What advice would you give people looking for a home to buy?

Morgan: Research! Research is the biggest thing. Diligent research. Too many people take information at face value. They look at the seller’s disclosure. And it asks, “Has the home flooded?” But it doesn’t say when. And it doesn’t say how many times. And no one has to tell you that. Also, the damage amount is not indicated anywhere. And no one has to disclose that either.

If you’re looking at a house, go over to the neighbors. Knock on doors and ask, “Did you flood? Do you know if that house flooded? How high did the water get in your yard? Those are questions that you want to ask.

Ronnie: I’m guilty. I didn’t ask the right questions.

Morgan: A lot of people, when they go looking for their forever home, they’re looking at granite countertops. Is the backyard big enough for the kids? But the questions they really need to ask are, “Am I near a flood plain? Has this house been flooded? How many times? How high? Those kinds of things.”

Tammy: She is exactly right. EXACTLY.

Posted by Bob Rehak on October 1, 2021, based on an interview with Tammy and Ronnie Gunnels, and Morgan Lumbley

1494 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Harvey evacuation. Sally Geiss

Day of Terror Relived: Sally Geis’ Harvey Evacuation Story

In August 2017, Sally Geis and her husband JG watched as Harvey’s floodwaters crept over the San Jacinto West Fork river bank. They thought they would be safe. But soon rising water turned to raging water. As they moved upstairs, they took a hatchet. JG said it was to kill snakes that got in the house. But Sally wondered if it was to chop a hole in their roof in case they needed an escape hatch.

I’ve known Sally and JG for almost three years. They first contacted me in regard to development practices in floodplains and floodways. But it wasn’t until today, that Sally sent me pictures from Harvey showing her harrowing escape. Rick Alspaugh’s comment about PTSD in yesterday’s post caused her to review her pictures from Harvey and share them. Like Rick, she has a hard time overcoming the memories of what for some neighbors turned into a fatal experience.

Photographing the River’s Rise During Four Days

Sally’s rediscovered cache of photos creates a valuable addition to our understanding of how Harvey’s floodwaters rose and spread in the Kingwood area.

Before Waters Rose
West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge over West Fork San Jacinto before the flood. August 25th, 2017, 11:09 a.m.
Waters Begin to Rise
August 27th, 2017 at 7:17 a.m. Note how much closer the level of the water is to the bridge and how part of the boat dock is under water.
River Fully Out of its Banks
August 28, 2017 at 10:44 p.m. Boat dock is completely under water. Street signs visible in earlier photos are almost completely submerged.

Serious Trouble

August 29, 2017 at 8:35 a.m. Street signs are under water but top parts of light poles are still visible. Note bridge on far right. Water almost touches bridge in center. But at far end on Atascocita side, the road bed is tangent with the river. All surface features in foreground are submerged.

River Rescue

Soon a boat was the only way out…a boat which snatched them from the second story of their home.

Said Sally, “The current was very fierce — he really knew what he was doing!! We could touch the tree tops and the street name signs overhead!”

Geis rescue during Harvey. Two men from Paris, TX drove 6 hours with their boat to help. Sally said they had to rev their engine up to full speed to fight the cross current. Notice the churning waves among the trees in the background as they make their way north on West Lake Houston Parkway to the drop off point. August 29, 2017 at 6:55 P.M.

The picture above was taken north of Kingwood Drive almost two miles from the main channel of the West Fork. Yet look at that turbulence in the water. Normally, a point this far from a river would be designated as “floodplain storage.” Normally, that would mean placid waters, the opposite of what you see.

Eventually, the rescue boat dropped Sally and JG off at Wendy’s on West Lake Houston Parkway at Rustic Woods, several blocks north of where the photo above was taken. From there to the water’s edge on the south side of the West Fork is approximately 2 miles…wider than the widest part of Lake Houston itself – just upstream from the spillway – during normal times.

Eventually the river became wider than Lake Houston normally is.

From Wendy’s, a car ferried Sally and JG to a volunteer’s home where they slept the next night.

Day After Explorations

The following day, they explored the area on foot, still in shock, surveying all the damage. Water remained high in many places. Rescue operations continued.

At Woodland Hills and Tangle Lake, rescue efforts continued. August 30, 11:26 AM.
Shady Run at Kingwood Drive. Water normally flows from left to right here. But note how the trees appear to have been pushed from right to left. August 30, 2017 at noon.
At the same intersection, water reached halfway up street signs. August 30, 2017, 12:07 PM

Revisiting the Escape Route Days Later

“We went OVER this bridge in the boat!!” said Sally Geis.

West Lake Houston Bridge over Bens Branch after water receded. Photo taken 9/1/2017. Geis says her rescue boat went OVER, NOT UNDER THESE BRIDGES.

According to Geis, on the way out, rescue-boat propellers kept striking submerged cars, nearly capsizing boats on more than one occasion.

Photo taken 9/1/2017 after water receded. Car destroyed by propeller of rescue boat was totally submerged when struck. Side window was likely blown out by water pressure.

“A lot of boats were hitting submerged signs, cars, heavy things — they had no idea what was underwater. One boat hit a car, began to sink and nearly capsized. Thankfully it didn’t. A lady onboard could not swim. The water was over our heads and the current was scary and swift, plus contaminated. I heard there were 500 rescue boats in all — including the Cajun Navy, helicopters, jet skis,” said Geis.

After Shocks

Sally and JG lost their vehicles in the flood. And like so many others, they lost all the belongings on the lower floor of their home. Here is a short video of a scene they filmed on a walkabout after Harvey’s floodwater’s receded.

Video of Harvey Debris in Kingwood, TX by Sally Geis. Shot September 3, 2017, at 5:29 PM.

Sally’s brother later picked the couple up when the water receded and took them to a friend’s home. The friend was on vacation, so they got to rest up for five days before facing the destruction.

Says Sally, “Those images of every street lined with trash – of complete households hauled to the curb – for months on end added to the depression and PTSD.”

Geis and her husband spent the next two years restoring their home.

After fighting developers who wanted to build in the floodway of the West Fork, they finally sold their home earlier this year. They now live in a high rise downtown.

Sally says, “People who have never been through an experience like this have no idea how real the PTSD can be. It can take over your life.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on September 16, 2021, based on the photos and memories of Sally Geis

1479 Days since Hurricane Harvey