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.
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.”
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: 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
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
Waters Begin to Rise
River Fully Out of its Banks
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!”
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.
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.
Revisiting the Escape Route Days Later
“We went OVER this bridge in the boat!!” said Sally Geis.
According to Geis, on the way out, rescue-boat propellers kept striking submerged cars, nearly capsizing boats on more than one occasion.
“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.
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.
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
Four years after Harvey, the storm’s effects are still visible at Alspaugh’s Hardware Store in Kingwood’s Town Center. To this day, Rick Alspaugh struggles to balance inventory with service, the thing that made his business formula unique. This is the story of how Harvey affected him, his business, his customers and 60 employees.
Bob: Your family’s first hardware store in Kingwood was up near the front. When did you move to Town Center?
Rick: We bought our property from Friendswood in 1993 and opened our store in ‘94.
27 Years of Success Based on Unique Formula
Bob: You’ve been there 27 years! Did the entry of Lowe’s into the market affect your business?
Rick: Not really. They don’t do what we do.
Bob: How would you characterize that?
Rick: They have great inventories. But we have people who can walk you through a project. We were the go-to place for service. People don’t come here for lumber, tile, sinks and carpet. They come for parts, paint, smaller things. And we have this amazing boutique with unique things that nobody else carries. With goods at all price levels. Plus free gift-wrapping. You can’t get that anywhere else in the city.
Back before Harvey, we also had a huge selection of barbecue equipment. We’re struggling right now, but God’s going to get us through it.
Bob: Let’s go back to Hurricane Harvey.
3.5 Feet of Water in 16,000 SF Store, But No Flood Insurance
Rick: August 28th 2017. I’ll never forget it. Everything went underwater. Deep under water – three and a half feet.
We lost twenty-seven computers. They were all on desktops, but that wasn’t high enough.
Bob: Were you insured for that?
Rick: Not a bit.
Bob: (shocked) You didn’t have flood insurance?!
Rick: About a month before Harvey, my insurance agent came in. We talked about how we had grown and increased my coverage. Then Harvey hit. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
60 Employees Help Jumpstart Business
Rick: At the time, I had about 60 employees. The day after Harvey, everyone showed up and started cleaning. It was amazing, Bob. They rebuilt the store. It was unreal. It was just… We came together!
Within three days, we were able to open by working out of trailers and a cargo container outside with one surviving computer from the paint department. We ran wires out there. And we re-opened out of that container.
I ordered about $400,000 worth of stuff that people would need for cleanup.
“I Just Assumed I Had Flood Insurance”
Rick: In the flood, we also lost three trucks. A generator. And our forklifts. I used up all my cash reserves to get going again and keep people working. So, I called my agent to make some insurance claims and he says, “For what?”
“We flooded in Harvey! This was a total loss,” I said.
He goes, “You’re not covered for rising water. You don’t have flood insurance.”
My agent never once asked me if I wanted flood insurance. And I never asked if I had it. I just…assumed. I assumed I had it.
Luckily, the three trucks were covered under our automotive policy. So, I got money for them. But it was not enough to replace them.
Bob: How long did it take to reopen?
Doing Business Outside While Rebuilding Inside
Rick: By September 1st, we were selling outside. But for all of September and October, and most of November, we were rebuilding the inside.
At lunch, our barbecue vendor came in to cook for us. We would pressure wash the tables, turn a bunch of buckets upside down, sit, pray, and eat. That really brought us together.
Before the store was even cleaned out, I targeted reopening inside for the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Everyone just looked at me with giant eyes. But by God, we got to work. And we made it happen.
Bob: Were there any setbacks?
Rick: We received three 18 wheelers of shelving…in the wrong order. We needed uprights first. But they came on the last truck…a week late. So, we literally lost a week of assembly. But we were back in the store by Monday before Thanksgiving.
Rick: In about eight weeks, we completely redid the store. But that was eight hours a day for 60 people.
$3.2 Million in Flood Losses
Bob: How much did you lose in Harvey?
Rick: $3.2 million dollars. We lost the entire inventory. We trashed it all because I was concerned about contamination. It was nasty. We’re less than a quarter of a mile downriver from Kingwood’s main sewage treatment plant. We just had to trash everything.
But when we reopened, everything was 100 percent clean. Brand new. We threw out everything touched by Harvey. Four trailer loads of barbecue pits were crushed and hauled straight to the scrap yard.
Bob: I had no idea. Did any of the newspapers write that story?
Rick: No. I never felt I was special to where I needed to talk about it. All the people around me suffered similar losses. The jewelry store. The photofinisher. The barbershop. The cupcake guy. Everybody in Town Center lost everything.
Bob: Did you ever think the water would get this high?
Rick: I knew it could reach Town Center because of the 1994 flood. So, during Harvey, we tried to raise everything up about a foot. But I never thought three and a half feet!
If you had three and a half feet of snow, it would melt by next week and it would be business as usual. But when you have three and a half feet of water in your store…well, here I am talking about the recovery four years later.
Plagued by PTSD
Bob: How has this affected you personally?
Rick: People don’t realize how real PTSD is. I have my eye on the Weather Channel all the time now.
Bob: Do you have flood insurance now?
Rick: Yes, sir. And I’ve got a different insurance agent, too.
Business Since Harvey
Bob: So, you lost $3.2 million worth of inventory and computers. You had to start over. Without help from insurance. How has Harvey affected your business since then?
Rick: Harvey not only destroyed our store, it wiped out 3000 homes within a nine-iron shot of here. This entire neighborhood…gone. Customers didn’t need most of what I had at that point. They needed major remodel stuff: carpet, tile, wallboard, like that. They needed contractors, not light switches. Plus, they didn’t have flood insurance and had to bear the cost of recovery out of pocket.
We have problems. But not like most people. We’re not on the way to M.D. Anderson. Having burned through my own savings, I just don’t have enough money to offer the kind of service people came to expect.
Government Grants Slow in Coming
Bob: What comes next?
Rick: We’re poised to recover. I just need inventory. We filed for some Harvey help.
I got some tax relief, which was very nice. An SBA loan which we’re paying back. The Humble Chamber helped us, which was a huge blessing.
Congress appropriated $100 million to small businesses for Harvey grants. But they take forever. Worse, they had $250 million worth of need.
Luckily, friends in the community stepped up to help fill that gap. That’s why we are here today. I’m not begging friends anymore. I’m just not. But I would like to get some of this Harvey aid. I certainly qualify.
Banking on Community Spirit
Bob: So where do you go from here?
Rick: We’re here every day. The lights are on. And we still have stuff to sell. Just not as much as we used to.
Bob: You know, I can’t imagine cooking barbeque without your store.
Rick: Thank you.
Bob: I see Alspaugh’s as a central location for community spirit.
Rick: It used to be. And it can be again. There’s not a whole lot that we can’t do as a community.
Posted by Bob Rehak on September 15, 2021 based on an interview with Rick Alspaugh
1478 Days since Hurricane Harvey