The First Responder During Harvey Who Flooded During Imelda

This is the story of a first responder who helped rescue dozens of families during Harvey. His own home later flooded during Imelda. Then he was the one calling for help. But that’s just the start of this gripping story. A house he rented (next to Woodridge Village) had flooded months earlier in May 2019, but Camillo Properties, the management company, said it had not. Within days of moving in last September, it flooded again. And that was after being in the emergency room most of the previous night with his stepson, who was diagnosed with pneumonia. Then the management company sued him for non-payment of rent – which he had paid. You don’t want to stand next to this guy in a lightning storm. Despite all his troubles, though, he says his relationship with his fiancé is stronger than ever. For job reasons, he needs to remain anonymous. I will refer to him only as John.

Rescue of Friend Turns into 12-Hour Marathon

Rehak: You had worked for a fire department in Montgomery County before Harvey. During the storm, you got a call from a terrified friend in the Barrington who was trapped in rising floodwaters. Tell me what happened.

John: Six to eight hours before calling me, she posted to Facebook saying she was in her living room, watching a movie, sipping wine, and “Everything is normal.” Then she called at 2 a.m. asking if I had any contacts who could rescue her.

Every back-channel contact was overwhelmed. So, I went down there in my Jeep to see if I could make it in. When I arrived, it was a lot deeper than I thought. Then a gentleman showed up with a huge aluminum boat – the kind that HFD uses for water rescues. 

He said, “Hey, I’ve got a couple of friends back here, too. Let’s go see what we can find.” This was just before dawn. We got everyone into the boat. Then we started looking and realized, “It’s not just a few people who didn’t evacuate.” There were hundreds upon hundreds back there.

That’s about when rescue organizations started showing up. Eventually, there were dozens of boats pulling people out.

Rehak: How many times did you go back in?

John: I couldn’t say. But I didn’t leave till about four that afternoon.

Rehak: You evacuated people for 12 hours!

John: We had to stop when we ran low on fuel.

Rehak: Could you estimate the speed of the current in the Barrington?

John: No. But I’ll tell you that it got real hairy, real quick, even with a 150 horsepower motor. 

Delayed Emotional Impact and Navigating Hidden Dangers

Rehak: What was it like emotionally as the day wore on?

John: After the fact, it was like…”Holy crap! How many people just lost everything that they had?” But at the time, we were too busy to think about it.

Coast Guard Rescue in Barrington filmed by John during boat rescue.

John: Coast Guard Seahawks were doing hoist rescues in areas boats couldn’t get to. And we were dodging submerged obstacles. We hit a couple of communal mailboxes. Those aren’t typical hazards you think about when operating a boat.

Rehak: Were there any other dangers that made things hairy?

John: Desperate people. Many weren’t thinking clearly. Some families didn’t want to leave, including those with kids.

Rehak: Were they in two-story homes?

John: Yes. But they had no access to resources past the initial push. Food, fresh water, working toilets.

Rehak: It was unsafe.

John: And water was creeping up to power meters. CenterPoint had not yet killed the area.

Rehak: Were there cars under water, too?

John: Oh, yeah. You could barely see the tops of some. 

Rehak: Any other stories stand out in your mind? 

John: Some families with kids had to make decisions about who would get in the lifeboat first and who would stay behind. It was heartbreaking.

“No. No. No. That House Never Flooded”

Rehak: Let’s talk about YOUR flood experience now in September of 2019 during Imelda.

John: We had been leasing an apartment at the front of Kingwood. The lease was coming up for renewal. So, we started looking at houses to lease and found one in North Kingwood Forest. It looked brand new even though the neighborhood was several years old. Looking back, that should’ve been a red flag. 

Camillio owned many properties on the street where John lived. Photo taken 12/22/2019, after homes had been repaired from Imelda on 9/19/2019.

Rehak: What attracted you?

John: It had more space. It was affordable, and there were many young families with kids. We applied, were approved within a couple of days, and set a move in date. As luck would have it, that turned out to be just SEVEN days before Imelda.

Rehak: Your pictures looked as though you weren’t even fully unpacked when the flood hit. 

Still unpacking after move when flood hit.

John: We had only unpacked essentials. And we had just done a big Costco run with cases of water, six-packs of chili, everything you need to stock a pantry. And then…

Rehak: Before you signed the lease, did you ask whether this place flooded before?

John: Unfortunately, we asked just after signing. My dad talked to our neighbor next door when we were moving in. She asked him whether they told us that the house had flooded in May.

View of street from John’s garage during Imelda

Rehak: Surprise!

John: So, I called the landlord and asked, “Did that house ever flood?” I was told, “Oh, no, no, no. That never flooded. Only the other side of the neighborhood flooded.”

8 days after the flood

Relocation to Spring Triggers Landlord Lawsuit

Rehak: Did that become a point of contention between you and the owners?

John: Not immediately. The landlord offered us another place in Spring. It seemed like they were trying to be accommodating. So, I didn’t really call out their lie at the time.

Rehak: What happened later to change your mind?

John: Towards the end of October, beginning of November, we got a letter from them saying that we had not paid our rent at the Spring location. Of course, we had, so I called them and said, “Hey, this is an error.” I sent them copies of bank statements showing the rent payments cleared. We had even paid through their online portal. They said, “OK, we’ll look into it.” 

Fast forward, two weeks later, a Constable serves us with an eviction lawsuit. This was a couple months after losing 70 percent of everything we owned.

Rehak: What did you do?

John: I contacted an attorney friend and he began calling them. They fed him the same line, “Oh, we will need to look into it.”

My attorney called me two days before court and said, “I have not gotten any response from them. We’ll have to go to court.” 

There, we met Camillo’s representative from Nationwide Evictions. We showed her our bank statements. But their paperwork showed only a move in and then nothing being paid. The judge found our evidence overwhelming and ruled in our favor. That was the end of that. But it left a sour taste. 

At that point, I thought to myself, “As soon as our lease is up and we can get away from this management company, we’re going to.” And we did.

Impact on Relationship

Rehak:. You have a fiancé who is a paramedic. How did this affect your relationship? 

John: I tell people, “After two moves in 10 days, on top of a flood, you’re either going to split up or you’re going to last a lifetime. We’re still together! 

Trip to Emergency Room Night Before Imelda

John: To top it off, the night before Imelda, he developed pneumonia. We were in the Kingwood Emergency Room with him until the wee hours. Fast-Forward to 9:30 or 10 the next morning. My fiancé woke me up and said, “We’re flooding.” 

View out front door when John woke up.

Rehak: What went through your mind?

John: I felt this has got to be a nightmare. That’s what she told to me later – that I rolled out of bed half awake and said, “This has got to be a nightmare.” Then I stepped down into water. That woke me up real fast!

Water flowing between John’s house and neighbor’s during Imelda.

From Pneumonia to “Water Park”

John: You’d think my stepson would have been sad or scared. But like a typical 4-year old, he thought it was a freakin’ WATER PARK! I can’t help but think that contributed to his pneumonia. It took him two weeks to get over that. There were a lot of sleep-deprived nights for us. We were mentally drained.

Rehak: So, on top of the flood, you’ve got a sick kid during your second move in two weeks! How did the people at your workplace react?

John: They came together. I have to say. They gave me time off work. They established a “go fund me.” Financially, they took care of us. They did right by us. 

“Start Taking Out Fence Pickets”

Rehak: Tell me more about what happened during the Imelda flood after you woke up.

John: We reached out to family and friends and started stacking things on couches, countertops, anything to get stuff up off the floor. Then we called Camillo and said, “We are actively flooding. What do we do?”

She said to start taking out fence pickets to allow the water to flow around the house versus through the house. That’s when I suspected that they knew this house had a tendency to flood. Otherwise, why would you say, “Take out fence pickets”?

Fence slats removed from neighbor’s house in May 7th flood. Photo taken May 24, 2019.

Water Coming From Back, Not Street

Rehak: Your video shows water flowing quickly from the back yard toward the street. How deep was the water in your back yard?

John: About a foot above my knees. It was that much higher in the back than on the street side. There was sand and silt throughout the house after the water receded. 

Sand and silt in garage as flood receded.

Rehak: That didn’t come from the street. 

House where John lived in relation to Woodridge Village construction in background. Photo taken 7/15/2020. Note fence repairs. Every home in this photo flooded.

John: Nope. There was only one place it could have come from. The 268-acres they had just cleared next to us.

Woodridge Village on 11/4/2019. Arrow shows approximate location of John’s home. In this photo you can feel the slope in the land that funneled water toward Taylor Gulley behind the twin culverts near the far tree line.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/18/2020

1054 Days after 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.


1000 Days After Hurricane Harvey, Jennifer and Chris Coulter Feel Blessed in Many Ways

The latest interview in my Impact series: Just months before Hurricane Harvey, Jennifer Coulter and her husband, Chris, decided to start  a new company called Texas Power Agents. The SBA used the timing of that decision to deny them a loan. And because they were then forced to liquidate their 401Ks to repair their home (a move which Jennifer thought counted as income), the City then denied them a Homeowner Assistance Grant. Through it all, they managed to rebuild their home, grow their company, and grow closer as a family. Long ago, they stopped expecting help from the bureaucracy and rebuilt their home with their own hands and the help of friends. Now, one thousand days after Harvey, they look back at the whole experience as a blessing in many ways. 

Bob Rehak: Harvey flooded your home. How badly?

Jennifer Coulter: Almost two-feet. But we gutted up to four feet. The house was unusable for a long time because it’s a one story house.

Jennifer Coulter is dwarfed by the pile of debris in front of her home.

The Great Post-Harvey, Year-Long Camp Out

Bob Rehak: You lived in a camper in your driveway for about a year. 

Jennifer Coulter: That was our best move! We went to a friend’s house for a week. And then another friend’s. Once we figured out this was a long-term process, we got a rental property. But the landlord tried to change the amount of the lease after we moved in. So we moved on.

Jennifer Coulter: Then, a friend whose mother’s house had been vacant in Oakhurst for five years invited us to move in and just pay the utilities. But after two months, the family trust decided to sell the home.

That’s when we bought the trailer. We knew we needed to be in control of our living situation. The only way we could do that affordably was with a trailer. But we had to buy a new one; there were no used ones available. And so, yeah, we went to Oklahoma, bought a trailer and lived in it for almost a year in our driveway. Two adults. Two kids. Two cats. And one dog. That actually turned out to be the right decision. We wish we had made that choice first.

Birthday party in the driveway with the new trailer.

Fruitless Search for SBA Help

Bob Rehak: So this whole time you’re working on your house?

Jennifer Coulter: We were gutting it. But we had no means to finance the rebuild. We were trying to figure that part out. So, we applied for an SBA loan. People told us that was our only option, since we didn’t have flood insurance and there was no way to get a home equity loan.

The Coulters ran out of room in their garage and started storing carts and construction materials in their living room.

Bob Rehak: Why didn’t you have flood insurance?

Jennifer Coulter: We live more than two miles from the West Fork in the 500-year flood plain. It was a bad miscalculation.

Bob Rehak: So you started the process of getting an SBA loan?

Jennifer Coulter: Yes, we filled out the application. And because we started a small business just six months before the flood, we were not eligible. We didn’t have two years of tax returns on the business. And we were not receiving paychecks from an employer. They denied us for “inability to repay the loan.” Even though we had great credit and assets well in excess of the amount we were asking for, the SBA denied us.

Drawing Down 401Ks to Afford Repairs

Bob Rehak: Where did you go next?

Jennifer Coulter: To our 401Ks. I had two small retirement accounts and Chris had a sizable one. Taking money out of those would later prove to be yet another fateful decision.

Bob Rehak:  You were your own general contractor.

 Jennifer Coulter: Yes, we did not have money to pay one. But that meant we had to figure out how to do it ourselves. That created extra stress while we were trying to grow a new business.

Chris and Jennifer Coulter in their front yard workshop during the rebuild.

Bob Rehak: Back to the search for aid. You eventually applied for a homeowner assistance grant.

Jennifer Coulter: I applied the first day you could back in February 2019.

Bob Rehak: Tell me about that process. Did you start online and then go downtown to finish?

Jennifer Coulter: They never invited us to go that far. The first step was to fill out a survey that screens people. You just give general information about damage to your home, your income level, and that sort of stuff. 

Tapping 401Ks Counts Against Them

Jennifer Coulter: So when asked about income, I put what was on our 2018 tax return because I thought that was what they required. But we were cleaning out retirement funds to repair the home, because the business had not yet taken off. I was told that within days or maybe two weeks that someone would reach out to us. And at that point, we would fill out a formal application. Then we would receive whatever funds we may or may not be eligible for. No one ever called back.

So I called them back. At least six times. But every time, I was told, “Well, you’re in priority group six; we’re still working on priority groups one and two.”

We never even made it to the application phase to be considered for anything.

City Won’t Let Them Undo Mistake

Bob Rehak: You said at one point that you reported the withdrawal from your 401Ks as income and you eventually came to realize that was a mistake. Did you try to undo that?

Jennifer Coulter: Yes, I called and said “I’ve made a mistake. I think I put something as income that really shouldn’t be income. How can I amend my survey?”

She said, “Well, we’re addressing them in the order of receipt. So if you changed it, that puts you at the back of the line.”

Bob Rehak: Really?

Jennifer Coulter: I was told not to change a thing, that I had a better chance of moving down the line if I left it as it was. And when I got further into the process and got to speak with an agent, I could work out details then.

Bob Rehak: Who were you talking to at this point?

Jennifer Coulter: The people that answer the phone at the Homeowner’s Assistance Program website.

I haven’t called in several months. It was a total waste of time. This money was allocated to help people like us. But the Small Business Administration denied us a loan, because we had just started a small business. The logic or lack thereof is just mind boggling!

Bob Rehak: So sad!

Turning Corner With Community Support

Jennifer Coulter: We’re not alone. But at least our business is growing. We have great community support. Most of our customers are in the Kingwood and Lake Houston area.  And the business is growing by word of mouth. We feel so very fortunate.

We know that our recovery will be a long one. But we’ll get there, whether we receive aid or not.

First Christmas back in the house, even if it didn’t yet have all the comforts of home.

Bob Rehak: Where do you go from here? Are you just going to gut it out or do you still have hope for the loan or the grant?

Jennifer Coulter: I’ll probably see if I can get through to the GLO and give it one last ditch effort. But I assume it’s never gonna happen.

Where’d The Money Go?

Jennifer Coulter: It hurts. We saved so hard and vowed we would never touch that money until retirement. The City of Houston got hundreds of millions to help people like us. And then, according to Channel 13, they’ve managed to rebuild less that four dozen homes in more than a year.

It just makes college for the kids and things like that a big question mark. But we’ll figure it out. We will. We believe in our business and we believe we’ll be successful.

Someday this will all be a distant memory. We’ll work it out. That’s what we do. We put our heads down, work, and move forward.

The Silver Lining

Bob Rehak: How would you characterize this whole experience in a phrase?

Jennifer Coulter: Both a blessing and a curse. At the time, it was dark and scary and heartbreaking.

But then, you know, you pick your head up and you realize that you are surrounded by amazing people. They are willing to share blood, sweat and tears…literally. They helped us tear our house apart and put it back together. They’ve supported our kids. They’ve shared what they can. And that’s more valuable than money. 

Chris and I truly feel blessed. Our kids have learned amazing lessons about what is important in life. And we now have this beautiful home that we’ve been able to remake just the way we wanted. As a family, we all had input. We all got to pick things out we wanted.

But we are no happier than when we were living in that trailer together.

Making Us Stronger

Jennifer Coulter: I have no doubt we can handle anything that comes our way, because we have, and we’ve come out ahead. And we would again. It was hard and it was sad, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

Chris kept it in perspective by saying, “This is not a tragedy. This is a major inconvenience.”  He maintained that as long as we were healthy and together, we would get through it and come out on the other side.  Hearing us say those things and watching us live them enabled all of us to come out of it together – both stronger and happier.  

Bob Rehak: Your experience would have torn many families apart. What kept you  together?

Jennifer Coulter: Laughter. We laugh together. And we love one another. And we allowed ourselves to have our bad moments and gave each other space when we needed it. But we were always there for each other. 

Children made the experience harder because we were aware that everything we said and did was being taken in by them. But we were very honest with them. When we were having a bad day, we let them see us cry. We let them see us be angry and frustrated.

We’d say something like, “We’re having a bad day. But it’s OK. You know, tomorrow will be better.” And it was. And so they got to see that light. That’s real life. You get down. You pick your head up and get up the next day and move forward.

You just do it. You don’t belabor the point that somebody is not giving you something. Make it happen yourself.

Bob Rehak: Would you like to share anything else with people?

“Home is Where Your People Are” 

Jennifer Coulter: We lived that motto. We made the best of every place we lived and at every point throughout the process. 

The power of people is just really remarkable. And this is a really special place. A lot of people say that. But the love and the support that just came at us from so many people was just really, really remarkable. We’re just very lucky to live in this community.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/25/2020 with input from Jennifer and Chris Coulter

1000 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Book Review: Houston After Harvey: Stories from Inside the Hurricane by Jacqueline Havelka and Jill Bullard Almaguer

Houston After Harvey: Stories from Inside the Hurricane is an encyclopedic, almost kaleidoscopic collection of interviews with flood victims about their Hurricane Harvey experiences. The new Amazon eBook by two Houston authors, Jacqueline Havelka and Jill Bullard Almaguer, has a “you are there” quality to it. The interviews fall into roughly three categories: before, during and after the storm. 

WhataBurger in Kingwood’s new HEB shopping center during flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

Story of a Natural Disaster Told Through Victims’ Eyes

They recount the stories of people watching in terror as water crept inexorably toward their homes and businesses, praying it would not reach their front doors. They speak of the chaos of emergency evacuations, when people suddenly realized they had waited too long. And finally, they reveal the shock and sadness of returning to often uninsured homes and the struggle to repair them without the financial means to do so. 

Floods like Harvey affect every nook and cranny of the community and local economy. 

Entire Range of Human Emotions

Readers of this book will experience the entire range of the human emotions. Helplessness in the face of nature’s rage. Numbness in shelters. Kindness of strangers. Tears of loss. Rage at looters. Bewilderment when navigating the government bureaucracy. The struggle to return to normalcy. And more. Much more.

The book is not all seen through the eyes of flood victims. A narrative section for the statistically inclined puts Harvey in historical perspective. The storm dumped more rain on the continental US than any other storm in history. Including a whopping 4 feet on Houston, a metropolitan area of seven million people. 

One of the untold stories of Harvey, until now, is how Houston, a sprawling metropolis of diverse interests, came together in one of its darkest moments.

Half the community needed help. And the other half gave it.

Parts of this book will make you smile. Parts will make you cry. 

A Cautionary Tale for the World

If you read the book in one sitting, it feels like a time-lapse video, as if you’re reliving the whole Harvey experience in fast forward. It literally took me back to those terrible days in August and September of 2017.

You never forget an experience, such as Harvey. And you shouldn’t. Even if you want to. Harvey is a cautionary tale for the world about the need to prepare for flooding. Even if you think you live on high ground. Most of Harvey’s victims lived and worked outside of any recognized flood zone.

Recommended For…

I recommend this book to anyone who thinks s/he is immune to flooding. I also recommend it to Harvey victims who want to learn about others who shared their plight. 

Many flood victims may also want to give the book to friends and family in other parts of the country. It will help them understand what it was really like to go through a major flood. And more importantly, what it takes to come out whole on the other side. 

Ms. Havelka and Ms. Bullard have made a huge contribution to the understanding of America’s most common natural disaster – flooding.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/14/2020

989 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Note: I have known Jacque Havelka for many years and respect her contributions to the community. She is a talented writer/reporter. Even though I consulted with her when she was planning the book, I have no financial interest in it and will not profit from it.