Tag Archive for: recovery

Uneven Recovery from Harvey: A Story of Cash, Contractors, Quality, Confidence, and Delayed Aid

I drove through my village this week and saw ten homes in desperate need of help. More than 18 months after Harvey, some families still have not finished repairing their homes. Worse, some still have not started. On the positive side, some fully repaired their homes within three months. Why such an uneven recovery?

As I talk to people, their stories take many forms, but they usually involve some combination of five things: cash, contractors, confidence, quality and delayed aid.

More than 18 months after Harvey, most of the townhomes along Marina Drive “still stand.” Although clearly uninhabitable, buyouts are still not complete and only two units have been taken down. Before Harvey these homes flooded repeatedly.

Cash is King

In a disaster, such as Harvey, ready cash trumps everything. Those without insurance or the savings of a Bill Gates felt Harvey’s sting first. Many people compared repairing a flooded home without insurance to the unplanned purchase of a second home – out of pocket. Not many can afford that, especially younger people who stretched to cover the mortgage on their first home.

On the other hand, those who could afford to pay contractors weekly – in cash – got attention. Those who could not, did not. Their contractors showed up between faster paying jobs.

Available Pool of Quality Contractors

Of course, the available pool of quality contractors limited the pace of recovery. Some so-called “contractors” decided to get into the contracting business the day after Harvey. They picked up unskilled labor when and where they could find it. Their customers/victims, desperate for help, accepted bad contracts and argued constantly about substandard workmanship and materials. They felt re-victimized at every turn. They just could not get the results they expected. I’ve heard of some fly-by-night contractors who skipped town with deposits. The more common story? Do-overs and endless punch lists created delays that cost months…not to mention cash that couples didn’t have.

Those who found good, reputable, experienced contractors (and there are many) found a lifeline to sanity. Generally, they quickly returned to beautiful homes…some in just three or four months.


Some people decided to sit out Round One of renovation. Rather than fight for quality contractors and materials, they decided to wait until supply caught up with demand. They started after the con men moved on to Florida or North Carolina or the wildfires. They paid a price in inconvenience for many months. But many are now finishing up restoration and moving back into beautifully restored and updated homes – without appliances from scratch-and-dent sales.

Confidence in Recovery

I know one lady who lost her husband to cancer shortly before Harvey. Already in a state of shock, her home next flooded badly. As time went on, it became clear that she deeply, deeply feared getting flooded again. Many older people fell into this category. Even though she is a very strong woman, the fear paralyzed her in some ways.

She could not afford to restore her home twice on one income. So she waited … to see when government officials would begin mitigation efforts. Passage of the Harris County Flood Bond on the anniversary of Harvey gave her hope. She began restoration after waiting a year.

Then came perceived delays in starting the projects, followed by debate about where the County would start. Stress precipitated cardiac problems. Now she has even more worries. Sadly, the stress hospitalized her.

Lack of confidence in recovery efforts can create a downward spiral just as in a recession. However, confidence in recovery efforts can reverse that. Confidence is especially crucial for vulnerable populations, such as the retired, sick, widows or those with low incomes.

Delayed Aid

Delayed aid means delayed starts. It comes in many forms:

  • Insurance adjusters who itemized everything rather than accepting IRS-approved, per-square-foot guidelines
  • Adjusters who move from disaster to disaster for higher paying jobs leaving Harvey clients in the lurch
  • Insurance companies that argued endlessly
  • HUD money showing up 18-months after the disaster
  • Buyout offers that come long after people have already repaired and moved back into their homes
  • Multi-layered, slower-than-snails flood mitigation processes
  • A legislature that meets every other year
  • A rainy-day fund that turned out to be anything but that for 18 months
  • Cities that don’t or can’t budget for disasters
  • Having to apply for grants to quality for matching grants
  • Filling out a state application for the right to fill out a federal application
  • Deserving people who made just enough money to get shuffled into low-priority categories for aid while the government sought to “fill up” quotas in higher priority (low income) categories
  • Federal dollars appropriated by Congress that still haven’t shown up
  • Studies that can add three to four years to the timetable for any flood mitigation project.

This list is far from complete. However, it explains why some repairs and mitigation projects happened right away and other efforts have not yet begun.

Things Government Can Influence

At the March 21st town hall meeting in Kingwood, Congressman Dan Crenshaw addressed the need to streamline government business processes to accelerate flood mitigation and aid. This certainly is a daunting task, but a noble and necessary one.

If he can do it, he will help tens of millions of people – not just Harvey survivors, but also survivors of disasters that haven’t yet happened.

Accelerating aid so that people can get back to normal sooner is crucial to restoring the psychological health of the community as well as its image.

Confidence in the certainty of aid and mitigation helps restore optimism in the future. It encourages people to invest in repairing homes quickly, rather than waiting to see what government will do.

Most people are more than willing to do their part if government does its.

There are not many un-repaired homes in the Lake Houston Area as of this writing.  But there are enough to make buyers wonder. What happened here? Why? Could it happen again? Could it happen to me? And until those doubts disappear, home values and tax revenues will continue to be less than what they could be.

Posted by Bob Rehak on April 9, 2019

588 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Opportunities to Speed Recovery

The things government does now to protect us from future flooding – and the speed with which it does them – will make the difference between long-term recovery and decay.

In many ways, we’ve made incredible progress since Harvey – the initial frenzy of volunteerism, the massive trash pickup, repairing homes, re-establishing businesses, rebuilding infrastructure, re-opening schools, organizing an emergency (albeit partial) dredging project, passing a $2.5 billion flood bond, and more. The amount of activity  speaks volumes about the character of the community. But recovery is far from complete.

The old HEB store still has not been leased to a new tenant.

Confidence determines whether people will rebuild. Without confidence, people are reluctant to invest. You can see lack of confidence in empty shops up and down West Lake Houston Parkway and in “for sale” signs in front of homes. People are saying, “I’m not going to risk this again.”

So what will give people confidence and speed recovery?

Expand Dredging

The Army Corps has started dredging a small portion of the West Fork – about 1.2 miles between Kings Lake Estates and River Grove Park. This will take until April or May of next year to complete. However, the biggest blockage in the river is NOT part of this project. The “mouth bar” where the river meets the lake will remain. Unless a second project to address that can be funded, bid and mobilized before the first is done, taxpayers will be forced to pay another $18 million in mobilization/demobilization fees – all over again.

First dredge on the San Jacinto is now working an area west of the West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge. Photo courtesy of Keith Jordan.

Even if the mouth bar is addressed, the rest of the West Fork, the East Fork and parts of Lake Houston will need to be dredged in order to clear channels through the upper Lake Houston area.

To prevent the current blockages from recurring and flooding us again, we should also develop a maintenance dredging program in perpetuity.

Reduce Sedimentation

Sedimentation comes from several sources: a) natural stream erosion, B) urbanization, and C) sand mining. With the exception of creating more upstream detention, we can’t do much to control A or B. We can, however, do something about the 20 square miles of sand mines in the floodways upstream from us.

FEMA defines floodways as the main channel of the river during a flood – where the water moves the fastest. With the exception of one sand mine between Lake Houston and I-45, part of every single sand mine lies in the floodway.

West Fork sand mines on 8/30/17, one day after the peak from from Harvey

Moving mines out of the floodway will require legislation that puts more distance between mines and rivers. As far as I can tell, Texas is the only state that does not require a minimum setback. We need greater setbacks because rivers migrate over time and capture pits during floods. This process is well understood and predictable.

We’ve seen several instances of ruptured mine dikes on the West Fork – some that have gone unprepared for years and increased the rate of sedimentation. This contributes to the sand and sediment clogging our rivers, the destruction of downstream properties, and dredging costs which are substantial.

Improve Ditch Maintenance

Harris County has agreed to take over ditch maintenance for the City of Houston. However, the City of Houston is still looking for deeds and easements that should have been transferred and recorded during annexation 22 years ago. This does NOT inspire confidence. Once the County receives permission to clean and clear the ditches, it can proceed. County flood control crews have been surveying in anticipation of receiving the documents. Money has also been freed up in the Flood Control budget with the passage of the flood bond.

Create More Upstream Detention

Holding water upstream during a flood lowers water levels downstream. The County has identified potential land to build another reservoir on far western Cypress Creek. That should help. But it’s a long term project and one of hundreds in the flood bond package.

We should also remember that more water came down the East Fork during the peak of Harvey than the West Fork. Additional upstream detention on both forks will help reduce the input during floods and raise confidence.

Add More Flood Gates to Lake Houston

In March, the Mayor promised 10 additional flood gates for Lake Houston so that we could shed water faster during a flood. This pr0ject has progressed somewhat since then, but slowly. The City has filed an application with FEMA which has received a high score from the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM). TDEM ranks applications for FEMA funding coming from Texas.

Nonetheless, some officials have said that additional gates could take 10 years to actually build. Given the fact that we’ve had five so-called “500-year storms” in the last 25 years (1994, 2001, 2015, 2016, 2017), 10 years is too long. Many older residents won’t live long enough to see those gates. We can and must do better. We won World War II in less than half that time.

Plead for Speed

Delays in these mitigation projects will undermine confidence and recovery. Conversely, fast-tracking these projects will restore confidence and speed recovery.

We also need to streamline government disaster recovery. Let’s face it. It has taken more than a year since Hurricane Harvey to get one dredge on the San Jacinto River. We can do better. We need to do better.

As always, these are my opinions on matters of public policy protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the Great State of Texas.

Posted by Bob Rehak on September 22, 2018

389 Days Since Hurricane Harvey