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This piece was produced as part of 1A Across America, a two-year collaboration to incorporate more local and regional voices into the national conversation. Leading up to the 2020 elections, 1A’s production team will work closely with Houston Public Media to bring the region’s underreported issues and concerns to 1A’s national audience. On April 8, 1A was broadcast live from the studios at Houston Public Media.
More than a year after Hurricane Harvey made landfall as one of the most damaging storms in U.S. history, the recovery process continues to test some Houstonians’ faith in government.
Much of the city has moved on since the storm, but for Alice and Dolores Torres, the hurricane might as well have arrived yesterday.
The smell of tar fumes and mildew fill their house of 30 years, in a low-income southeast Houston neighborhood. It looks like a stripped-down shell of what it was before the storm.
“This is a toxic home,” Dolores Torres tells News 88.7’s Andrew Schneider. “You can’t get rid [of] the dust.”
Dolores is retired and her daughter Alice is on disability. The Torres family says they should qualify for government assistance to help fix these problems, but they keep getting denied.
“We had insurance, and they didn’t come through like they were supposed to,” Alice Torres says. “Then FEMA denied us because we had insurance.”
They also applied for aid through the city and a local non-profit. The family has had no luck with either option.
They’ve since turned to GoFundMe to pay the bills while they wait for a new relief package to work its way through the Texas Legislature.
The package would essentially tap the state’s Rainy Day Fund for $3 billion, which would then unlock more than $5 billion in federal matching grants.
And they’re not the only ones worried about how expensive Harvey has been. The financial impact of the storm is estimated at about $125 billion in damages, with over 150,000 flooded homes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Hurricane Katrina is the only other storm to cause that much damage to a single U.S. city.
And when aid money is slow to reach Houston residents, like the Torres family, they say they feel abandoned by local and federal agencies. And this experience, they say, is testing their overall faith in the government.
The problem for many Houstonians stuck in recovery purgatory isn’t lack of available funds, however. It’s the mountains of paperwork that keep them from accessing those funds.
Only a fraction of the billions of dollars set aside for 2017’s major hurricanes has been tapped, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
That same report shows that Texas underspent — using about $18 million of $5 billion set aside for administration and planning purposes.
And the problem isn’t just in Texas. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands haven’t used any of the $1.5 billion and $243 million, respectively, that they were allocated for hurricane relief.
The money hasn’t been spent because of red tape and bureaucratic sluggishness, according to the GAO.
Alice Torres says she’s seen this stagnation firsthand while attending city council meetings. She watched as relief aid got tied up in political maneuvering. She says she’s lost faith in the system.
“People with money sold their homes after Harvey”
Even in one of Houston’s most affluent neighborhoods, many people are still living on the second floor of their stripped-down houses or haven’t returned home.
The Memorial neighborhood on the west side of Houston was ground zero when the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs’ dams, instantly flooding the entire area.
While many people here earn six-figure incomes, many are also working-class professionals and retirees.
“The people with money sold their homes after Harvey,” Kerry Yonushonis, a Memorial resident and first responder, tells 1A. “That left the working-class people behind.”
Yonushonis spent most of Hurricane Harvey rescuing neighbors by jet ski while her home filled with fish, raw sewage and gasoline.
She and her husband couldn’t sell their home following Harvey because they were still financially underwater.
They weren’t eligible for flood insurance before Harvey because they aren’t technically in a designated flood zone, according to Yonushonis.
In fact, most people in Memorial don’t own flood insurance because they aren’t in a floodplain. Many say they don’t have insurance because the area hadn’t flooded since Lyndon B. Johnson was president.
They also say the area wouldn’t have flooded if it weren’t for the Army Corps of Engineers releasing water from the nearby reservoirs. Many are suing the Army Corps because of that decision.
In response to these allegations, the Department of Justice told us it doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation. Via email, the Army Corps of Engineers said “no comment.”
“Where’s the aid?”
The Army Corps of Engineers has previously said it flooded the Energy Corridor and Memorial neighborhoods to prevent catastrophic flooding.
Yonushonis and her neighbors acknowledge their homes were flooded for the greater good. But they wonder why they get no compensation for the sacrifice.
Many in Memorial have received minimal — or no — government aid because their income is just over the assistance cap.
For instance, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has grants as large as $50,000 to assist households making 80 percent or less than the area’s median family income.
That’s roughly $75,000 for Houston, making the cutoff for aid $60,000.
Others say they’ve been denied FEMA assistance because they didn’t have flood insurance.
Memorial area resident Marion Tiberi says she was denied FEMA assistance because she and her husband waited until October 2018 to apply. She was told they had waited too long.
“We’ve spent over $300,000 in construction repairs since Harvey,” says Marion Tiberi. “Those costs are only for the house. That doesn’t include appliances.”
Tiberi has had to repair her home’s foundation and replace piping, joists and wiring.
Her story isn’t uncommon. Problems tend to pile up during contractor appraisals.
Meanwhile, her family has lived in an apartment for the past two years while their home remains a construction site.
“My kids had to change schools following Harvey,” she says. “They haven’t been home in two years.”
Kerry Yonushonis estimates her repair bills total around $200,000.
She’s taken out loans from friends, family and the bank to finance her recovery.
She says the only aid she received was from a nearby church that she doesn’t even attend.
“The church donated our master bathroom,” she says. “That was about $25,000.”
The recovery process has left Yonushonis feeling more connected to her neighbors but more distrustful of government.
Her husband retired from the Air Force after serving for 20 years as pilot. As a first responder, she says she devoted her life to public service as well.
“We’ve served our country,” Yonushonis says. “But in our time of need, the government deserted us.”
She’s searched for programs to help flooded veterans but hasn’t had any luck.
“I’ve become a cynic,” she said.
That’s not surprising to Donald Kettl, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s the author of the book “Can Government Earn Our Trust?”
“We don’t like when government doesn’t deliver,” he tells 1A. “Earthquakes, wildfires and flooding are opportunities for the government to let us down.”
In these situations, people feel the government both failed to protect them and failed to help make them whole.
Kettl says much of our interaction with the government is based on trust and voluntary compliance.
And when people lose trust in government, they are more likely to support radical ideas and candidates.
“When people feel that income inequality is growing and capitalism isn’t working for them, they’re more likely to back socialist ideals,” Kettl says. “We see a similar thing happen when people feel the government isn’t working for them. The seek alternatives and extremes.”
With climate change, we should expect to see larger natural disasters more frequently, which Kettl says could cause many Americans to reconsider their relationship with government and civic engagement.
Meanwhile, City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards is going through neighborhoods to try to restore faith in civic leaders.
She’s mostly trying to reach elderly and impoverished Houstonians on the northeast side of the city. Edwards wants them to know there’s relief available, but she says many people have given up.
“People have gotten Harvey fatigue,” she tells 1A. “I see people with depression, people in denial and people who have adjusted to living with bare walls.”
The city began a $1.3 billion program in January that offers relief without the need for receipts.
But Edwards says that the people most in need don’t attend city council meetings or community forums.
“My mother left home for three things,” Edwards says. “To go to church, to go to the grocery store and to go to a family member’s house. That’s how a lot of these elderly people are.”
While Edwards tries to restore faith in her city, she may have embarked on a futile task in the country’s fourth-largest city.
“Government knew this was a problem but did nothing.”
And since the storm, Kerry Yonushonis has become a climate change activist.
“Before Harvey, I worried about plastic in the ocean. I never realized the human element of natural disasters is within our control,” she tells 1A. “We are drastically changing the landscape. I never thought of that before.”
She thinks greed is driving developers to build in floodplains and cities to neglect major infrastructure.
“The Addicks and Barker Reservoir dams were listed as top six most dangerous in country before Harvey,” she said. “Government knew this was a problem but did nothing.”
The water line from the flooding is no longer visible in the much of Houston but there are still telltale signs of the disaster.
Grass refuses to grow, leaving yards brown. Dumpsters sit outside people’s homes.
Many houses in Memorial are either for sale or are being flipped for a profit.
Yonushonis says her sense of community is stronger than ever, but she wonders if her neighborhood will ever return to what it was.
“This past Halloween all the houses had full-sized candy bars,” she says. “I think we were all hoping to attract kids and create a semblance of the way things used to be.”
Produced by James Morrison. Text by James Morrison with reporting by Andrew Schneider of Houston Public Media.